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Feb 20, 2003 to Feb 6, 2013

Town Manager Peter Elwell Interview - Part 1: Meet The Town Manager


Brattleboro's Town Manager Peter Elwell has graciously agreed to a series of three interviews about himself, towns in general, and the future of Brattleboro. In this first installment, we ask about growing up in Brattleboro, his time away from Brattleboro, and his return to his home town.

Tell us about growing up in Brattleboro...

I had a happy “normal” childhood. So happy that no matter where else I ever lived, Brattleboro was always “home.” There were dozens of kids in my neighborhood (including my 3 older sisters) and we had friends all over town. We rode our bikes everywhere. Although it was the 1970s, it had the feel of an earlier era. In the summers and on weekends, we would leave home in the morning and go out and about, usually with just the admonition to “be back by dark.”

We played a lot of sports, usually in synch with whatever professional sports season was active at that time and only rarely organized by adults. On summer evenings, we played “cops and robbers” (a large scale game of hide+seek played by teams) throughout all the yards (and some of the garages) in our neighborhood. I walked to Green Street School and rode the bus to the junior high (now BAMS) and BUHS.

Those of us who were growing up here at that time definitely had a sense that the Town was changing, becoming more diverse and more artsy, but we were mostly focused on the things any other kids in other settings would focus on … school, friends, music, sports, etc.

Were you always interested in town affairs?

I probably had a greater awareness than the average kid, in part because of my father’s role as town manager but in equally large part due to my mother’s active participation and leadership in a variety of cultural and social service non-profit organizations.

I learned a lot from both of them about the lasting impact each of us can make in a small town. It starts with the simple willingness to devote time and energy to the community, but then you have to commit yourself to doing the homework and the hard work. I was inspired by the example they and others set back then and one of the things I love about Brattleboro today is that it is even more diverse, even more vibrant, with even more people engaged in so many different organizations that serve and enrich our community.

What are/were some of your other hobbies or passions?

As I said in the “growing up in Brattleboro” answer, I played a lot of sports, mostly baseball and basketball. I wasn’t too outdoorsy in the winter; I enjoyed reading and writing when it was cold. I also had a paper route for four years (ages 9-13, 1971-1975). The Reformer was an afternoon daily at that time so I would deliver the paper when I got home from school. My route included part of the neighborhood around my family’s house and also both sides of Main Street from Wells Fountain to Elliot Street. I loved the downtown portion of the route, as I met lots of people and there was always a lot of activity going on in the stores and on the street. Also, in those days, customers paid the kids who delivered the papers and the kids had to pay The Reformer. That meant that if a customer did not pay their bill for a few weeks, I had to cover that debt until I could collect and catch-up. It was very good experience having to be accountable for the money in addition to understanding my obligation to provide reliable service.

What did you think you wanted to be when you grew up?

Until Junior High, I wanted to grow up to be the second baseman for the Red Sox. When it became clear that was not going to happen, there were a few years when I didn’t really have a plan. BUHS Career Days in October of 1978 changed all that. I spent a Thursday and Friday at WKVT and was bitten by the radio news bug. I got my FCC license in February of 1979 and worked part-time for WKVT for the rest of high school and the first couple of years of college. (Thank you Don Webster!)

At Middlebury, I worked on the evening news at WRMC. Then, a colleague at the radio station who was Editor-in-Chief of the college newspaper encouraged me to start writing for the paper. I did that and really enjoyed it. I served as Editorial Page Editor and then as Managing Editor. During my time as Managing Editor, I found that I liked the process of organizing the work as much as the journalism itself. That and my political science and history coursework (along with a strong nudge from a favorite professor) convinced me to pursue a career in government rather than as a reporter covering the government.

Why did you leave Brattleboro?

I left to go to college at Middlebury and then to get my master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. While at Penn, I met my wife, Wendy Harrison, who was a classmate in the Master of Government Administration program. When we graduated, we both worked for the City of Philadelphia for a short time (Wendy was in the Finance Department and I was in the Mayor’s Office of Community Service, the City’s community action anti-poverty agency). Then we started looking for municipal management jobs in New England, in California (where we both had family), and in Florida (where Wendy had family).

The first good-fit offer we got was for me to be one of two assistants in the Town Manager’s Office in Palm Beach, Florida. We moved to Florida, where we intended to “get a few years of good experience” before moving on. Wendy became the Assistant Village Manager in Tequesta and later the Solid Waste Director in Martin County while I spent 12 years as the second-in-command in Palm Beach.

