2016-12-29 / Front Page

City Managers Take a Look Back

By Tom Walsh

Nicholson Sees North End Progress

Looking back on an eventful 2016, Newport City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson Jr. said that simply deciding last February to take the job permanently was among the biggest challenges he faced during the year.

“Government has numerous challenges every day,” he told Newport This Week in an end-of-year interview in his City Hall office. “Becoming city manager was in itself a big challenge, in addition to attempting to turn the corner on a number of projects that we have going.”

Nicholson, 60, a Newport attorney who had served as interim manager since 2014 and had once been quoted as saying he would not take the permanent job “for all the tea in China,” seemed to relish the opportunity to talk about his first 10 months in the role.

“You can sit in a room and conceptualize all you want, but at some point you’ve got to take the planning process and mature it,” he said about turning ideas into reality. “How do you pay for it, how do you move forward? Who, outside of this building, do you have to deal with? There are a lot of partnerships and different people to deal with.”

Asked for examples of such projects, Nicholson said without hesitation, “The largest, of course, is the Pell Bridge ramp realignment. That’s a big one that’s out of the planning stage. Now we’re talking actual details to move forward – the money, the different interests, federal funding, and some high-level discussions with the [Rhode Island] Department of Transportation. It’s an expensive and detailed project.”

The city manager elaborated on other 2016 projects that are moving forward in various stages: n Newport’s biggest 2016 victory may be the former Sheffield Elementary School property on Broadway that is to be transformed into a business incubator, Nicholson said. “This project has turned the corner and I think it demonstrates that we can get something of that magnitude done.” Officials hope to begin construction on the $6.29 million project in May. n The city manager reported that Newport moved forward in 2016 with a long-term project to its micro-grid to bolster the city’s system for distributing energy. “It’s simply an underground line,” he said, adding that the build-out of such a system generates savings that pay for the work. n Improvements to Broadway neared completion, but as Nicholson looks out of his office window he is reminded of a situation that persists. “We still have a homeless issue in this city,” he said, adding that the problem comes with mental health and social concerns. n Nicholson hopes that the city’s vision for the North End may eventually benefit from the URI $20 million “innovation campus” bond issue approved by Rhode Island voters in November. n Stormwater management is another long-term project that remains to be addressed as 2016 winds down.

Swinging the conversation in a different direction, Nicholson said, “We’re talking a lot about economic development. But let’s not forget quality of life issues, because all of this is intended to make things better for everyone.” More specifically, he cited noise and litter, especially cigarette butts, as things that irritate him.

Nicholson lavished praise on those who work at City Hall. “I have a great relationship with the people I work with,” he said. “This is a great place to work. A lot of little things add up to a good working environment.” He described municipal department directors as “solid and knowledgeable. They own the product.”

Despite his affinity for City Hall, the manager confessed that he sometimes misses practicing law.

“There’s a certain camaraderie that goes with practicing law,” he said. “You miss that.” Nicholson grew up on Everett Street in Newport, attended the city’s public schools, and then went to Providence College and the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Has the experience of managing the City of Newport changed him at all? “I think my listening skills have improved dramatically, as opposed to trying to dictate things to employees, the public or the City Council,” Nicholson replied. “I learn something new every day. If someone had asked me two years ago what a micro-grid was, I would have thought they were speaking of a microwave.”

“I have buy-in here,” he said. “I’m not a journeyman. This place is my home.” He added that because of his local background he has a “strong personal interest” in his job. “It’s not just a business interest. I’m not going anywhere, regardless of where I’m working.”

Brown Cites Land Use Efforts

When it comes to the task of conducting the day-to-day business of his Aquidneck Island community, Middletown Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown describes 2016 in upbeat tones.

“In that respect, it was a really good year, a busy year,” he said.

But for Brown and many others, the sad story of a raging house fire early in September that killed seven-year-old Ramon Arroyo, a Forest Avenue Elementary School pupil, casts a pall over 2016 that will never completely go away.

“It still weighs heavily on everyone,” said Brown, 49, in a year-end interview with Newport This Week. “I guess sometimes God has a different plan for each of us and none of us knows what it is. The tragedy of the year was that fire.”

Brown said police and fire responders did the best they could, saving Ramon’s two older sisters, Leilaney, 14, and Cheyanne, 16, both students at Middletown High School. “Everyone did their best,” Brown, himself a father of two, said sadly.

On the municipal front, there was good news for the town’s public works and school departments with the results of the November election – voters approved a $5 million bond issue to improve badly deteriorated roads and another $10 million to make needed school repairs. The bonds are to be repaid over 20 years without impacting taxes.

As with the City of Newport, Brown cited water concerns as a major area the town dealt with in 2016, including stormwater runoff and the town’s 30 percent of structures still depending on wells for water. “We spent a lot of time addressing well water issues.”

Asked what he would consider Middletown’s biggest victory this year, he pointed to progress with the comprehensive land use plan. Land use, Brown said, “defines the town, its homes and the quality of life. The Town Council and the Planning and Zoning boards have been working together on this. It has been a positive debate to move the community forward. It’s going to make a big difference.”

Continuing on the topic of land use, Brown said such issues now evoke a “strong voice” in Middletown. “There is a cry for preservation and green space,” he said. “It’s a different message. People come together. There is a sense of community that’s come out of this. You know what people really want.”

As for 2016 disappointments, Brown took a moment to respond. “In general, it involves the effort to continue. There’s always a hope that the ability to work with the other communities will be greater.” He said Middletown must work together with Newport, Portsmouth and the U.S. Naval base. “We have community meetings regularly, but of course, each community has its own identity. This is one area that I wish I’d done more on. Some of those discussions don’t move as easily as they should.”

Brown said that when any of the three municipalities attract a new business, “we all benefit.” But he also lamented the difficulty of attracting new private businesses. “We don’t always move as quickly as we should.”

The town administrator was asked whether there was anything he would like to have done differently in 2016.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “One thing we do well here is that policy questions go to the Town Council. Things are well-vetted before they go prime time. The final product is a good one. The goal of my office is to put ideas out to the council. Things are brainstormed. The council has been good about getting things out there.”

What did he learn over the course of 2016 that was helpful?

“On that I would say it was the idea of doing a better job of listening,” Brown said, adding that he is a big fan of public hearings and using surveys to gauge opinions.

“The most valuable input we get is from the people of Middletown directly,” he said. “We are trying to capture as much data as possible for our decision-making process. We do a lot at the neighborhood level.” Brown added that he values communication with residents. “If we have a survey, we can get that out to 5,000 people in the community at the push of a button.”

What was his smartest 2016 decision? “The Two-Mile Corner project,” the administrator declared. That effort involves $12 million in upgrades to the intersections at East and West Main roads, Coddington Highway and West Main Road, and surrounding streets.

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