The Last Word with…Derek Peterson

Allerton Park & Retreat Center

Derek PetersonAfter graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in horticulture, Derek Peterson found work at a landscape maintenance company in St. Louis. Not long after, he returned to the Champaign-Urbana area and sought a job that would provide more of a connection with the local community.

"A position at Allerton Park & Retreat Center for groundskeeper came available, and I jumped at the opportunity. It was an exciting first step into the public recreation field. With some hard work, a positive attitude and a little luck, I eventually made my way from grounds up to director of Allerton," said Peterson, who has held the director position since 2016.

"I find the challenge of my job very rewarding. I am always changing gears and have a dynamic staff rolling with each change. This industry gives us the opportunity to work outside the box, to create something new every day," he said. "My son, who is 8, once asked me, 'Dad, what happens if you don't go to work? How does everyone know what to do without you there?' I was able to hold up my staff, our work at leadership and teambuilding, being trusted and trusting one another, and explain how the wheel can turn without me."

When asked what his goals are as director, Peterson said he always has "plenty of goals in the works!"

"Connections are important to me, and I work hard every day to make more connections with people and groups," he said. "Allerton Park & Retreat Center is part of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so we have a basis of ties to the local community, but we can always work to strengthen those ties.

"I would also like to see our facility become more and more accessible; I notice that the idea of accessibility continues to evolve. But, I think it's also something that can be built over time as long as one isn't too rigid. I also want to be sure to leave Allerton in a better place than when I started. This is probably a common theme in public recreation, but to me it means not only improved facilities, but also improved means of creating revenue, growing an endowment to provide for improvements, and a staffing structure that is somewhat immune to external forces," he added.

In regard to his accomplishments at Allerton, Peterson said that with the help of his predecessor, he has built a staff that is "open-minded, hardworking and humble, and I have successfully incorporated an underdog entrepreneurial spirit that is contagious and can be unusual in public entities.

"Any of my accomplishments are a direct reflection of these two things. Without this team, this spirit, my accomplishments would be little of note," he said. "These are people I strongly admire, and I'm simply trying to keep their path clear."

During his free time, Peterson said he really enjoys being outside with his family.

"We like to ride bikes, take hikes, and each year we spend as much time as we can on the Lake Michigan beaches. I also enjoy walking at night," he added. "I find it relaxing and a good time to clear my mind."

Allerton Park and Retreat Center was built as a private residence by artist and philanthropist Robert Allerton in 1900. The center is deemed a "historical treasure that was donated to the University of Illinois in 1946. The property contains 1,500 acres of woodland and prairie areas, a mansion and reflecting pond, a 10-acre meadow, formal sculpture gardens, hiking trails and several lodging facilities," according to information from the website.

In addition, Allerton has hiking trails, formal gardens with more than 100 garden ornaments and expansive grounds. Organized programs that are open to the community and visitors include outdoor concerts, youth summer camps, themed dinners and educational events, nature hikes and tours.

Allerton also has become a destination for meetings, conferences, weddings, retreats and special events for people from across the country, according to information from the website. What's more, Allerton Park consists of more than 1,500 acres, including the Sangamon River, floodplains, lowland and upland forests, a meadow, a 30-acre demonstration prairie and more than 14 miles of hiking trails.