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3 weeks in, Johnson City's Development Services director adapting to new role

Zach Vance • Updated Dec 14, 2018 at 12:23 AM

Johnson City’s new director of Development Services Preston Mitchell has now been on the job three weeks, and during that time, building relationships with city staff and learning the intricacies of the department have been the Chattanooga native’s main priority.

“What I’m doing right now, I call it sponge mode. I’m just soaking everything in. I’m seeing how the processes are being done. Are we doing everything we can to be as customer-friendly as we can, not only to our external customers, but to our internal customers, meaning to ourselves? Are our processes the best they can be? What do the codes look like? Are the codes at a place where they could be improved, simplified (or) streamlined?” Mitchell said Thursday during an hour-long interview with the Johnson City Press.

As implied by the name, Johnson City’s Development Services department is essential to guiding and shaping the city’s vision for commercial and residential development. According to the Development Services website, Mitchell currently oversees 22.5 full-time employees, who work in five divisions: Planning, Geographic Information Systems, Codes, Community Development and the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization.

Before Mitchell’s first day on Nov. 26, Johnson City had been without a Development Services director for nearly a year, since December 2017, when then-director Angie Carrier announced she had accepted a job with the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Services.

With Mitchell still getting a grasp on his new role, he said it’s a little premature to begin forming long-term goals.

“I think it would be a little premature to kind of dish out some predetermined goals because I feel like the community has been here ... before I got here, and it will be here much longer after I’m gone,” Mitchell said. “One of the things I want to do is just look for and find that low-hanging fruit. I’d say within 90 days I’ll begin looking at the middle of the tree. Then possibly by the first of the fiscal year ... I’ll have a much better grasp on what some of the longer-range goals will be.”

Mitchell described the current structure of the department “healthy.” Under his leadership, he said there are no plans for any drastic or immediate changes to the way Development Services operates.

“It was and will continue to be a very healthy organization. Again, will I just simply bring fresh perspective and fresh ideas on how certain things can be done? Yeah, absolutely. Am I going to be focusing really heavily on customer service and service delivery? Absolutely. Because that’s a lot of what I heard coming through the interview process,” Mitchell said.

“You can actually do more damage than good, especially coming from out of town. I mean it’d be one thing if I was an internal candidate, but to come from out of town and then start telling everybody, ‘Alright, you know what? I’m going to move everybody around, and I’m going to change how we do all these things. And then after I do all that, I’m going to expect everyone to give excellent customer service.’ No, that would be a complete disaster.”

By “out of town,” Mitchell means Salisbury, North Carolina, a town about half the size of Johnson City located between Winston-Salem and Charlotte. For the past 14 years, Mitchell has served as the city’s development and code services manager. He’s also worked a stint doing planning for Nashville’s metropolitan government, and before that, he worked three years in Stuart, Florida.

A graduate of the College of Charleston, Mitchell received his bachelor of arts in urban studies and public administration. He’s also a graduate of the City Manager’s Leadership Academy and Form-Based Code Institute.

Mitchell, his wife Rosemary and their 2-year-old son, Jack, are currently in the market for a home, but in the meantime, Mitchell said his family signed a short-term lease to live in downtown Johnson City. During his free time, Mitchell enjoys the outdoors, including hiking, mountain biking, cycling and skiing.

“I’m just really thrilled to be here and thrilled to do some things that help us grow and help us be competitive in the market,” Mitchell said.

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