August 18, 2021

After a Decade Guiding the Princeton Rec Department, Stentz Leaving with Pride in What His Team Achieved

EXECUTIVE DECISION: Ben Stentz, center, enjoys the moment with Princeton Recreation Department colleagues Nicole Paulucci, left, and Vikki Caines after Paulucci received an award from the New Jersey Recreation and Park Association. Stentz recently stepped down as the Rec Department executive director after a 10-year tenure guiding the organization. (Photo provided by Ben Stentz)

By Bill Alden

Ben Stentz prides himself on his ability to build a team.

“I always refer back to my old basketball coaching days,” said Stentz, who coached for the Mercer County Community College and Clarion University men’s hoops programs.

“They used to joke that they could send me into a gym in the middle of nowhere and if there were 50 kids in there playing, I could find the one that we really wanted to recruit easily and quickly.”

When Stentz became executive director of the Princeton Recreation Department in 2011 after having worked for the department since 2000, he applied those team-building skills.

“When I got promoted, we were really short-staffed and I had to hire a number of people pretty quickly,” recalled Stentz, a baseball and basketball standout at Princeton High who returned to town after coaching at Clarion and worked at the YMCA before coming to the Rec Department as a program supervisor in 2000.

“I had to find the right people for the right positions at the right moment in time. I am proud of the team that I built and rebuilt a number of times.”

After a 10-year run as the helm, Stentz decided that it was time to leave the team and stepped down effective July 1.

“The thought had been in my head for a couple years that maybe the time was coming,” said Stentz, 47, who recently earned a real estate license in Delaware where he has a summer home and is building a realty business serving New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland as well as Delaware.

“I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, but that thought was brewing. I always knew that I didn’t want to stay too long to where I lost my zeal for showing up there every day. It was very tough, it was a heart-wrenching decision. I spent a lot of time talking to my wife [Angela Siso Stentz, the principal at Johnson Park Elementary School] about it.”

The zeal of his current team has Stentz confident that he is leaving things in good hands.

“Part of why I realized the time was now was because of the staff that is in place there,” added Stentz, who is being succeeded by his longtime assistant director, Evan Moorhead.

“I believed as I looked at each one of them and stood back and observed that it is the right group to take over. Evan is the right guy and the people around him are the right group. It is the right moment.”

The Rec Department team rose to the occasion last summer, working through COVID-19 concerns as it opened the Community Park Pool and provided a variety of programs.

“In the moment, it seemed like almost an overwhelming challenge to figure things out,” said Stentz.

“But then I think back a year ago now and the only feeling I have about it now is the overwhelming sense of pride in my teammates, Evan, Vikki [Caines], Nicole [Paulucci], and so many people for just figuring out how to do it. I am just so proud of what happened. My staff was not only creative and solved problems with very little notice, but I think they are under-recognized for how courageous they were.”

In overcoming those challenges, Stentz’s crew utilized what he calls the “Princeton Rec Way.”

“It is a whatever-it-takes attitude, and it is a remarkable attention to detail,” said Stentz.

“In the end, it is always customer and resident service focus — how can we help the next person that walks through that door with whatever they need. I have watched my staff not only help people with regular, common things but I watched them quietly go so far above and beyond to help families in Princeton. I know it was still there the day I walked out and I knew it would still be there the next day, and I am super proud of that.”

One of the achievements in his tenure that Stentz is proudest of is the 2018 refurbishment of the Mary Moss Playground.

“It is the little playground on John Street that used to have a concrete wading pool and we renovated it and now it has a spray pad,” said Stentz, who also oversaw the CP Pool renovation project in 2011-12.

“That playground has been in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood for almost 80 years. It was built after World War II and it was not in great shape. It was a borough park and after the towns consolidated, we kind of inherited the borough parks as our responsibility and through Mercer County grant funding, we renovated it. That neighborhood is what I would consider my home neighborhood in Princeton. I spent a majority of my time as a kid and a teenager and even as an adult with friends and family. It was special to cut that ribbon and present that beautiful new space to that neighborhood.”

