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New City Manager Connet helps Hendersonville tackle downtown parking, other issues


By Pete Zamplas –

Hendersonville’s new city manager, John Frazier Connet, brings a gentlemanly but direct approach into managing daily operations and implementing city policies.

Connet, the top administrator for a month and a half, told The Tribune that “I’m excited to be here. I’m working hard to learn the community and issues, and to work to help the city grow and prosper.”

He follows Bo Ferguson, who departed after nearly five years on the job to be Durham’s next deputy city manager over operations, and then interim manager Lee Galloway. Galloway filled in temporarily for a half-year since November. He had just retired, after 18 years as Waynesville town manager.

Connet started the Hendersonville post May 28. He was the unanimous selection of City Council, which meets 5:45 p.m. today, Thursday, July 11. He beat 85 other applicants including two other finalists, Mayor Barbara Volk stated when announcing his selection in late April.

Connet served as city manager of Clinton, where he grew up, for over a decade — since July 2002. He was town manager of Winterville near Greenville, N.C., for the three prior years. He totaled 14 years as a top municipal administrator. Earlier, Connet was Hickory’s planner then risk manager for seven total years, starting 21 years ago in 1992.

Clinton (population 8,600), is east of Fayetteville. Its budget was about half of Hendersonville’s $29 million overall, but closer in the general fund ($8 million versus $13 million), Connet said. “We have a much larger utility system and fund here.”

Connet impressed local Council members supremely, they said, in his Clinton stint by getting so much out of limited budgets that plague municipal governments in these down economic times. “Clinton, although smaller, has all the departments we have and has recently done downtown rejuvenation and a park master plan,” Mayor Volk stated. “So John understands our challenges.”

He was thrown to the fire for recent budgeting; the city did not raise its tax rate. He has to adjust forecasts of the city share of sales tax revenue and other state funding as 2013-14 progresses, and adjust the budget accordingly. The budget year began July 1.

In-depth screening included phone then in-person interviews, a three-hour essay and “strenuous exercises dealing with personnel issues and public presentations,” Connet said. City officials said Connet demonstrated people skills, which were among Ferguson’s strengths.

Connet described his administrative style as honest, candid yet polite, and transparent. “I try to be straightforward with you, with respect. What you see is what you get. I try to build trust and solid relationships.”

In turn, Connet said he is impressed with character of Council members and city officials he is working with. Council is more cohesive than boards of other cities he has managed, he said. “They work well together, with respect, to resolve issues. They agree to disagree. Their disagreements don’t hold over to other issues” later on.

John and Lori Connet’s daughters are Natalie, 10, and Lillie, 8. John Connet has links to this county’s Crab Creek community, and the mountains. “My great-great grandfather Aiken is from Hendersonville. I’m also related to some Orrs.” Connet earned degrees in political science/geography then a master’s in public administration from two area colleges. “With his background at Western Carolina and Appalachian State,” Mayor Volk said, “John knows the mountains.”

He is drawn to Hendersonville’s culture and other features, starting with mile-long, historic Main Street. “The downtown area is a prime asset. Culturally, my wife Lori and I talked about the different forms of arts — such as theater and visual arts — that help bring people to the community. Downtown is full of people who live, work or visit there. Everyone I’ve talked to says how great the people are, along with the cultural arts and good schools.”

The rain-delayed work at the north end of Main is the last phase in aesthetic and infrastructure upgrades. Looking ahead, Connet said “a challenge for having a vibrant downtown is — now that we’ve made these improvements — is to maintain it and keep it clean and safe.”

Providing sufficient, safe parking is a major issue here as elsewhere, he said. Council is considering a multi-level parking deck, and whether to have it more above ground and visually obtrusive or more underground where security is challenging but can be bolstered by video surveillance and lighting.“There is the issue of drilling down,” Connet said. “Every action has a reaction. What may seem a solution to one group such as business owners may seem a negative to residents or tourism. We’ll talk to all stakeholders. We’ll take a long-term approach to concerns of parking.”

Wingate in Mill Site

He is most proud of his work in Clinton in the last half-decade, for urban renewal. “We revitalized downtown and around the city, improving appearance. We converted under-utilized properties into a positive. We demolished substandard low-income housing that had drug activity. We secured grant money, and partnered with a community college to put safer, affordable housing there.”

Hendersonville’s revitalization focus is on the historic, nearly century-old Grey Hosiery Mill. The 28,135-square-foot site is off Grove Street, between Fourth and Fifth avenues, and near the newer courthouse. Council in mid-June authorized, by a close 3-2 vote, a private $6.7 million renovation there to build a satellite Hendersonville Campus for Wingate University. Wingate is based near Charlotte. The plan beat three others, including for residential development and a upscale marketplace with event space.

The chosen project would convert the mill to classrooms, such as for upcoming Wingate physician’s assistant and physical therapy degree programs. Wingate already has degree courses for doctor of pharmacy and master of business administration (MBA), renting 11,000 square feet at King Street and Fifth Avenue. That lease lasts at least two more years.

The potential developer is Robert P. Englander Jr. of CathFord Consultants, which handled City Hall renovation seven years ago. He has two months remaining in his 90-day deadline to prove project viability. Foremost is to get a “firm commitment from Wingate for its business plan” which includes paying $451,000 to CathFord in annual rent and meeting the college’s specifications, Connet said. He noted preliminary plans are to “preserve and restore as much of the original (from 1915) portion of the mill as they can.” State tax breaks are available for preserving such mills, and are financially pivotal.

Council members recently stated priorities include building Hendersonville Fire Station No. 2 and several major sewer projects.

Noise Control, Video Gaming

The agenda for the Council meeting today includes noise nuisance control, parameters of a $6 million park bond for (walking trails, a soccer field, etc.) 60-acre Berkeley Mills Park, and naming of the Seventh Avenue Dog Park.

Also, there is a public hearing on concentrating any state-permitted electronic “sweepstakes” video gaming in I-1 industrial zones. State lawmakers and the N.C. Supreme Court hold such games to be illegal. But City Attorney Sam Fritschner noted a loophole apparently allows them as “merchandise” machines, if each payout is $10 or less. He further noted in a memo the proposed zoning revision prevents “grandfathering” into compliance video machines city-wide, which might later operate as truer gambling ones if those are later allowed.

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