John Pedersen said when he was a young man starting his career in the public sector, he always knew he wanted to one day be a city manager.
The wish could be fulfilled as soon as Tuesday if he signs a contract with Myrtle Beach to become to new city manager, replacing Tom Leath who is retiring this year.
Pedersen said he had been content as assistant city manager in Myrtle Beach, but decided to apply for Leath’s position because he’d always wanted to serve a city in that role.
“The timing worked out for my career,” he said.
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Myrtle Beach City Council voted Monday to offer the position to Pedersen, 60, who has served as an assistant city manager since 2002.
Leath, who has been with the city for 29 years, announced in January he plans to retire by the end of the year.
“This is one of the most important decisions we’ve had to make in the past 25 years, choosing who is going to lead our city,” Mayor John Rhodes said Monday.
The city will negotiate a contract with Pedersen and it will be signed and made public at future City Council meeting, which could happen as soon as Tuesday.
Moving through the ranks of city government
A native of Seaford, Del., Pedersen moved to the South to attend graduate school at the University of North Carolina after receiving a bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Delaware.
“I’d only planned to stay in North Carolina for a few years but I ended up putting own roots and staying for almost 25 years,” he said.
Part of that had to do with the fact that he moved through the ranks with the city of Durham pretty quickly, moving from an administrative assistant in the finance department to being finance director by the time he was 26.
“At that time Durham was hiring a lot of younger people,” he said. “A lot of younger people got a lot of great experience early in their careers.”
He served as finance director in Durham for about 13 years and was promoted to assistant city manager in 1998.
Pedersen said he was a finalist to be Durham’s city manager, but lost the position to Marcia Conner – who later served as Atlantic Beach town manager where she was indicted on misconduct charges in 2008 – a woman he said he didn’t work well with, and decided to leave in 2002 for a position as assistant city manager in Myrtle Beach.
Leath said he remembers his interview with Pedersen well.
“He obviously brought a certain maturity to the interview,” Leath said. “There were several that were well qualified, but I thought his personality would work well with the folks we have here. He’s got a good sense of humor.”
Leath said he expects Pedersen will do a good job running the city once he hands over the reigns – which could happen as soon as Nov. 3, he said.
“He’ll be the manager then,” he said. “I’ll still be sort of wandering the halls while he works on the transition. It’s important that once the decision is made that council and staff looks at him as the manager, so I don’t want to continue to be the manager. ... I’ll be answering to him.”
Leath said he’ll continue to work with the city through the end of the year.
Getting settled in Myrtle Beach
Pedersen said it took some time to adjust to the pace of Myrtle Beach, which he said was quicker than in Durham.
“In Durham, being a college town, we moved at an academic pace,” Pedersen said. “Things operate at a much faster pace in Myrtle Beach. The last memo I wrote in Durham was 20 pages. I’d never write a 20-page memo here. People want their information fast and want to move on to the next thing.”
Leath and Pedersen said the fast-paced nature comes from the fact that many people only have the tourist season to make the majority of their money for the year. Things have spread out a bit with special events helping to bring people to town year-round.
“It used to be that everybody had to get everything done or planned within an eight-month time period,” Leath said. “We also tend to reinvent ourselves pretty quickly.. ... It adds to the push of making decisions and making them quickly.”
Pedersen said he is proud of the work he’s done to bolster tourism in the shoulder season – through special events and sports tourism – and looks forward to continuing to grow those markets.
Pedersen chairs the Special Events Technical Review Committee, which is comprised of staff members from various departments to look through the logistical details of proposed special events that will take place in Myrtle Beach. He said the committee has been around for about six years.
“A decade ago there were very few special events,” he said. “Now there are 50 major ones a year, and about 500 [smaller events] that don’t require City Council approval.”
Pedersen said the committee was created around the time of the recession after City Council expressed a desire to work to increase tourism through festival events.
Continuing the city’s work
Leath said while it might look like a small change from assistant city manager to city manager to an outsider, the jobs are vastly different.
“Ultimately you’re now responsible for everything,” he said. “When you’re in my office you don’t have the luxury of getting into projects. You’ve got to hover at 30,000 feet and make sure all the plates are spinning.”
Pedersen will have to lead the city through next year’s Memorial Day weekend safety plans, continue to grow tourism – specifically sports tourism – and handle the city’s $156.7 million budget.