Over his years with the Rec Department, the affable Stentz developed special bonds with community.

“I love the moment when I run into someone in the community at the pool, at the basketball courts, or at McCaffrey’s,” said Stentz.

“Whether it was someone I have only known for a year or someone who maybe I have known for 30 years, COVID aside, I always get a hug. That is how I know that the relationships are really genuine and meaningful. That is with me forever and it is invaluable to me, the hugs, handshakes, and high fives and the kids who know me. It is what makes me smile.”

Stentz enjoyed a productive relationship with the Princeton Recreation Commission, which oversees public recreation areas, projects, and facilities in town.

“They treated me so well, trusting me to do the job and supporting me but being willing to tell me when they think something is wrong,” said Stentz.

“If it wasn’t for the commission, I don’t think I would have lasted as long as I did. They have been a consistent group of people in my corner from the day that I got that job to the day I left. They have done yeoman’s work with no ego and always with the greater community’s best interest in mind. I just think it is a model of what local government should look like.”

As Stentz passes the baton to Moorhead, he recognizes that while there is a stellar team in place there are some key issues on the horizon.

“A lot of things are left in a good place and will keep going,” said Stentz, who was disappointed that the plan to add a synthetic turf and field lighting to Hilltop Park was ultimately tabled after it had received a number of preliminary approvals.

“Inevitably there is a whole new batch of challenges and headaches out there, some you can anticipate and some you can’t. The thing that has been a big issue for a long time is that we have a big recreational sports scene, we have kids soccer,
football, lacrosse, baseball, rowing  — but we don’t have enough fields. The grass fields are constantly in disrepair. I believe that we are the only community in the U.S. that has the money to build a synthetic turf field, but can’t figure out how to do it.”

In Stentz’s view, building more places to play is critical to the long-term health of the Princeton community.

“We are coming out of COVID with almost a year lost of recreational opportunities,” said Stentz.

“I hear all of the time from the health care world and the education world about kids having too much screen time. We need to have better access to parks and great recreation facilities to help with the mental health stress that our younger people are experiencing. We, the community recreation professionals of the world, have the answer to all of that. The answer is getting kids and adults out of the house and get them moving. The benefits of team sports are remarkably long lasting. It is part of general wellness of the community to have a really hardy community recreation program. Part of that is programs, another big part of it is facilities. It is not a secret.”

Over the years, the Rec Department has provided a vital benefit to the community through part-time jobs.

“It is often overlooked that the Rec Department is a large employer in our community,” said Stentz, noting the department hires about 200 employees a year, mostly college age, to work at the CP pool and help with a number of other programs.

“We have probably provided jobs for 2,500 people under my directorship. For a huge percentage of those people, it was their first job as a teenager. We have used that as an opportunity to teach young people how to be good employees. I have heard from so many of them in the last couple months when they heard I was leaving, saying thank you for giving me that chance. They said they learned so much about what it means to have a job, to be on time, and to handle difficult situations in real time. That is a huge win for me.”

For the workers, getting those opportunities has done more than just help them mature.

“In the last 10 years we have paid out well over $5 million in wages to those people —  that is money going back into our own community,” said Stentz.

“There was about $450,000 a year in wages paid back to a group of employees that are 90 percent Princeton residents. I am proud of that and to pump that money back into the community that is helping kids pay for their college books, pay for their first car, or help their family put food on the table. I am proud that our reach into the community has many tentacles and a lot of them are not just about sports.”

While Stentz may have stepped away from the Rec Department, he is contemplating having a greater reach into the Princeton community in the future.

“My wife and I are talking a lot about moving back into Princeton because I am seriously considering running for elected office in Princeton,” said Stentz.

“I am exploring it, I am talking to folks. It is another thing I have always considered. I have always been interested in that world but I have never considered doing it anywhere except for the town I love the most. God willing, I feel like I have multiple chapters left in my life.”

No matter what happens down the road, Stentz’s tenure with the Rec Department team will stand as a memorable chapter in his life and that of the community.