SAVANNAH, Ga. – Aaron Wahus’ 23-year Corps career matured into a park operations manager assignment at J. Strom Thurmond Project but his insatiable craving for new challenges made room for another professional growth spurt. For four months, Wahus strengthened his functional muscle during a grooming assignment as head of the Baltimore District’s Tioga-Hammond and Cowanesque projects from Feb. 21 – June 19.
Wahus was one of only three individuals in the Corps inducted in this year’s Operations Project Manager Career Assignment Program. OPM-CAP refines the Corps’ finest by cross-training top tier talent who gain new insights from working at multi-purpose water resource projects outside their divisions. It also expands internal communication networks and serves as one of the national level components in the development of future leaders within the operations project managers community of practice.
Managing a host project more than 31 times smaller than Thurmond was still daunting for the acting operations project manager. Tioga-Hammond and Cowanesque both boast robust flood risk management missions, as well as water storage, recreation and environmental stewardship missions for a combined 2,200 acres of water – dwarfed by Thurmond’s more than 70,000 acres. But the disparity in lake mass didn’t equate to fewer challenges, he said.
“I was a little [leery] because I was thinking I was going to be somewhat bored,” he said. “But when you’re working on a smaller project, you’re working with a reduced staff and alternate processes that take time to get familiar with,” he said.
While overarching missions to sustain project operations spawned few growing pains, time – a commodity more punctuated as leader of the pack – was the predominant issue Wahus faced. Dividing work among a staff of about 20, down from about 90 at Thurmond, was an obstacle for the seasoned leader. Additional responsibilities in his new capacity added oversight of daily operations, management of an annual budget of about $3 million, and the execution of contracts and personnel actions to his list of managerial duties, he said.
But reductions in manpower and scope of projects were gains in greater efficiency for certain processes. Tioga-Hammond and Cowanseque currently implement practices that often lead to faster response times for operations and maintenance services, greater use of park space and more attractive amenities for visitors, he said.
Both projects maintain healthy recreation missions by leasing space at busy recreation areas that provide food, sundries and kayak rentals, a draw that boosts park usage among a growing visitor base each year, he said.
“Greater utilization at your park equals a larger budget,” he said. “The more amenities to attract visitors, the more likely we can sustain operations.”
Wahus has a history of identifying creative ways to attract visitors to Thurmond. With a proven track record of expanding community partnerships with the Columbia County Visitor’s Bureau and USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships, he’s built a reputation for knowing his programs inside and out, said supervisor Scott Hyatt, Operations Project Manager at Thurmond.
“He was clearly ready for the assignment and we did not hesitate to support his participation,” said Hyatt.
With the support of Corps leadership, Wahus has amassed an impressive résumé of career broadening assignments. This includes a 120-day temporary assignment as OPM of the Richard B. Russell Project, a 180-day temporary assignment as OPM of the Thurmond project and a three-year term on the national Recreation Leadership Advisory Team, all of which contributed to his selection for the program, said Hyatt.
As Wahus attains greater elasticity through professional gains, he said he plans to distill lessons learned and introduce best practices to add value to Thurmond missions.
“I’ve put my blood and tears into making Thurmond’s recreation program into what it is today,” he said. “I work with a good group of people so I just thrive here.”
Though he said he’s gunning for his next challenge, he’s not so sure he’s ready to fill his boss’ shoes yet. And while his opportunities continue to mount, Wahus expressed deep sentimental attachment to the project he’s called home for 14 years.
“Have you seen our lake?” he replied, alluding to its beauty.