Elizabethton city manager candidate tells why he’s seeking position

John Thompson • Mar 21, 2013 at 10:24 PM

ELIZABETHTON — The Elizabethton City Council interviewed the last of the finalists to be the next city manager on Thursday and then held a discussion on which candidate they preferred. The council members will not take an official vote until their next regular meeting on April 12.

Steve Neilson, the development coordinator for Johnson City, was interviewed before the discussion and council members were uniformly impressed with his performance.

Neilson said he has served as Johnson City’s development coordinator for the last 17 years. Neilson said he decided to seek the job as Elizabethton’s city manager for several reasons. He has the educational requirements for the job, having obtained his master’s degree in city management from East Tennessee State University in 2001. Neilson said he was not interested in making a move from his Johnson City job before now because he is the father of two daughters and he wanted to spend as much time as he could with his family. He said they are now grown and he has more time to devote to his work.

As a senior official in a neighboring city, Neilson said he was impressed with several things about Elizabethton, especially the city’s downtown and its wide sidewalks and downtown alleys. He said he saw a lot of potential in Elizabethton.

Neilson said he believed the downtowns of cities were where hearts of the communities. “The downtown is what makes your community distinctive.” He discussed his work in helping to restore Johnson City’s downtown. “Eighteen years ago there was a lot of empty buildings,” Neilson said of Johnson City’s downtown.

He said some of the ways in which downtown development has been encouraged is through tax increment financing district and replacing a restrictive building code with an international code that gives building owners an opportunity to develop upper floors without treating the development as another building.

Another factor was encouraging a denser development and discouraging suburban sprawl by providing incentives for development closer to downtown.

Neilson said another factor in encouraging the development of downtown was a new generation of young citizens who desire to live downtown and walk to shops and restaurants.

Council members who have recently had to approve a $160,000 infusion of cash into the Elizabethton Golf Course were also interested in what Neilson had to say about Johnson City golf courses.

Neilson said they were also money losers in Johnson City. He said Pine Oaks and Buffalo Valley were set up as an enterprise fund under the Parks and Recreation Department. He said Pine Oaks stands on its own, but Buffalo Valley needs to be subsidized.

He said the city has tried to find ways to make the courses profitable through changes in the schedule and finding other uses. He said selling a course is not likely. “There is not a market for golf courses.”

Following the interview, the council began a discussion of the three candidates, who include Elizabethton Finance Director Jerome Kitchens, who is serving as interim city manager, and Morristown’s senior planner, Melissa Peagler.

Councilman Richard Tester said one thing they had in common was that none of them had previous experience. A fourth candidate, Jeffrey Morse, of Valdese, N.C., did have 24 years of experience managing that town, but he withdrew his name from consideration.

Although the remaining candidates have no prior city management experience, they all have excellent backgrounds and many years of service in the communities they serve. Pat Hardy, municipal management consultant with the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service, who is facilitating the search, said they were all good candidates and “Elizabethton has a tradition of hiring managers who have not been city managers before.”

Later in the discussion, Hardy had the council members take a series of three straw votes. On the first vote, Neilson received the most votes. After more discussion, a second vote was conducted and Kitchens was on top. A third vote was taken with Peagler’s name removed and Kitchens won by a 4-3 vote over Neilson in the nonbinding poll.

Some of the council members said they wanted more time to consider the candidates before taking an official vote.

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