News: Interviews

Gary McGee, Acting Kitty Hawk Town Manager

Innovation in Kitty Hawk

CLI: Interviewer
McGee: Gary McGee, acting Kitty Hawk Town Manager

CLI: Tell me a little bit about your background, how you got into municipal management.

McGee: At one time I was a newspaper editor, back when I first graduated from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My wife was in law school and so we were somewhat sharing a job, because I was in graduate school. And so we shared a job in Johnston County with the Clayton News, and I had the title of editor of the Clayton while going to graduate school to get my masters degree. To make a long story short, as the editor of the Clayton News, you write the headlines, you write the editorials, you write weddings; they make you do everything. So one of my duties was to cover the Clayton town council as a reporter. And while I was there, Clayton hired their first town administrator just prior to 1977 named Charlie Andrews. And I felt that was such a good way to run the town government. It just seemed to be a really good way to do it. After seeing that, I decided that I was going to be getting a masters degree in public administration, and did. And my first job was in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

CLI: Chatham County.

McGee: –I was there for three years. I’ve always started and left a job on the same day. Years apart, but on the same day. So I went to work in Pittsboro on July 7. I took my oral exam at NC State on July 4th.

CLI: You went to undergrad school at UNC, graduate school at NC State, and while you were finishing up there you accepted your first position in Pittsboro?

McGee: In Pittsboro, even before I had taken my oral exams. But to get my degree and have it out of the way, my faculty advisors set my only exams on July 4th, which I found to be a little unusual, but I was glad I did because I could get it out of the way. I’ll never forget taking the oral exams on Independence Day. But that first job in Pittsboro, I was green, I learned a lot, a whole lot there. I was there three years to the day. And from Pittsboro I left on July 11 and went to Watauga County as county manager in the mountains, and I was there for seven years to the day, and then to the city of Hickory on July 18th. And was in Hickory almost 20 years.

CLI: What have been some of the greatest challenges, and what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the years in government? And specifically with Hickory, because you were- for so long.

McGee: Yes, I was in Hickory a long time, and Hickory is a very progressive, growing part of our state, so I was able to see a lot of change in the 20 years that I was with the City of Hickory. I think the biggest challenges that I’ve seen over time would have to be in the financial area. In my early years in management it was not terribly difficult to balance the budget. But as time went on, and particularly with the mandates that you would see come from Washington and Raleigh, the additional regulation and sometimes regulation without money, requirements that you have to meet without any source of revenue necessarily to meet those, became somewhat difficult and challenging to balance budgets. But that probably is the greatest issue in Hickory and I guess it would vary from different areas of the state but managing growth., Hickory was a high-growth place at one time and probably still is.

CLI: So the first issue would be that you saw a lot more mandates come down the pipe; and secondly, Hickory along the I-40 corridor, a lot of growth taking place over that period of time.

McGee: And managing that growth.

CLI: And when you say managing growth, what are you referring to?

McGee: Well, it seems to me that most places and places I’ve served in the state have a need for county development; they truly need to develop in order to sustain themselves, the financial requirements that they have; so you need a tax base to grow. By the same token, you get environmental issues that you’ve got to be concerned with, Hickory had Lake Hickory, the Catawba River… Here in Kitty Hawk, the environmental issues are tremendous. I mean, I’m learning a lot of new things here. But being able to accommodate that need for county development in order to sustain the municipalities, with environmental concerns or aesthetic concerns, in some cases Hickory had aesthetic concern, which became a big issue. But I think that’s what I mean by managing growth: you’ve got the economic need, you’ve got growth that occurs as a result of that, and municipalities and counties will take certain steps to encourage economic development. At the same time, you’ve got to accommodate the environmental and aesthetic concerns.

CLI: So balancing those out?

McGee: Balancing those out; that’s what I mean by managing growth.

CLI: So what are some of the “outside-the-box” type ideas or solutions or innovative ideas that you’ve incorporated over your time? You’ve had a lot of time and I’m sure you’ve come across one or two of those, and if you can be as specific as possible?

McGee: Well, as I indicated, my first three years in Pittsboro were learning experiences, so I go to Watauga first and looked at some of the things there… Transportation in Watauga County was something that interested me and I was part of the “Apple Cart” that was established there.

CLI: The Apple Cart?

McGee: Apple Cart is a transportation system, a public transportation system. It is probably one of the first small public transportation systems in the state, and now it’s quite successful. I think it did receive some subsidy from the state but now it operates in the black, and it was a partnership I think between the county and the private sector in Watauga County, the ski slopes primarily, and I think five of the seven in our state are located in that county, and Appalachian State University. So it worked with that private/public partnership, and I think that’s the part you need. And as a result, it’s been quite successful.

