Building a Better Community

by Tim Froberg

As a child growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Dean Gazza wanted to be a pilot. Gazza didn’t pursue a career in aviation but has used his organizational and construction skills to launch several important community projects in the Fox Cities.

Gazza has spent 25 years in public service, including the past 15 as the director of the Parks, Recreation & Facilities Management Department for the City of Appleton.

Gazza began as director of Facilities and Construction Management in 2005. His job expanded to include parks, recreation, and grounds. It’s a broad position that pulls Gazza in different directions. He is heavily involved in city construction projects and leads operation and maintenance efforts for more than 1.27 million square feet of municipal buildings, including offices, vehicle garages, police and fire stations, park pavilions, wastewater plants, two aquatic centers, and Reid Golf Course.

He also oversees more than 200 recreational programs and drives efforts to build and maintain 610 acres of parks grounds. It adds up to multiple balls in the air, but the affable Gazza enjoys the juggling act.

“In any given day, I might be in a project construction meeting, discussing recreation programming, speaking to a citizen about the parks, discussing toilet paper, or answering a letter from a child,” said Gazza.

Gazza has overseen several vital projects in Appleton, including the Fox Cities Exhibition Center, Houdini Plaza, Erb Pool and Park, Jones Park, and the police and fire stations. The renovation of the Appleton Public Library leads the list of new projects Gazza will tackle in the coming months.

“I feel privileged to work for the city of Appleton with professional colleagues and staff whom I consider second to none,” said Gazza. “You’re serving your community and trying to make it better instead of chasing profit. Erb Park and Pool was one of my favorite projects. There were lots of young children with their families at our grand opening. To hear their laughter and see their smiles, you say to yourself, ‘That’s who we did it for.’’’

Prior to starting his job with the city of Appleton, Gazza had a unique professional experience. He worked from 2003-05 with the Green Bay Packers as the manager of warehouse, mail order, and concessions.

“What’s kind of funny is that I’ve always been a Detroit Lions fan,” Gazza said. “When I would be getting introduced to others by (former Packers team president) Bob Harlan, he would, say, ‘Here’s the Lions fan.’”

Gazza grew up in the small town of Norway, Michigan. One of his uncles was a pilot who used to fly from California to visit his family. Gazza wanted to follow in his footsteps but went a different route and eventually received his master’s degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

His interest in parks and recreation goes back to his days in Norway when he developed a love of the great outdoors.

“We trapped, hunted, and fished—that was part of growing up in the U.P.,” said Gazza. “It gave me an appreciation for our natural resources. The only park we had consisted of two basketball stands with a couple of rusty, crooked hoops. To provide the kind of amenities we do today at parks, that’s really fun for me considering the type of parks I grew up with.”

Maintaining that outdoor lifestyle for Appleton area residents has been a major challenge for Gazza due to the devastating impact of the global pandemic. But he and his staff have endured, thanks to some creative thinking.

“Initially it was a punch to the gut,” said Gazza. “We couldn’t open the pool or do a lot of the youth programs. But we have an incredible manager (Niki Wendt) in the rec department. She took the challenge and started challenging her staff. They kept coming up with new programs and never ran out of ideas.”