Changing paths: Natchez Trace superintendent reflects on tenure

By Carlie Kollath Wells/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The Natchez Trace Parkway is searching for a new superintendent now that Cam Sholly has left for a job at the National Park Service headquarters in Washington.
Sholly’s last day was Aug. 24.
Dale Wilkerson, who has been with the parkway for 18 years, has been named the acting superintendent.
“I’ve got complete confidence that he’ll continue the positive direction in the interim,” Sholly said. “He’s been a great member of the senior management team.”
Sholly said the National Park Service is conducting a nationwide search for the new superintendent. The parkway hopes to fill the position in the next 90 days. The superintendent holds the highest title on the parkway and oversees all operations of the 444-mile park. Sholly held the position for three years. Before Sholly, the position was open for three years.
Sholly made the most of his time, with his efforts noticed by NPS leaders. Last year, he was named regional superintendent of the year for his leadership on the parkway.
When he started his job in 2009, he told the Daily Journal he wanted to make the parkway more of a park. It continued to be his overarching goal during his tenure.
“We made a cognizant decision to significantly improve beyond the parkway itself,” he said during his final days in Tupelo. “That’s probably the most meaningful and substantial part of my tenure here.”
He partnered with cities, tourism associations and cyclists to see what needed to be done. He started efforts to upgrade about 300 signs, at a cost of about $400,000. The new stone and wood signs can be seen at U.S. Highway 78 and in front of the parkway headquarters.
He also worked to improve cyclist safety on the Trace. Two cyclists died on the Trace in 2009 after being involved in collisions with vehicles. He embraced Tupelo’s three-foot passing law for cyclists and enacted a policy for the entire Trace.
Parkway staff members continue safety outreach efforts to motorists and cyclists about how to share the road safely.
Plus, his team has been upgrading visitor materials, such as brochures, maps and information boards. This year, the parkway received a grant to replace the Native American exhibit signs. Sholly said many of the signs are 30 years old and have incorrect information.
He also got the ball rolling on bathroom upgrades throughout the Trace and improvements to hiking trails. Plus, he and his team have cultivated a partnership with the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations.
The Chickasaw Nation and the NPS this year agreed to begin the formal planning process to build a heritage center in Tupelo at the Chickasaw village site.
All of these projects, he said, strike the balance between protecting the resources of the parkway and recognizing the economic development potential of the park.
“We have to protect the parkway but not be looked at as an economic development blockade,” he said.
Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said the efforts dovetailed with his goal to capitalize on the assets of the parkway.
“When I became mayor, I thought the city had never taken enough advantage of having a national park pass through Tupelo,” Reed said.
The two officials became partners in several projects, such as the Coley Road bridge, and each man was quick to praise the collaborative efforts of the other.
Reed originally welcomed Sholly with a key to the city. Sholly thanked Reed with a commemorative wooden Natchez Trace sign.
“Like Indians, we traded symbols of partnership,” Reed said.
Sholly said the partnerships with Native American nations, municipalities, landowners, tourism groups, congressional delegates and other stakeholders were the key to his ability to make progress.
He also said it’s also important for the next superintendent to cultivate those relationships and develop more of them.
“It takes time for relationships to mature and trust to develop,” he said. “I think we were very successful with building trust quickly. I wish we could have done more.”
Sholly said the biggest task for the new superintendent will be to finish the ongoing projects.
“We’ve completed a lot of projects and we’ve got a lot of momentum on others,” he said.
Plus, the parkway is celebrating its 75th anniversary next year.
“My advice is to come in and enjoy every minute here,” he said. “It’s a great place. Look for ways to take the team and the partners and merge their efforts. … Take a temperature. Get a pulse on what’s going well and what’s not. Seek to understand what’s happening and why it’s happened.
“If you are pleasing everyone, you aren’t doing your job right,” he said. “You have to make tough decisions and strike the balance. Find common ground and work together.
“The team here is one of the best I’ve ever worked with, one of the most productive. It’s been one of the best jobs I’ve had in my career. … I know that a lot of the experiences I’ve gained here will help me manage more effectively in my new role.”