When we moved to New Jersey for me to become a township manager in 1999, we also had been looking at positions in Vermont and elsewhere in New England, but those did not pan out at that time. Then we moved back to Florida and raised our kids while I spent 14 years as the Town Manager in Palm Beach. Those were good years and our kids had a great childhood in Palm Beach County, but with them now off to college we all are glad to have moved our home base up to Brattleboro.

Did you like Middlebury College? Any major life lessons learned?

I got a great education at Middlebury and I made a few good friends there. But probably the most significant impact Middlebury had on the course of my life was my experience at the college radio station and, especially, at the college newspaper. As I described under “What did you think you wanted to be when you grew up” above, it was through those experiences that I decided I wanted to pursue a career in government instead of in journalism. And through my studies and my experiences in the communities of Brattleboro and Middlebury, it was an easy decision to focus on municipal government rather than on state or federal government. It was (and is) important to me to provide my government service at the level that is closest to (and most engaged with) the people whom I serve.

Tell us about that senior thesis - The Politics of Community Development...

I studied four redevelopment projects, three of which involved the restoration and repurposing of historic buildings. I was fascinated by the dynamic tension between the formal governmental processes and the informal political processes that determined the outcomes of those projects. The three historic preservation projects all succeeded, two of them against great odds. (Those two were the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, and The Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, and the third was the Champlain Mill in Winooski.) The fourth project did not succeed at that time, but a different development group and different city officials later created an outstanding community asset out of a dilapidated industrial area. (That was on Burlington’s Lake Champlain waterfront.)

How did you end up in Roxbury, NJ? What was that like?

I was looking for my first opportunity to be a town manager after more than a decade as an assistant. I applied to towns and cities in different parts of the country and interviewed for positions in New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California. In each of the other cases, the community chose an experienced manager. Roxbury took a chance on what one of the Township Council members called “that kid from Florida.” Wendy and I really enjoyed living in northwest New Jersey (where we had deer in our yard but were less than an hour from Manhattan) but partisan New Jersey politics made my work very difficult. I appreciated the experience, though, as I learned a lot in Roxbury that has helped me be a better manager in Palm Beach and in Brattleboro.

Why the jump to Philly, PA? And why the quick exit?

See “Why did you leave Brattleboro” above.

Ahh, Palm Beach. I think people in Brattleboro would enjoy learning a bit about just how different Palm Beach is to Brattleboro. So...
- how do the populations/places compare?
- what was a typical annual budget for Palm Beach? staff size?
- did residents feel their taxes were too high?
- what were some of the big problems facing Palm Beach?
- any notable memories of typical concerns of wealthy residents?

Similarities include the year-round population, the walkability, and the strong sense of community identity. Contrasts include everything else.

Palm Beach has about 9,000 year-round residents (Brattleboro has about 12,000) and about 20,000 more live there in the winter.

Total property value on Palm Beach is $15.93 billion, while in Brattleboro it is $1.15 billion.

Palm Beach’s annual general fund budget is $75.4 million, compared to Brattleboro’s $16.3 million.

Palm Beach has about 360 full-time employees and Brattleboro has about 135.

Some residents in both communities (actually, in all communities) believe that their taxes are too high.

Major challenges in Palm Beach:
Palm Beach has 12 miles of Atlantic Ocean beaches that suffer from severe erosion. Restoring and maintaining those beaches is controversial, technically challenging, and extremely expensive. With land elevation ranging from sea level to only 14 feet above sea level, Palm Beach also is facing other current and future impacts of climate change.

Palm Beach is a barrier island and there is no remaining developable land on its 3.75 square miles. That fact combines with the panache of having a Palm Beach address to place powerful redevelopment pressures on both the residential and commercial areas of the community.

Maintaining Palm Beach’s distinct sense of community also is an ongoing challenge. When I first went to work for Palm Beach in 1987, there were about 700,000 people in the surrounding county. Now there are more than twice that many. As the region has grown (and become the northern edge of the Southeast Florida megalopolis (think Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and West Palm Beach), external impacts on Palm Beach have strained its carrying capacity and threatened its small town feel.

My day-to-day work in Palm Beach town government was not that different from the work I do here or from the work that is done every day in small towns across America. While there were greater resources, there also were higher levels of service and expectations that local infrastructure would be maintained in first class condition at all times. So, my work with the Palm Beach management team was focused on delivering the adopted levels of service in the best and most efficient manner we could. That is the same here in Brattleboro.

