By Dave Ongie, Managing Editor
Pete Peterson was surrounded by moving boxes last Tuesday morning as he took a seat in the conference room adjacent to his office in the Johnson City Municipal Building.
The boxes offered a tangible sign of the transition that is currently taking place as Peterson nears the end of his 31-year career with the City of Johnson City. He’s spent the last 17 years as city manager, a position he is in the process of handing off to Cathy Ball, who was hired by the City Commission earlier this fall.
At the end of this month, Peterson will begin his retirement, a prospect he says he’s just now starting to grapple with after spending most of this year trying to tie up loose ends and ensure a smooth transition.
“The reality is starting to hit,” Peterson said. “It’s just been the last week and a half that I’ve really let myself look back at what we’ve done and get excited about the next phase of life for me.
“The last 31 years of my life have evaporated much quicker than I’d realized.”
When Peterson announced his decision to retire back in March, a press release from the city summed up the progress that was made since the Johnson City native took over as city manager on Nov. 1, 2004. The city’s fund balance has grown from around $2 million from the day Peterson took office to over $45 million as of the end of the last fiscal year in June.
Flood mitigation projects downtown spawned a pair of new parks, the city completed a redesign of Science Hill High School – which included the construction of an on-campus football stadium – and Fairmont Elementary was completely rebuilt as well.
The Tweetsie Trail, a new animal shelter and Tannery Knobs were also completed under Peterson’s watch, and the kicker is that Johnson City has done all this and still maintained the lowest property tax rate in the region.
Peterson said the greatest asset he brought to the city manager’s job was his gift of perspective, which came from serving in a community he knew like the back of his hand. “I’m probably unique in the fact that I was born, raised and grew up here,” he said.
From his office window, Peterson can almost catch a glimpse of the original home of Science Hill High School, which he attended when it was South Junior High School. He later attended high school at the new Science Hill campus that was constructed at its present location in 1965.
Peterson’s unique perspective prevents him from taking total credit for the achievements that happened during the 17 years he held the city manager position.
“A lot of people were involved in that,” he said. “I’m hopeful we’ve made the right decisions to make Johnson City that much better 30 years from now.”
One thing Peterson knows better than anybody is how slowly the wheels of government can turn. After he announced his retirement in March, folks would ask Peterson what he wanted to get done before he retired. “There’s nothing I can get done before I leave because everything I’m working on is going to take 3, 4 or 5 years to come to fruition,” he told them.
With that being said, Peterson credits his predecessor John Campbell and the city commissioners that served in the past for creating the firm foundation he was able to build upon. Peterson served as assistant city manager under Campbell during the 1990s and recalls a handful of monumental decisions during Campbell’s tenure that helped set Johnson City up for long-term success.
Peterson said the People’s Education Plan (PEP), which created a permanent funding source for the Johnson City School System’s capital projects, really stood out as a game changer. Likewise, Peterson said the decision to create Iris Glen Landfill in the early ‘90s was also instrumental in the city’s growth.
“That has saved us millions and millions of dollars in solid waste costs, and it’s also generated multiple millions of dollars of revenue back to the city,” he said of Iris Glen.
Peterson also said the completion of State of Franklin Road paved the way for Johnson City Crossing and helped solidify the city as the regional leader for retail, which has created decades of vital sales tax revenue.
“Those were the types of investments that allowed us to do the things we’ve done on my watch and enjoy the prosperity that resulted from those investments,” Peterson said.
In that same way, Peterson expects to spend a good chunk of his retirement observing how his body of work impacts the future of Johnson City. “It’ll be interesting to see if things play out the way I’ve got them pictured in my mind right now,” he said.
With two young children at home, Peterson is keenly aware that the work he has done will go a long way toward determining whether or not Johnson City is a place where they will eventually put down roots here the way he did. That remains to be seen, but for now, Peterson is excited about the opportunity to be there for them as they progress through their teenage years.
Aside from that, Peterson is looking forward to skiing, playing some golf and auditing a class or two at ETSU. For once, the pages of his calendar are blank, and he’s excited about living each day as it comes.
“I can assure everyone I’m not going to be a critic from the sideline, and I’m not going to be showing up at meetings and city hall unless I’m asked to come in,” he said. “I had my period of responsibility and influence here, and I’m going to a new chapter.
“This community has a lot to be proud of, and I’ve been blessed to work as city manager here for the last 17 years.”