CLI: On the Apple Cart, was it just from the Watauga area or does it serve a larger area?

McGee: It now comes to Hickory, but at the time it was pretty much Watauga County.

CLI: It was a private-public partnership?

McGee: Managed by the public, but supported by the private sector as well as Appalachian State. Appalachian State was a built-in clientele with Apple Cart, because of the students.

CLI: And that’s still running to this day?

McGee: Still running to this day.

CLI: What’s another?

McGee: Have you ever heard of the windmill on Howard’s Knob?

CLI: I’m sure a lot of our readers might know, but please.

McGee: It doesn’t exist now, but it was an effort by the Department of Energy, and again, we were into the energy crunch at this time.

CLI: This is the late ‘70s.

McGee: That’s correct—to look at ways to generate energy.

CLI: Alternative energy?

McGee: Alternative energy. So the windmill was put on Howard’s Knob, a large hill overlooking Boone. It looked like a monster. But it was experimental, and it was one of the first windmills in the country, and now traveling around some, I see some other prototypes that have been built since that time. But a lot of the data, a lot of the wind energy information that this supports today, wind generating machines pretty much out west, was garnered there at Howard’s Knob in Boone. There is a park up there now, and I think, unless they’ve removed it, there was one of the blades from the original windmill.

CLI: Now, moving into Hickory, you were there for 20 years, a big chunk of your career. What are some of the innovative approaches you took there? I mean, you had to work with the county, you had to work with other municipalities, again, rapid growth in that area. Changing the manufacturing base in the past ten years. What is a challenge or two that you think really took some creativity?

McGee: In Hickory I think the characteristic that I would look back on in the public sector is the ability of most governments there to work together. So much in Hickory and Watauga County, it was Conover and Newton, or any of the other six or seven municipalities that existed, was the ability to do things together. Hickory became a regional supplier of water and wastewater utilities. And it was not without growing pains. There was some resistance to that because Hickory was a large city and it was the “big brother” of the area.

CLI: But you were able to overcome the turf building that’s so prevalent in local government. How did you build trust and get folks to realize the overall benefit of working together?

McGee: It takes years to develop that. But today, Hickory is the regional supplier of water in the four-county area. And to some extent, waste water. The City of Hickory held a bond referendum in 1988 that made all of it possible, had to build a new water plant. $16 million bond referendum.

CLI: And the voters passed that?

McGee: Yes. About an 80% approval rating. So Hickory was able to develop a state-of-the-art water treatment plant, and it truly was and is state of the art. They had water coming in from the Catawba River, 90 million gallons a day pass by that water plant. Hickory takes in now about 16 million of that 90 million and treats it. So there is an abundant supply. So it was an ideal situation. And from day one, the city said we want to be a regional supplier of water and wastewater in the region. Why? Is it to make money? Well, the more you sell, the cheaper it is, the economy of scale. But the reason being was to help drive the economy, because in that area it is very heavily industrialized, as you know, and the only way you can foster development and industrial development in particular, commercial, is to have the utilities available; the infrastructure has to be there. So the decision that was made in Hickory is, okay, it may not occur in the city limits, but whatever occurs within 25 miles of the city limits is going to benefit the everyone. And so Hickory very early got over the issue of, “well, it’s got to be in the city limits or we’re not going to support it”. Because they realized then that whatever happens around you will benefit you as well, so to count on the regional supply of water and the wastewater services enabled the area to develop, whether it’s in Hickory or not.

CLI: Do you think Hickory has placed itself in a position to deal with water supplies for several years to come?

McGee: Many years. With an upgrade to Hickory’s water plant right now, at relatively low cost, and because it was anticipated back in the ’80s, Hickory is able to sell water almost to Charlotte right now.

CLI: That’s an extensive area.

McGee: And all of Watauga County, during the drought that occurred up in that area, I think it was about four years ago, Hickory was in the position to offer emergency water supply, even to Cleveland County.

CLI: So not as subject to droughts because of the planning that took place years ago?

McGee: Absolutely. They used to boast about irrigating their green grass, their yards when other places around were dried up. And truly that occurs; there was never a moratorium on the use of water in Hickory.

CLI: In Raleigh and Cary’s situation, they’ve had to start transferring water from the Cape Fear to the Neuse to deal with growth.

McGee: But the situation in Hickory occurred because you had the resource, but also I think the foresight, the leaders there to build a plan that exceeded Hickory’s immediate need, with the idea that it would foster economic development in the region.

