The Coast RTA board of directors interviewed its three finalists Friday for the vacant general manager position and all three were able to pitch how they can turn the image and the direction of the agency around.
Mickey James, a board member for Coast RTA and head of the search committee for the next general manager, said the pool of 21 applicants was narrowed down several times before the four-member committee decided on the three finalists.
“We were looking for someone who had good managerial skills and is a good people person,” James said. “Someone who could work politically within the community structure and also work at the state and federal government. More of a community builder, someone who can reach out into the community. A community-minded person.”
James said the committee is well aware of the agency’s public reputation after the April firing of Myers Rollins and a failed bus shelter program.
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“We wanted someone who could repair the image of Coast,” James said. “Coast needs a lot of repair, image wise.”
James said there is no timeline set to hire a new general manager. Julie Norton-Dew, interim general manager, will keep the helm until a new leader is found. He said the board has also not set a salary range.
The three finalists are James Perez, former chief executive officer for Central Maryland Regional Transit; Barney McCoy, service and capital planning manager for Broward County (Fla.) Transit; and Brian Piascik, transit group manager for URS Corp.
McCoy said his experience with drafting business plans and strategic plans prompted him to apply for the Coast RTA general manager job, but his biggest selling point was his wife’s affinity for the area.
“She used to always have good things to say about it,” McCoy said. “We used to live in Hampton Roads (Va.) and I’d ask her to describe it and she’d say it’s like you’re walking on Virginia Beach, it’s the same thing as Myrtle Beach. I thought it was an interesting place. And, again, what I know about the agency … there might be a niche in terms of my skill set and what they need.”
McCoy prides himself on strong leadership skills and the ability to identify problems and work through them as a team. He said he knows dedicated funding will be a top priority if given the nod as the next general manager at Coast.
“If you talk to any transit agency throughout the country, funding is their first through 10 items,” McCoy said. “We need to sit down and try to find some creative ways to get things funded.”
He said the service area’s wide demographic – stretching from Georgetown County north to the state line – would prompt him to create pockets of service crafted to their needs.
“Transit is about identifying markets,” McCoy said. “I do know the area out here is spread out, so we would need to identify markets and tailor your services to those markets … When you get the community involved and you can reach out to the community, it’s really a grassroots type of change.”
McCoy said he has worked with ridership numbers that change drastically from season to season in his role in Broward County, which is something Coast deals with on an annual basis.
He also said he would have no problem being transparent with government entities who ask for strict reporting of financials, as Horry County has requested this last year.
“Florida has, without a doubt, some of the broadest public records laws that you could imagine in the country,” McCoy said. “So everything we do is based upon a notion that it has to be transparent.”
Perez began his transportation career in the 1980s as a customer service representative and worked his way up through various companies to a CEO title at the Central Maryland Regional Transit.
He said working in various roles for different transit agencies has allowed him to understand what a transit company’s workers go through to keep operations going. Perez also said he has followed some of the challenges Coast RTA has gone through.
“There are a lot of challenges, but I think I have some of the skills and assets to help get through those,” Perez said. “Some of the challenges are not just unique to Coast RTA. Similar-sized agencies are having the same type of challenges. For example, finding money for bus procurements. Staffing issues. One of the things I focus on is to ensure that my staff was trained properly to make sure they have the skills to do the job.”
He said his experience with procurements, various construction projects and working with the Transportation for Regionally Accessible Communities in Kansas program where he helped get 336 high-tech bus stops implemented are some of the reasons that make him most qualified for the position.
Perez last served as CEO of Central Maryland’s transit in July when the agency became an organization that served a region. It’s that regionalization that he likes about Coast.
“I’ve always believed in regionalization and here, and I think some of the elected officials really need to know that this is a regional entity, so if you put in a dollar and they put in 50 cents, it should go to the same regionalization outlet,” Perez said. “... I think I can do some really good work here.”
He said, if chosen, he would be persistent in his quest to find ways to save the agency money.
“There’s room to grow and one of the things I want to stress that we have to, as taxpayers, be good stewards of our money,” Perez said. “So if we could find some efficiencies and effectiveness in our services, then we can provide more services.”
Piascik is no stranger to the Carolinas or the Grand Strand. In fact, he’s played plenty of golf here and even had his bachelor party here.
Just across the stateline in North Carolina, he and his family make an annual summer trip.
“It’s a little bit of a coming home for me,” Piascik said. “I have a pretty good understanding of the issues here and I have a pretty good understanding of the lay of the land.”
He has spent 14 years in the private sector, and worked in the public sector before that at a place in Massachusetts that is similar to the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study.
“I have 16 years of public sector experience,” Piascik said. “There’s not a lot of difference. There are still a lot of projects, and, with this, I get to focus on one geographic area. I’m very interested in finding dedicated funding for the agency. I’ve been helping other agencies do that around the country.”
By no means is the Grand Strand just leisure for Piascik. In 2008, he worked with the city of Myrtle Beach on a streetcar project. He also worked at the state level with a transportation coordination study for the state’s 10 different regions and he worked with Coast RTA in 2010 on its last transit development plan.
“I’m an answer guy,” Piascik said. “I get to do the benefit cost analysis of why we should do something and then let the politics play it out.”
He already has ideas for Coast, which includes moving its hub from Conway and building public trust.
“I’m a big proponent of moving the facility to the other side of the waterway,” Piascik said. “It’s going to save anywhere from $150,000 to $250,000 in operating costs. I think that’s a huge deal that will, like anything else, take money to do.
“This agency needs to develop trust and transparency with the entities that are funding it. That’s huge. There’s just no trust right now. So it may take a long time to get to dedicated funding and I realize that, but it’s no way for a transit system to live, to have to go to the hand that feeds it every year. You can’t do anything proactive.”
He said, if chosen, the agency would also work on earning more money from tourists.
“We need more tourists on the bus,” Piascik said. “That’s what this system needs to be predicated on. It can do a lot of the public service and provide a lot of jobs and it can also do tourism-based projects. To me, that’s the first place to go to look at tourism-based funding, especially since it’s paid for by people out of town.”