City officials have worked since May to come up with a safety plan for Memorial Day weekend, which turned deadly this year. Three people died and seven were injured in eight shootings that weekend on Ocean Boulevard.
Getting control of the weekend, when tens of thousands flock to the Grand Strand to participate in Atlantic Beach Bikefest, Myrtle Beach Military Appreciation Days or to take advantage of a three-day weekend at the beach – is among the issues any new city manager would have to tackle.
“The biggest thing is to complete the plan for Memorial Day and begin the implementation for that plan, the training that’s necessary,” he said. “That’s the priority.”
And he said Pedersen’s decision-making time will need to speed up even more.
“If you’re the city manager here you’ve got to make decisions quickly,” Leath said. “You don’t have the luxury of mulling it over. You’re making decisions as you’re walking down the hall.”
He said that it also helps that Pedersen has a short learning curve, being that he’s served as the assistant city manager for almost 13 years.
“He’s bright, he cares, and he knows how the city operates,” he said.
Paul Edwards, director of the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, said he was glad to hear that City Council hired someone with knowledge of the way things run in Myrtle Beach.
“It puts [city department heads] in a comfortable situation because you know he knows the city and what the issues are,” he said.
Pedersen said one of the challenges he may face in the next five to seven years is that many of the senior staff members and department heads are near retirement.
“The organization is in really good shape,” he said. “There are a lot of really good people here. There’s a seniority issue in that most of the senior staff is within five years of retirement. I’m looking to make sure that the team stays the same.
“The people are changing ... but the team and what the organization stands for has to remain the same – to have that same first in service [motto] that the organization has had for years.”
City Council members said they were glad they went through the process of using an executive search firm to facilitate the hiring process.
More than 80 people applied to be the next city manager and Georgia-based Slavin Management Consultants narrowed the applicants to about 18. City Council interviewed six candidates before naming four finalists.
“I think we had some fine candidates for this position,” Councilwoman Susan Grissom Means said last week. “Some had the kind of experience that we might need in Myrtle Beach, but none had the advantage of being here for the past 12-and-a-half years. ... and the understand of what we do every year.
“I’m glad we went through this process,” she said. “I can be comfortable that we’ve looked around and seen what they have to offer.”
The city is awaiting final billing from Slavin, but could pay up to nearly $22,000 for the search firm’s services, as well as up to $7,000 in travel for the six candidates City Council interviewed before announcing four finalists.
The other finalists included Greer city administrator Edward Driggers – who withdrew his name late Oct. 19, former James City County administrator Robert Middaugh and Easley city administrator Jonathan “Fox” Simons.
Ron Andrews serves as the city’s other assistant city manager and Pedersen said Myrtle Beach has so much going on he thinks it needs to continue to have two assistant city managers.
“We’re not a big city population-wise, but we do big city things,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen said the position would be advertised and the city would go through a hiring process before he selected a new assistant city manager.
‘Putting down roots’ in the South
Pedersen said that meeting his wife, Brenda – a native of Durham -- was another reason he never returned to Delaware.
He said he met her during a recreation volleyball game and then again about six months later when she was moving into his apartment building.
“I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen,” Pedersen said. “She and her dad were moving a big piece of furniture and I went out and helped them. It was the chivalrous thing to do.”
The two married and have two daughters, Jennifer, 32, a teacher at the pre-school at Ocean View Baptist Church, and 26-year-old Kristyn, who is in a management program at Belk.
Pedersen moved to Myrtle Beach in February 2002 and his family followed that June after his oldest daughter finished high school and went on to attend Horry-Georgetown Technical College. His youngest daughter still was in middle school at the time and attended the Academy for Arts, Science and Technology before going to Coastal Carolina University.
The family has lived in North Myrtle Beach since moving to the area in 2002 and is looking for a place in Myrtle Beach. City ordinance requires the city manager live in Myrtle Beach, Pedersen said.
Brenda Pedersen, a retired registered nurse, said she is happy her husband is going to be able to fulfill one of his professional dreams, even if it is later in his career than expected.
“I’m very excited and support him completely,” she said. “It’s been a goal he’s wanted his whole career. And he’s so dedicated to this city. He wants to make this city great. He’s going to be a great city manager, though I might be a little biased.”
John Pedersen said he expects to finish his working career as Myrtle Beach’s city manager, working at least another eight years, when he would be eligible for retirement.
“This is where I’d like to finish my career, and this is the capacity I’d like to finish it in,” Pedersen said.