Hoboken proudly claims that every resident lives within a five-minute walk of a park.
Still, the city is only one square mile, has budding populations of youngsters and young adults who continue to make it home, and has yet to construct a public pool like most of its neighboring cities.
Enter Jessica Lezcano, the city’s new Recreation Division leader, who has more than a decade of professional experience in recreation. She says she is thrilled to take on the challenge of a city with high demand for the services her department provides.
Lezcano joins Mayor Ravi Bhalla’s administration in a role created just this year. More than 20 candidates applied for the position, said Leo Pellegrini, the city’s director of Health and Human Services, the department that recreation falls within. The salary is $110,000.
Though Lezcano’s sister Stephanie Lezcano also has a political role in the county as Eighth District congressional candidate Robert Menendez Jr.’s campaign manager, the Bhalla administration said Jessica Lezcano came as a recommendation from a municipal engineer, Olga Garcia, who worked with her in the city of Passaic.
“She has that government experience,” Pellegrini said. “She also has experience in building programs.”
Lezcano traces her affinity for public recreation to her childhood in Kearny and Passaic, where participating in sports and dance made her feel a part of a community even when her parents couldn’t make it to all the games.
“My parents worked two jobs at one point,” Lezcano said. “Coming home and letting them know what happened and the new friends I made … that shaped me in wanting to engage more in my community and knowing how neighbors can become friends.”
She has since devoted her career to recreation, first working her way up from lifeguard positions to pool operator before serving in government roles in Passaic and Rutherford.
“I started lifeguarding when I was 15 years old and haven’t left the recreation world since,” Lezcano said.
In Passaic, Lezcano served as the superintendent of parks, senior services and cultural affairs. She then earned her certification in public management at Rutgers University and became Rutherford’s director of recreation.
Coming into Hoboken, Lezcano has ideas for potential new activities the city can offer, including theater, art and music programs in addition to the roster of traditional sports. Lezcano, who also speaks Spanish, is also excited to engage with the community and hear from residents about what they want to see.
She will oversee two full-time staff members as well as seasonal employees and volunteers.
While the city works in new programs and anticipates the 6-acre Northwest Park becoming available next spring, it also wants to improve upon what it already has, Pellegrini said.
He’s heard from parents, for example, that being able to register for activities earlier would make it easier for them to plan, he said, so the city hopes to allow registration further out.
The city’s biggest challenge, he said, isn’t related to participant capacity – every child that signs up gets to participate in a sport, he said. But, as programs grow, in popularity, the city has not been able to ensure that each team gets to meet as often as players want to.
More recreational space in the city will help, he said, referring to the Northwest Park and the proposed but controversial municipal complex that could bring the city a pool.
“The town is growing,” Pellegrini said. “People want to stay in Hoboken, so the challenge is, how do you meet that growth?”