Q&A: Steve Hewitt
Steve Hewitt (full profile) is the city administrator in Greensburg, Kansas. On May 4, 2007, the entire city was destroyed in a ferocious tornado. Greensburg decided to rebuild green, using environmentally sustainable practices for construction, water reuse and energy-efficiency. Hewitt is in charge of the rebuilding effort. Governing Staff Writer Zach Patton talked to Hewitt about what it was like to see a town destroyed and how green building has given Greensburg hope for the future. Here is an abridged and edited version of the interview:
Did you always want to be a city manager?
I'm a Kansas boy, grew up in Kansas. In high school, I actually worked summers for the city — you know, Parks and Recreation. After college, I was in private business for a little bit. I did some insurance work and some work as a mortgage broker. But then I had the chance to take a full-time position with the city of Pratt, in their Parks and Recreation department as an activities director. I always enjoyed that. Then I moved up and did similar work for Independence, Missouri. Then there was a director's job open in Clinton, Oklahoma. So I bounced down to Clinton for three years. I was lucky enough to help build a new recreation facility.
I worked with some really good city managers, doing budgets and personnel issues and construction things. They were really encouraging and told me I'd be a good city manager some day. I was ready to take the next step. I knew that, since I didn't have any city-manager experience, I was either going to have to take a small-town job or an assistant's job.
And that's why I took the Greensburg job — one year prior to the tornado.
What was the town of Greensburg like before the tornado?
It was a very typical county-seat community in western Kansas, you know, hanging in there. Agriculture's a big thing here. It's got a little tourist attraction — the world's largest hand-dug well. But the town was very low-key, slow-paced.
We got a sales tax passed that first year to pay for infrastructure. I realized right away that our aging infrastructure had to be changed and some money needed to be set aside for that. So we were able to get that passed. We were also talking about revitalization and energy efficiency and new facilities.
But then the storm comes and you're completely upside down.
So what was it like when the storm hit?
Obviously, it was very surreal. In Kansas, tornadoes are not uncommon. But this one was a very odd night; everyone could tell that. You could just feel that it was different. I was in the basement, and you don't really realize how bad it is. But I walked up the stairs and my entire house was gone. And you're hoping it's isolated to your part of town. And then my staff — they were giving me updates on our two-way radios — they're saying, "The west side of town is wiped out. Downtown is wiped out. The east side."
I couldn't even fathom that. What do you mean, the whole town is wiped out? But that's exactly what had happened. The town was absolutely, completely leveled.
At that point, it's emergency management. It's chaos. It's trying to manage chaos and manage the recovery effort, you know, search-and-rescue.
How did you shift from managing the immediate crisis to starting to the rebuilding process?
Now Greensburg had an opportunity. I sat down with the mayor and the city council after that and I said, "You know all the things you guys were wanting to accomplish before? You can do it! You've got a blank canvas. You have a unique opportunity unlike any other."
It's very emotionally tough. Everybody lost their homes. I lost my home. The whole town lost their home. We were completely fragmented all over the countryside. How do you get back? How do you get people to come back? How do you plan it and how to you rebuild the infrastructure? We went through all that.
But the thing we made an effort of was that we're going to rebuild smarter. We're going to build green. We're going to think about the future. We're going to think about economic development and jobs and schools and hospitals. And we're going to try to find a way to create the best little town that the future can offer.
I have a little son — he's almost four now. Every decision I make, from the television we watch to the car I drive, it all affects him. And it affects him long-term. So as community leaders, we have the same obligation that we do as parents: to make the most important and critical decisions that are going to be good for the long term. Those are tough, because we're always wanting to satisfy those people who are upset today.
How did you coalesce around the idea of rebuilding green?
It didn't first come out as strictly "green, green, green." It first came out as smart grid, smart construction, smart rebuilding and planning. And "smart" turned into, "Well, that's green. That's sustainable." At that point in time, we knew we had to bring in professional planners.
What about buy-in from the community?
When you have town hall meetings, it's very true that, you know, 30 people show up. Ten people show up. We had 600 people showing up at every town hall meeting. When you have that many people involved, it's easy to come up with a green answer.
So where does the rebuilding effort stand today?
It's easy to plan. But the difficult thing is continuing to implement that plan, to build those buildings. I've built a LEED Platinum business incubator. [LEED Platinum is the highest rating given by the U.S. Green Building Council.] I'm about to wrap up a LEED Platinum city hall; I have the greenest downtown streetscape that's being put in place right now; we have a LEED Platinum hospital that's about to wrap up; a LEED Platinum school that's being built; I have a LEED Gold public works facility. I've got LED streetlights all over town. We're working on a wind farm to create energy.
We've basically built a town from the ground up. We're still building, and it's going to take more years. It's been amazing to try to implement these things with a small staff and a small town, and create this green, sustainable community all along the way.
Do you think that the commitment to sustainable buildings has helped your reconstruction effort?
This small town needed something to grab on to and rally around, and green was the perfect answer. Green's going to help us in tourism; it's going to help us in building. It's going to help us bring in volunteers. It's going to help us bring new business and better buildings and new families.
And you don't get off that message. If you get off that message, then we're going to fail.
The fact is, we're still being talking about two and and half years after the storm. It's that motivator that continues to tell us, "Hey, we're going to survive this thing, and we're going to come out better." This tornado has become an opportunity, rather than this horrible tragedy.
We're going to rebound from this, and be better.
Is there a lesson here for other towns?
Small-town America is struggling today. We know that. We can be an example that you can turn things around.
Maybe towns in the future will look and say, "Hey, what did Greensburg do to revitalize their community?" And we can show them some practices, some ways we did things so that they can be better. It's really a unique opportunity for any small town.
Do you think there's an opportunity here to change the some of the negative perceptions about government? You know, the idea that it's bureaucratic and wasteful?
I struggle with that, because I just don't know if people sometimes realize what it takes to do the job. And it seems so simple from afar. When you're engaged in the bureaucracy and the details, it's not so easy. Rebuilding requires a very methodical, detail-oriented way of doing business — working with engineers, working with planners, working with the city attorney, working with the council members. It just works a certain way.
Government gets a reputation of being slow. We are slow. We can't just snap our fingers and do it tomorrow. It doesn't quite work that way; it has to go through a certain process. There's rules and regulations, and checks and balances. It's the public's money, so we have to be very transparent. Sometimes in the past, when governments haven't been as transparent, you know, people look at government like, "Oh, they're just corrupt. They waste money."
I think in our case, I'm proud to say that every decision we've made has been very calculated. We've been very, very transparent. It's an ongoing thing that we had to be aware of: Transparency has just got to be a part of government today.Being transparent and being honest with the public goes a long way.
How do you think the role of city manager plays into that?
I think professionalism is more key today than ever before. These small towns that may not have professionals, that just have elected officials run the government, I think they'll struggle. I think when you hire professionals and demand that professionals bring you plans and bring you details and substance, I think they'll be successful.
You talked about what got you into public service in the first place. What's kept you there?
That's a good question. I mean, it's been difficult. It's been difficult on my family and my friends. You know, I've been away. I'm not at home. It absorbs you. It becomes a rush and you cannot get away from it. It's constant. It's who you are. It becomes your life.
We're tired, but these neat things that happen — buildings that come back, and people that come back, and jobs that come in — we get excited and that gives us the energy to keep going.
I'm here because I was hired to do this job. I was hired to be the city manager. That's exactly what I wanted to do. And I have an obligation to stick it out.