One of Bo Ferguson's first challenges as Hendersonville's city manager involved the delicate question of moving graves.
The widening of U.S. 64 through Oakdale Cemetery called for the relocation of dozens of graves, many of which were in a part of the cemetery that had historically been devoted to African-American families. The idea triggered strong emotions not only from the families but also from the community at large.
"To me that's kind of a touchstone project that shows how it's supposed to work," Ferguson said in an interview two weeks after he announced his resignation to become assistant city manager in Durham. "I was a part of that but it was really led by Councilman Steve Caraker and we had an outside consultant and we had a community steering group and we had DOT and we came up with a solution that left 98 percent of the graves that were supposed to be moved alone, and the solution's working and the traffic's moving.
"I'm really proud of that but it also underscores the fact that I don't do anything by myself here. The council in the first meeting I was here said we need to get involved, we need to play a role in solving this, and a year later we had an idea and 2½ years later we had a road."
Ferguson eschews credit for threading the needle on that job but council members and the public would recognize in the Oakdale Cemetery solution a classic Ferguson finesse. He has more than once maneuvered the council through perilous shoals in a way that seems effortless from the outside but that requires a skill for turning knobs and pulling levers behind the scenes. Whether it's ordering a tough internal affairs report on the Green Meadows shooting, easing the town through water restrictions during a drought or guiding the City Council through three disruptive Main Street makeovers, Ferguson over the past five years has led the city through change. He leaves with scarcely a bruise, a testament both to his political savvy and administrative skill.
He is departing with mixed feelings, he says — a heavy heart for leaving a town he loves and enthusiasm for the challenge ahead.
"Two months ago I had no intention of leaving for years," he said. "We're extremely happy here. This is a tremendous community. This is a fantastic job, and I had not applied for any other job. I had not looked at applying for any job in the time I've been here. I just got wind of this opportunity from a mentor and just out of sheer curiosity kind of looked into it, and things snowballed a little bit."
He was conflicted about leaving that at one point he even withdrew from the pool. The people recruiting him talked him into getting back in.
"Deciding that I was going to go in a different direction was agonizing for me and my family," he said. "That being said, the more I found out about the Durham opportunity, the more it sort of piqued my interest. It's a very large organization, lots of moving parts, lots of complexity... and ultimately that challenge seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity."
The Hendersonville Lightning asked Ferguson for his take on issues past and present.
"We've really got the best small town Main Street in the Southeast and one of the best in the country. I think my impression of Main Street is so much of its success is organic. I don't think the city tries to take credit for having created Main Street but I think the city and the council certainly deserve credit for making a lot of strategic decisions to help Main Street. I would say Main Street is a public-private partnership of the truest form. Two big things in my time are the infrastructure projects, which I've always gone out of my way to stress to people — as much as it's pretty, and people think it's about pretty — really was about all the infrastructure under the street that was causing a lot of back and forth and digging up holes and being in people's way, and we really just wanted to get out of that. The great thing about this project is that when we're done, we're done....
The other major thing that has been a tremendous boon for Main Street is transitioning to a city-run Main Street program. DHI (Downtown Hendersonville Inc.) built a great foundation, and I don't want to be seen as criticizing the work that they did, but I feel as though the stewardship of that program under the last year and a half under Lew (Holloway) and the Main Street committee have really diversified what they spend their time on.
The South gateway mound.
I'm very proud of that. People have their opinion and it may take a couple of years, as it does with any new landscape, to reach its full potential. But it's a tremendous improvement over what was there. The design from Luther Smith, the council's commitment to implement — it's just in its first phase. There are other phases, such as adding some public sculpture to the top of it.
I'm really proud of the council and the Main Street program for working through this the way they have. Selecting public art is always a hairy process. There's no democratic way to do something that is purely subjective and art is purely subjective. They should not in any way be disappointed in the difficulty of this because choosing public art, on a democratic body with five different individual tastes, is an impossible task. What I appreciate is their strong desire to create a sense of place on Main Street.... I think they're trying very hard to get a design they're comfortable with.
Water's been a recurring thing since I've been here. We started with the serious drought of 2008. I'm really proud that coming out of that we started the conservation program. We had some conversations with other stakeholders, including the county, that needed to happen and the drought really called the question on those.... I think our water system is one of the most efficient in the state, we have some of the best rates, and I think our City Council has shown that they are incredibly responsive to concerns in an effort to try to address those. In the drought, smack in the middle of our restrictions, some business owners said we think the restrictions don't adequately take our concerns into play and the City Council within two weeks had adopted some changes to try to be more flexible for businesses like carwashes and power washers ... I think the value of local control and the council's stewardship has really shown itself in the five years I've been here.
What about a regional water system
We have very strong reasons to believe that our customers are benefited from an independent system ... If you've been investing in your system for 30 or 40 years you've got equity in a good system. As a customer, you've been paying for capital projects and investments that you deserve the benefits of. You create a merged utility... suddenly our customers are on the hook for somebody else's water system. If we've built a great machine our customers deserve the benefit of that efficient machine going forward. I feel strongly that our customers would be saddled with a lot of cost with a merged system that they won't have with an independent system....
The Green Meadows shooting incident
Obviously an unfortunate event that we did our absolute best to respond to, both in terms of our outreach to the community, addressing any internal issues that we saw there, and trying to open the lines of dialogue. If any of us could go back and make that night happen differently I think we would. In any job you ever have, you're going to run into things that don't go the way you would have wanted them to. I judge us, my department and the city, by how we reacted to that. (In the response) we didn't get in the paper a lot because we didn't try to. We went out to Union Grove Church and had a sit-down with 15 folks in the neighborhood, we went around fixing homes where bullets had hit homes. We responded with personnel actions where we felt they were appropriate. We didn't do anything based on public pressure. We did things based on the evidence we could find.
I think Berkeley Park's really got an exciting future. Part of what we accomplished while I was here was building a second phase of the Oklawaha Trail, which linked Jackson Park to Patton Park and the future of that going on to Berkeley is really going to create a fabulous spine of recreational opportunities from the north end of the city to Jackson Park. It's a beautiful natural park. It's not going to have the same density as Patton Park.
Flat Rock Playhouse Downtown and the city's $300,000 investment
Flat Rock Playhouse Downtown has had a tangible positive economic impact on the Main Street environment. I think council's decisions to help them build that facility has proven the theory that if they brought that performance space downtown that the local businesses and the local environment downtown would benefit. I don't think the council has regrets... Assuming Flat Rock continues there will be a tremendous economic activity on Main Street as a direct result of their presence.
I would joke and say leaving. ... I'm never completely surprised in a democracy about an unusual outcome. I never am completely thrown off by that because democracy is a messy business and it's supposed to be. I would have liked to have been more helpful to the council for a vision for the Mill, if you're kind of looking for what could I have done better. I think they're very much committed to picking a future for that building. I think there's understandable frustration on the part of the community. I also think the council has been very diligent about exploring a number of activities.
Can you recall your best decision?
Yeah, coming to Hendersonville. I really don't mean to be funny when I say I don't make any decisions by myself. The best things I was involved in were decisions City Council made, I really defer to them when you talk about accomplishments and leadership. I hope your article won't say I accomplish these things because I don't. They did and I'm glad to have been on the team.