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Brick by brick: Fred Baker’s long view crafts Waynesville into model town

fr fredbakerFred Baker’s title isn’t particularly glamorous. For nearly three decades, he kept the potholes patched, the trash picked up, the sewer lines repaired, the clean water flowing, the lights on and the gutters swept all over Waynesville.

“It is a slow news day when public works is in the paper,” Baker said.

But Baker had an alias, something that could never be captured in his job description of public works director or town engineer – that of chief visionary.

Baker molded and manipulated the cityscape of Waynesville during his tenure, laying down the backbone for a vibrant village-esque setting. The hallmark features — pocket parks, pedestrian harbors, tree-lined sidewalks, brick-stamped crosswalks, landscaped islands — were all part of a grand plan.

Baker was a master at creating pleasant public spaces with the tiniest nodes of green space, serving up visual respites as well as physical ones. It’s surprising how much a bench under a shade tree can change the tone of the streetscape, even if it’s never sat on. 

Despite his lofty ideas, Baker was a pragmatist. A new urbanist town setting can’t be crafted overnight.

“He takes an incredibly long view for the community,” said Alison Melnikova, a former assistant town manager who worked with Baker for several years.

Over the years, Baker’s streetscape artistry expanded throughout downtown, gradually bringing side streets into the envelope, pushing the pedestrian, walkable feel outward one block at a time.

“You keep pecking away at it,” Baker said.

Bit by bit, Baker’s subtle strokes crafted the Waynesville people know today, a small town that kept its character amid the suburban sprawl sweeping the rest of America.

“He is the most artistic engineer you’ll find anywhere,” said former Mayor Henry Foy. “You can see Fred’s artistic touch throughout this town.”

But Baker won’t take any credit. He says town leaders were the ones with the vision. He was just implementing it on the ground.

“It all goes back to a town board that will support it,” Baker said.

Although his work will never be done, Baker retired last month, a move that came somewhat sooner than expected although not entirely as a surprise.

When Town Manager Marcy Onieal came on board two years ago, the outgoing town manager warned her that turnover among key department heads was imminent, with  several retirements coming down the pike over the next few years.

“I asked him ‘where’s the biggest hole I will have to fill?’ and he said, ‘Without a doubt it’s Fred Baker,’” Onieal recounted. “I have learned without a doubt, that is true.”

Onieal called Baker’s institutional knowledge “unrivaled.”

“Fred has truly been a jack of all trades for this town,” Onieal said. “Virtually everything in this town, large and small, Fred has had his finger on in some form.”

That includes venues the public works guy doesn’t normally dabble in, like economic development initiatives and recreation projects.

“He is like three people put together,” said Melnikova.

The town put the wheels of a succession plan in motion earlier last year. A new public services director, David Foster, began assuming Baker’s public works oversight, while Baker phased into the more limited role of utilities director.

But many see Baker as simply irreplaceable. 

“I know how much knowledge is going out the door when he goes out the door,” former Town Manager Lee Galloway said.

 

Getting the job done

Despite the lasting visible testament of Baker’s legacy, there were always the nuts and bolts of public works to attend to: picking up garbage, replacing broken water lines, changing bulbs in street lights, running the street sweepers.

The daily grind of simply picking up trash, yard waste and recycling is never ending.

“Part of it is really like running a big, old trucking company,” Baker said.

It’s rarely appreciated and only noticed if something goes wrong.

The lion’s share of public works is never-seen, and that suited Baker’s modesty.

“Fred always liked to be in the background doing the work,” said Galloway, who worked with Baker more than two decades. “I knew I could depend on Fred.”

Baker spent much of his career whipping the town’s underground water and sewer system into shape. While out-of-sight, out-of-mind to most, the lines that run beneath the street were always on Baker’s radar.

“The day you put a pipe in the ground, it’s as good as it is going to be. It is all downhill from there,” Baker said.

That’s a daunting thought, given the 140 miles of pipes in the town’s system, each with an average life expectancy of 70 years.

“You better be putting in 2 miles of new lines a year, or you are getting behind,” Baker said.

It’s tempting to put off water and sewer line maintenance. When Baker came on board, the town was paying the price of procrastination.

“For quite a few years, we were putting out fires and fixing leaks and repairing lines. Now we are pretty well caught up. We aren’t overwhelmed with leaks,” Baker said.

But yet again, Baker credited town leaders for their forethought.

