Former county official brings 14 years of experience to park district planning role

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Aisha Willits is the new director of planning for the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District.As natural to the Westside’s landscape the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District’s parks, green spaces and recreational facilities may seem, not one of the district’s properties came to be without significant forethought and planning.

That process requires strategic and visionary leadership.

That’s just what Aisha Willits, 39, intends to provide the district in her new role as THPRD’s director of planning.

Willits came on board last fall as the district’s deputy planning director and took over the director reins from Hal Bergsma, who retired in June after eight years in the director’s chair. The Portland native brings 14 years of experience with Washington County government, where she served as principal planner in the community planning section.

Willits, who will apply many of the same approaches and concepts from her county experience to the new role, is glad to make the transition to a familiar organization whose goals she wholeheartedly believes in.

“I’m thrilled and honored to be here,” she says. “I think (THPRD) is a great organization. I absolutely believe in the district’s mission in wanting to provide quality spaces for residents to enjoy. I’m very enthused to have an opportunity to do that.”

Some of Willits’ responsibilities include implementing remaining projects funded by the $100 million bond measure district voters approved in 2008, incorporating changes in intergovernmental relations that affect the district, planning for recently acquired properties and setting priorities for new land acquisition.

She will work closely with the city of Beaverton, Washington County, Metro regional government and other agencies on new targeted development areas such as South and North Cooper Mountain and North Bethany.

With roughly half of the bond-program projects already completed or underway, Willits is well positioned to focus on the district’s future and a new slate of opportunities.

“Two plans will very much inform what we do past the bond program,” she says. “The parks functional plan and the trails functional plan will outline goals for parks and trails, what they will look like and how we’ll go about making decisions about planning: what we find in those spaces, setting standards, where to go with available funding.”

Willits and her colleagues face the challenge of transitioning toward a post-bond measure landscape, while planning for an influx of newly developed areas and population.

“We’re keeping a mindful eye toward the future. As we move out of the bond program into something more long term, we have to adjust the way we do things,” she says. “We want to be open to making adjustments and be sure we’re providing stewardship to the public.”

Bob Wayt, the district’s communications director, says the crucial juncture the district is in informed the decision to bring Willits on several months before Bergsma’s planned retirement this summer.

“It’s rare, but we felt it was critical, given the nature of the work, that Aisha be brought in to work closely with Hal on the bond program and other planning projects so she would be ready to take over when Hal retired,” he says.

The overlap period proved invaluable to bringing Willits up to speed regarding the district’s ongoing as well as upcoming projects.

“We definitely had a strategy when I first came on board on how to introduce me to the different efforts,” she says. “I attended a lot of meetings and slowly, surely, Hal stepped back and I stepped more forward.”

Willits took an active role as the district’s point person on various capital projects, working with local agencies on county and urban planning strategies.

“Hal was a very good tour guide as I was taking over his position,” she says. “He made sure I got to know the right people and was engaged in the various issues. He was very committed to my success and making sure the park district was left with a capable person to champion the cause.”

Wayt says Willits’ extensive experience with Washington County, which the park district serves extensively, brings with it numerous assets.

“Her experience, knowledge and connections in the government community were all favorable factors,” he says. “We felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to hire a candidate of Aisha’s caliber for those reasons: her contacts, knowledge, experience and comfort with the issues she’s dealt with at the county certainly carry over to the park district in a great way.”

A Portland State University graduate, Willits is confident the connections and goodwill she’s built in and around Washington County — including previous interactions with THPRD officials — will serve her well at the park district.

“I think I’ve had a lot of relationships across Washington County that I continue to tap into today,” she says. “I’ve had a familiarity with our landscape and how we work together. I have a familiarity with the players and the issues.”

Willits lives with her husband, Jason, in Hillsboro, and counts Lowami Hart Woods, Jenkins Estate and the Mt. Williams, Westside, and Rock Creek trail systems among her favorite places to visit in the park district. She’s pleased to be in a role that helps protect as well as expand nature-based opportunities for residents and visitors.

“We live in a very unique area,” she says. “We’ve made a commitment we’re going to grow in this (Urban Growth Boundary) footprint and keep it pretty tight. It’s important to save these amazing lands around us.

“It’s critical we provide open space and places to recreate to offset the density we’re moving toward.”

Contract Publishing

Go to top
Template by JoomlaShine