But, there were certain days and certain issues that made us smile and say “only in Palm Beach.” During my time there, the Kennedy family, Donald Trump, Estee Lauder, Jimmy Buffett, and other corporate and entertainment celebrities lived there. Presidents and other dignitaries visited often. The NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB all held owners’ meetings there (and more than a few of the owners lived there). These things rarely impacted our work in Palm Beach town government, but they did create some interesting memories.

Did you have concerns about returning to Brattleboro?

None. I feel grateful every day that when I finally got a chance to come home to be a town manager in New England, it was all the way home to do it here.

Recent books read that you’ve enjoyed?

“American Nations” by Colin Woodard. It is a really interesting analysis of how the core values of different regions in the United States have remained extremely consistent even as their demographics and our national political dynamics have changed.

Favorite music to listen to?

Folk and traditional.

Favorite movies or TV shows interesting you?

I watch very little TV, except sports and news. I like a lot of different movies, but if I had to pick one favorite it would be the 1971 musical “1776.”

Best ways to relax and have fun?

Hanging out with my family and friends, walking around Brattleboro, hiking on easy to moderate trails, and watching the Red Sox or Bruins.

A project that currently consumes your thoughts?

Construction of the police and fire facilities, of course. Also, for the past several weeks the department heads and I have been working intensely on preparing our first Long Term Financial Plan. Over-arching both of those is the broad array of small and large projects identified in the Comprehensive Review of Town Operations (CRTO) that we finished earlier this year. Implementing the CRTO action items will keep us very busy for years to come with important work that stretches beyond the normal daily delivery of services to improve and strengthen our local government and community services.

Now that you’ve been back a while, is Brattleboro the same old place it was, or has it materially changed, in your view? How or how not?

There are more and better restaurants now. The rest of the healthy downtown is much as I remember it, but I know that there were some lean years during the time I was away. Putney Road, Canal Street, and the residential neighborhoods are mostly the same.

What I really love about Brattleboro, and always have, is its very strong sense of place. Individually and collectively, we are proud of our community and its unique identity, its walkability, the human scale of our built environment, and the accessibility of the surrounding natural environment.

Wendy was very active in the “New Urbanism” movement in Florida where developers are striving to create this sense of community in a from-the-ground-up suburban setting. That is very hard to accomplish. In Brattleboro, we are blessed with “Old Urbanism” … since the mid-1800’s our community has grown organically to be the kind of environment other people covet and are spending literally billions of dollars to try to create. The fact that it is real here gives Brattleboro a special vitality, not just in downtown but all over town. Also, as the community has become more diverse, it also has become more welcoming. One thing Wendy and I really appreciate about living here in this era is how Brattleboro’s upbeat artsy vibe has been layered upon the traditional community character that has always been special but has not always felt so alive.

Anything else you’d like to add that we did ask about?

No. As George Aiken used to say, I think that’s “a great plenty.”

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Comments | 5

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In the background

I really enjoyed this interview. Who knew our town manager has a journalism and radio background? (He could get a show on WVEW!) It was interesting to hear his sense of recent history and what it was like to live in Brattleboro back in the day. We're about the same age, so I have similar memories of being a kid at that time.

Finally, I was really happy to hear him talk about Brattleboro's realness. That was what drew us here and it's what keeps us here as well. But even here, it's something you do have to work at to sustain. Forces of entropy (or whatever it's called) are always trying to homogenize us.

Looking forward to reading the next installment. Thanks, Peter Elwell, for taking the time to do this.

 
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"What are/were some of your other hobbies or passions?"

While this interview is rather good thus far, I would like to know if it was conducted by e-mail, phone, in-person or whatever combination of the three (or more).

The answer to this question bothered me once it turned from and simple two-thought answer into some sort of infomercial about being a paper-boy after school teaching him responsibilities fiscal and to the client. I found that a bit self-serving and not germane to the actual question posed.

 
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A:

We're doing this by email so far, so that it doesn't distract from Town issues and work - can be done in free time, over time.

 
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Thanks, it's quite useful to know the interview's circumstances.

I tried to edit "and to "a" and somehow I got logged out of the system, couldn't get recognized until I left, returned, the system recognized I already logged in and now I can't edit my reply. Curious but not the worst thing that's happened to me today.

 
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Walkability

I guess it's all relative, but it's much more dangerous to walk in downtown Brattleboro than in any major Canadian city, New York City, and about as bad as the greater Boston area.

Just last month just dimwit decided to play chicken with me while I was in the middle of the Indo-Transpo crosswalk. I wish I could say it was merely a semi-annual occurrence but that is not how it's played out over the past nine years.

 

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