“Waynesville has been blessed with good governance. They have been planners — they plan ahead,” Baker said.

Others give the credit to Baker, however.

“Fred thinks ahead. He has a five-year plan, a 10-year plan,” said Philan Medford, an active resident in town affairs.

Baker credits smart, dedicated department heads over each branch of public works — the electric system, the water plant, the sewer plant, streets and trash and water and sewer lines.

“They worked hard to make me look good all the time,” Baker said. 

With capable point men at the helm, Baker could focus on the big picture, even when it came to little things, like ordering new streetlights. Baker valued the night sky and several years ago switched to a new style of streetlight that directed light downward, baffling light pollution from obscuring a view of the stars.

 

By the bootstraps

The vision Waynesville has realized over the past two decades carried a price tag.

“That’s kind of what I do, spend other people’s money,” Baker said.

But Baker was cognizant of picking projects that would deliver bang for the buck.

“It is always about wanting to go first class all the way and not really having the money to do that,” Baker said. At the same time, Baker didn’t like to do things second rate. 

“It takes a long-term view, but sometimes short-term, you can’t get the money you need,” Baker said.

So Baker had other ways around the reality of tight pursestrings: a well-versed, multi-talented public works crew. The way to get things done without money is to do them yourself.

Baker’s public works crews were routinely pressed into service installing landscaping in public parking lots, replacing concrete sidewalks with brick pavers, chunking out planting holes for street trees, putting up fancy lamp posts – all of it fit in around the routine chores of running street sweepers and snow plows and mowers.

Aside from manpower, Baker could transform a city block with nothing more than a pile of bricks and a few saplings.

“He could work on a shoestring,” said Medford, a town resident who’s been a proponent of aesthetically pleasing public spaces over the years.

Baker said his men never balked at the extra jobs he threw their way.

“It is nice to do something that is new and creative,” Baker said. “They’re like anyone else. They like to have a little satisfaction when they drive by something they’ve done.”

Eddie Caldwell, the town’s finance director, worked alongside Baker for more than 20 years and appreciated his frugality.

“He is not going to spend it unless it is reasonable,” Caldwell said.

But he also appreciated Baker for understanding the everyman.

“If you have an engineering type question, Fred will break it down for me in laymen’s’ terms,” Caldwell said.

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown has been on the receiving end of Baker’s laymen’s explanations as well.

“There may have been technical jargon behind it, but he could make it very simple,” Brown said.

 

A helping, guiding hand

Waynesville would be a different place if Baker was the kind of guy who said “no.” But Baker’s not one to take the easy way out, and he almost always looked for a way to say “yes.”

When the Frog Level Merchant’s Association wanted fancy lampposts like Main Street a couple years back, the public works crew rolled up their sleeves to help. Merchants raised the money for 20 lampposts, and the town workers installed them.

And when the bicycle community recently asked for help marking popular road bike routes, Baker put street crews to work blazing asphalt with “share the road” bicycle icons.

But given Baker’s classic modesty, he deflected his supporting role as merely doing his job.

“You don’t survive in a job like that for 28 years if you don’t want to help people,” Baker said.

It was the cycling community that stepped up first, he said, spearheading the creation of a countywide bicycle plan, which in turn was endorsed by town leaders.

Baker took that as marching orders to bring the power of the public works department to bear.

“The town supported it and they are going to want to see some tangible results from it,” Baker said. “It is just flying the flag with a visible project for a good bunch of community-minded bicyclers.”

Baker is a personal advocate of biking, occasionally biking to work, especially on National Bike To Work Day.

But more often, Baker could be seen tooling into town hall on his moped.

“I am reducing my carbon footprint,” Baker said of his avant garde transportation means.

Baker got the scooter after a trip to Europe to visit one of his kids who was studying abroad for a semester.

“You see businessmen in suits riding the scooters,” Baker said.

The revolution is slower-coming statewide, however, and for now, Baker is the only 6-foot-8-inch man on a moped you’re likely to see in Waynesville.

In keeping with the Renaissance spirit, Baker has a diverse set of hobbies, far different from your typical straight-laced engineer. He likes the full gamut of outdoors, not just biking but paddling and skiing and the like.

He is a regular at the Friday night square-dances on Main Street during summer months, and he also starred in the inaugural ballroom dancing charity competition, coined Dancing with the Mountain Stars.