CLI: With your experience, what would you say to new county managers and city managers that are coming on board, some of the challenges, based on your history; what do you see down the road? And what’s happening now? You’ve mentioned mandates, which are still growing.

McGee: A challenge I think is” don’t ever think you can do it by yourself”. If you’re going to try to be a county and just do it within that boundary, or you’re going to be a small town or a large city, and you try to do it all by yourself, I think it’s going to be very difficult. Regionalism, I think, it’s not a new word but it’s going to be even more important in the future because of the cost of doing business with the local governments, the demands that you have on local government. Most of the people want the service and they don’t want you to decrease the level of service, but do they want to pay more for it? They want the taxes to be stable, and certainly not increase unless absolutely necessary. But they’re not willing, in my experience, to give up service. They still expect the town, the county, to provide the services that they’ve been used to. They want that done at the same or lower cost. So I think if you’re going to provide service and not decrease it, you’ve got to at the same or lower cost, then you’re going to have to look at creative ways to do that, and in my opinion a regional approach is just the way to go.

CLI: So in the future, do you see that more and more counties will look at economic development from a multi-county area? And do you also see more cooperative agreements between cities, counties; do you see that becoming preferable?

McGee: I think that’s the wave of the future.

CLI: From an efficiency standpoint?

McGee: Yes. And I’ll give you an example right here: in the backyard in the county I currently have a retirement home in Corolla, in Currituck county. Corolla itself has grown very fast and there’re some growth issues. They probably have too much development. It has overtaxed the infrastructure and they have flooding issues. These hurricanes that just came through, everything was flooded up that way. There’s no storm water system on the Outer Banks part of Currituck County, and it may not be on the mainland either. So what is the reaction? The reaction is, okay, let’s incorporate; let’s incorporate Corolla, and that way we can do these things. Well, maybe, but Currituck County on the other hand is quite a progressive county, it’s a very wealthy county because of all the development they had on the Outer Banks. I was talking to the county manager yesterday and I’m going to appear before a study committee up there in September, and what I’m going to say to them is, “why incorporate?” If you want to have some control over your local destiny, if that’s the itch that’s got to be scratched, then incorporation may not be the way to go. Why not work with the county? “Oh, yeah, but the county, they don’t listen to us; we’re over here; all the votes are over there; they just take our money.”

CLI: And that’s common in coastal communities, all the way down to South Carolina.

McGee: But there are ways I think that Currituck County can allow the folks out here on the Outer Banks, the Corolla Outer Banks, to have input into the decision making process, and that is to have a small area committee. This was tried in Catawba. And let the folks make recommendations about how they want to grow, or not grow.

CLI: And see how that partnership works rather than go through the expensive incorporations. It could go from a blessing to a curse.

McGee: I live in Corolla, I don’t want to pay two taxes; I don’t want to pay county and city taxes.

CLI: So you see that a possible efficiency, is again, building trust and allowing services to be delivered in a more efficient manner?

McGee: Absolutely. And right now counties in North Carolina can do everything that towns do, with the exception of two things: the roads and storm water. So that may be a challenge for legislation in the future, is to allow counties to get into the road business. Right now they can’t do that. They are prohibited by statutes from building roads.

CLI: That’s a great point.

McGee: And in some places it might make sense for the county like Currituck to have that responsibility. Storm water is another issue. Currituck is not an urban county; you would think of these issues as being urban in nature, but Currituck is a very rural county…but to deal with some problems that Currituck has on the Outer Banks part of that county, it seems to me that if they have the road authority and the storm water authority, there’s no need for municipal, for small towns to profit I think they’re going to have a tougher time doing something with it than if they were a larger, more developed unit. Although I do clearly respect the desire to control your own destiny, and that’s important.

CLI: And finally. What are your thoughts on environmental issues? How do you balance out in an appropriate way, growth and the environment?

McGee: You can’t be totally “environment” and that’s all there is, and you can’t also be economic development without considerations of environmental concerns, so what would happen is you’ll always reach middle ground. There will be compromise. You can’t ignore the environmental concerns. If Hickory, which does a very good job I think, in economic development. It’s been known as the seat of entrepreneurialism in the state. It’s got a lot of really good things going for it economically. By the same token, if you ignore the Catawba River, Lake Hickory, the appearance of that, then you’ve sacrificed something. So you can have economic development but you’ve got to take care of your natural resource, You’ve got to be concerned about that. And I think it’s a matter of finding the balance that works.

CLI: But you think that could be found?

McGee: I sure do. I think in Hickory they’ve done, Watauga County, the Uni-Four, the four-county area, I think they’ve done a very good job of balancing those two sometimes competing interests. You can’t have it all one way. There has to be a middle ground, there has to be a balance.