WAXHAW – One of Ron Pappas’s biggest goals was to hire a town manager within 90 days of being sworn in as mayor. After one month, it seems like the town may meet that goal.
The town manager plays a key role in Waxhaw, managing staff, working with commissioners, coming up with innovative ideas to manage the town’s revenue and growth while boosting economic development and interacting with citizens.
Town commissioners have been concerned with Waxhaw’s residential-to-commercial tax base ratio, which is 93-7. This ratio is 75-25 in some surrounding towns. In others, it is 50-50.
Pappas said one of his long-term goals is to work to resolve this issue. However, this goal needs to be accomplished with the work of a town manager.
The town appointed Erskine Smith as interim town manager in July 2019 after Greg Ferguson resigned from the position. Ferguson served as town manager for two years. Previously, Warren Wood served before accepting a position as city manager in Hickory.
The first and longest-standing town manager of Waxhaw was Michael McLaurin.
2006-2014: McLaurin’s Perspective
Before McLaurin stepped into the role of town manager, Waxhaw was run by a town administrator, who had a different type of authority compared to a manager. Once the administrator stepped away from the role, McLaurin said Waxhaw brought in Union County’s economic development director to help the town. They then brought McLaurin in as an interim town manager before promoting him to a permanent position.
McLaurin said when he first got to Waxhaw, the town had a very small police department, had no full-time planning staff, had small public works departments and relied on the county for many of its services. His goal was to take Waxhaw to the next level by building up staff capacity in personnel and training, as well as interacting with citizens.
“I was very accessible to the public,” McLaurin said. “I gave my cell number out. I always had a rule that if you came to town hall and didn’t have an appointment, you automatically had an appointment because I was available to see anybody that came to see me.”
Waxhaw was in the beginning stages of building a commercial tax base while McLaurin was town manager. McLaurin said at the beginning of his tenure, Waxhaw’s reputation as the equestrian and antique capital of the world was beginning to die down, while more full-time merchants and restaurants came in, which McLaurin labeled as “quality commercial.”
This began the formation of the Waxhaw small-town experience that people sought out when visiting, along with events and festivals put on by McLaurin and staff to showcase the town.
McLaurin said commercial development usually follows residential, but Waxhaw has some limitations and challenges when it comes to commercial development. He said Harris Teeter and Lowe’s were built before he entered his role, but afterward, zoning and development codes became stricter, holding developers to a high standard to uphold the “quality” part of “quality commercial.”
Though potential industrial uses have been talked about in the past, McLaurin sees a challenge in that if Waxhaw chooses to do so. He also said some zoning codes limit the footprint size of various commercial structures.
“I’ve been away from there for several years, but I think there is a small part on the map that is industrial,” McLaurin said. “But one of the challenges that Waxhaw has that we talked about for years is, you’ve got state highways 16 and 75, so traffic is a real issue. So I think for at least the next several years, Waxhaw will be mainly residential with quality commercial.”
One of the challenging parts of his job was keeping up with the growing tax base, though he said it allowed his staff to bring the high-quality services Waxhaw has. He also said there could be challenges in hiring staff. However, he feels he did a good job of overcoming these challenges.
He left the role in 2014 because he felt ready to let someone else take the reins.
“Out of my 40-something years now, I think Waxhaw was one of my greatest experiences,” McLaurin said. “It’s one of my favorite towns. The future is bright. They will have challenges, but there’s always a way of working them out.”
2019-2020: Smith’s Perspective
As interim town manager, Smith has focused on continuing Waxhaw’s normal operations.
However, if his position was more permanent, he might do things differently.
“Typically, as an interim, I wouldn’t try to initiate any new programs or policies unless it was absolutely necessary,” Smith said. “If I was in a permanent position, I would be looking at more long-term changes, initiatives, goals and procedures. Not that we’re still not looking to the future, but it would just be a little more in conjunction with the mayor and the board, initiating new items and things like that. We will be talking to the board at a retreat that’s yet to be scheduled about some of the goals and some of the programs and initiatives they want to see accomplished… As an interim, I’m just sort of trying to continue the operations and services until a new manager gets appointed.”
Smith said the residential to commercial tax base ratio was a problem that came up with the previous board and has transitioned to the new board.
He would encourage Waxhaw to diversify its economy, bringing different commercial businesses in to increase the commercial tax base. He said it would be a good idea to bring in businesses that give residents the opportunity to work and live in Waxhaw. However, he does not see any industrial businesses coming to the town anytime soon.
“Honestly, I don’t see Waxhaw as having any 100,000-square-foot industries or distribution centers or things like that,” Smith said. “But I think there is a market for commercial and economic development for people who want to have a business in a 20, 25, 40,000 square-feet building range. It’s just a matter of trying to find an appropriate place in the community where that can happen and it can thrive.”
Smith said he hopes the new town manager has strong communication skills, launches new initiatives and continues to create the strong downtown core center that residents and visitors enjoy.
He also said being able to manage Waxhaw’s growth and work with the board are important qualities to look for.
“There’s a lot of growth, as everybody knows, going on in Waxhaw,” Smith said. “I don’t see that not continuing for the future. I think it’s still going to be a great place to raise a family and open a business and have a lot of opportunity for that. So, how the new town manager manages that growth helps with the board’s priorities.”
As the town looks for a new manager, Smith only hopes for the best for Waxhaw.
“Waxhaw’s got a good staff here in place,” Smith said. “They want to do the best for this community and their citizens and I think they provide the best customer service to the citizens. I think there’s a lot of opportunity here and a lot of growth potential for the future. Hopefully, the new manager and the board can create a plan and a vision and get some of these things accomplished.”
The Town of Waxhaw is using Developmental Associates LLC to search for a new manager. The firm is in charge of recruiting candidates and reviewing applications. Jan. 26 is the application deadline.
The town is looking for a candidate with a bachelor’s degree and preferably a master’s degree in public administration, along with at least seven years of experience. The job posting says the ideal candidate will be someone who can lead and inspire staff, think strategically and innovatively in regards to economic development and partnerships, manage finances and increase revenue, along with many specific requirements.
Application review begins Jan. 22. Interviews will take place Feb. 28 and 29.