He raised three equally well-rounded children, now grown. One is a doctor who graduated from the University of Virginia, one is a pre-school teacher and dance instructor who went to the University of North Carolina, and one is teacher with a divinity degree from Princeton.

Grandchildren have been blamed in part for his accelerated retirement.

 

A different lens

Being receptive to new ideas is one of Baker’s strengths. If an idea had merit, he was willing to try it.

When he heard about a public art program in Grand Junction, Colorado, where artists donated sculptures for public display on downtown sidewalks, Baker was all about it. He called the person in charge of it, and soon Waynesville was on its way to launching its own signature public street art initiative.

While Baker was known as a champion for walkable communities and creating a town with a sense of place, he’s again reluctant to take credit. He may have carried the torch, but he says he didn’t light it.

Instead, he points to other community figures, like Ron Huelster, the long-time director of the Downtown Waynesville Association who led the Main Street revitalization of the 1990s.

“He was quite a visionary person for Waynesville,” Baker said. Huelster routinely invited experts in land-use planning and smart growth to share what were then cutting-edge concepts.

“I can’t even remember all the nationally known development guys he would bring in here to put on a little seminar,” Baker said.

Baker listened, learned and embraced the philosophies.

“Basically, I was a water and sewer engineer,” Baker said. He knew little about creating pedestrian-friendly environments. But he was receptive to the movement now widely known as new urbanism.

“You talk to people who make a case for a better pattern of development, and it makes sense,” Baker said.

Huelster said the ideas never would have taken root without Baker, however.

“He was always very creative and positive,” Huelster said. “Fred always worked behind the scenes, but if you don’t have the support of the person in charge of public works, there’s not much you can do.”

Buffy Messer, current director of the Downtown Waynesville Association, said Baker has been a “go-to” source for the downtown community.

“We valued his energy, knowledge and guidance to improve the downtown area for businesses, residents and guests,” Messer said.

Baker claims elected town board members were a more critical ingredient to the town’s progress than himself.

“I am appreciative of the people in Waynesville for putting people who have values in office,” Baker said. 

Baker was also willing to hear ideas brought forward from town residents, like Mib Medford, a local proponent of smart growth. He remembers her emailing photos while traveling in Scandinavia asking “why don’t we have this in Waynesville?”

 

Indeed, why not?

Baker began subscribing to catch-phrases like the “asphalt diet,” which aims to soften the visual appeal of streets and parking lots with trees and landscaping.

“It’s about having a community based for people, and not letting the automobile dominate,” Baker said.

When Waynesville rolled out a progressive smart growth land-use plan in the early 2000s, the town engineer in the pubic works department was its unlikely chief ally.

In one of his many lasting legacies, Baker emerged as an important voice in the debate over widening the Old Asheville Highway. Baker lobbied against the idea of widening it to five lanes, instead advocating for fewer lanes with sidewalks, bike lanes and stretches of landscaped medians — including a roundabout, considered experimental at the time. It was all very forward-thinking then, but the principles have since been adopted as mainstream by highway planners.

“His expertise and knowledge is incredible,” said Medford, who worked alongside Baker to lobby for a better design of the Old Asheville Highway.

 

A thoughtful steward

For years, Baker could ponder ideas for a better downtown with a bird’s eye view from his second-floor corner office overlooking Main Street. He gave that up when the new town hall was built, and his office moved. He also had to give up his filing system.

“There were stacks of paper all over his office and he knew exactly where to find everything,” said Phyllis McClure, the town clerk for much of Baker’s time with the town.

McClure said Baker saw himself as a steward of something bigger than any one person. When developers would ask for a break on water and sewer hook-up fees, Baker would reply “It’s not mine to give away,” McClure recalled.

“He always looked out for the best interest of the town,” she said.

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown, who’s been on the town board for 16 years, said there’s a few things you learn quick about Baker.

“There is no such thing as favoritism or cronyism in Fred’s vocabulary,” Brown said. “And if you walked in his office without your numbers, you may as well walk right back out again.”

Baker kept a blazer on a hook behind his door, in case he needed to spiffy up before heading to a meeting. But town employees had a running joke about the blazer: he kept it on hand in case he had to step into the role of interim town manager. 

Baker actually served as interim town manager five times during the earlier years of his tenure, all within a short but rocky climate in town politics.

Earl Clark, a former town board member, remembered hiring Baker in 1986. Several were interviewed, but Baker stood out.

“His ability and desire to do the job and do it right” set him apart, Clark recalled.

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