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'This is where I was supposed to be': New RCRC director gets settled in

The previous Richland County Recreation director made headlines for criminal charges, new leader Lakita Watson, wants to move forward.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — It's a fresh start at the Richland County Recreation Commission.

A new leader has stepped in, and in her first sit-down interview with WLTX, Lakita Watson shares how she's working to revamp the agency.

"I get it, we've had a rough time, but it's a different administration, a different vision," said Watson.

In a unanimous vote by board members in 2018, Lakita Watson from Virginia became the new Executive Director of the Richland County Recreation Commission (RCRC).

"I believe in the work that we do because I was that kid that grew up in a single-parent home that didn't have the resources to be able to do things that other kids did," Watson explained. "It was the local parks and recreation and playgrounds that helped save me."

Watson was selected from a pool of 75 candidates. She has over 20 years of experience in recreation program planning.

"Ms. Watson was above and beyond the qualifications. She's not only important to us on a local level, but she is well known on a national level in the area of recreation," said Board Commissioner, Thomas Clark. "She understood the task at hand wasn't going to be an easy one."

Commissioner Thomas Clark was chairman of the agency's board during Watson's selection.

RELATED: Head of Richland County Recreation Commission Indicted

Following a slew of criminal charges against the agency's former director James Brown III, four board members resigned and the others removed by then-Governor Nikki Haley.

RELATED: Gov. Haley Removes Two Members of Richland Commission

Clark was the only one to keep the job.

"I knew when I started reading [about RCRC], that this is where I was supposed to be," said Watson. "I looked at the challenges, but then I started focusing on the positive infrastructure. To have this many facilities and have such a large staff, I felt that me coming in bringing my experiences from Virginia and from my other national board experiences and my best practices, that I can move beyond and help my team move beyond some of the negativity that they have been through."

Watson says she's dedicated the past two and a half years to strengthening the team and implementing better policies.

"It's definitely a culture shift and how things were done and then providing people with the guidance and the trust," she said. "I'm coming from a different community, so it was a little difficult with people wanting to even trust me. We moved towards a compensation study and plan that now everyone knows what everyone makes and it is based off of fair and equitable salaries across this state."

"I bring to the table a level of transparency as well as honesty to build trust between the community as well as our agency," she added.

All employees have access to counseling, and also completed sexual harassment and diversity and inclusion training.

Just two years into her new role, Watson was tasked with adapting the agency to a worldwide pandemic.

Within the next year, Watson hopes to have the agency's facilities opened safely and completely. Right now, most facilities are open from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. with socially distanced activities.

During the pandemic, some of the commission's properties served as COVID-19 testing sites and distribution sites for masks and hand sanitizer. Watson says she's also in talks with state officials to have their facilities serve as future vaccine sites.

RELATED: Richland County Recreation Commission offers virtual care, after school programs

As for big events and plans for the near future - for the first time, RCRC is hosting 60 teams for an AAU Basketball Super Tournament this weekend. Watson says they're also in the middle of an Aquatics Feasibility Study, looking into getting the county an indoor swimming pool to offer year-round swim for residents.

"My number one goal over this next year is to really get deeper in the trenches with the citizens, with the stakeholders, those individuals that are the people that we serve," said Watson. "I've spent two and a half years working and focusing on getting the house right. So now I want to come outside and play."

"I can remember during her interview process in the room that she was sitting in the lights went out, but she didn't stop," Clark recalled. "I knew right then that she would continue to always fight. It's her legacy to make at this point."

Prosecutors say James Brown III faces criminal sexual conduct and misconduct in office charges for behavior stretching from 2012 to 2015.

RELATED: Case against ex-Richland Co. Recreation Commission head continued indefinitely

A spokesman for the South Carolina Attorney General's Office says Brown's trial was rescheduled for August 2020, but had to be delayed because of the pandemic. 

No trial date has been set.