His father, a WWII veteran and military psychologist born in Nebraska but raised in Iowa and Colorado, found himself stationed in the high Sierras during the Korean War. Hites was born there, in Reno, in 1952, shortly before the family relocated to Alabama, where as a young man he witnessed firsthand the civil rights movement from its epicenter in Birmingham.
When he was 13, Hites’ family again moved because his father decided to leave Birmingham-Southern College to become a professor of psychology at Greensboro College in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was there that Hites attended high school and graduated from UNC-Greensboro.
SEE ALSO: The ‘man’ behind the ‘manager’
Smoky Mountain News: So how did you end up getting into municipal government?
Rob Hites: Completely by accident. I was a history major at the time looking towards law school, and I got placed out of an anthropology course which was an elective. So I went to my advisor and said, “I need a kind of easy course,” and he said, “Well, go take an urban government course. They have a new professor there, he’s bound to be easy.”
So I took this introduction to local government course and while my professor was teaching it, he invited the mayor of Greensboro (Jim Melvin), who was my former Sunday school teacher, to the class. Mayor Melvin saw me and said, “Do you like this kind of thing? I need an intern, and we pay $2.50 an hour.” That was about twice as much as I’d ever made in my life, so I became the mayor’s intern. I thought that city government and the management of city government was fascinating, so I changed majors to political science and urban government and worked for the city of Greensboro.
SMN: And where did that lead you?
RH: I went to a little town called Gibsonville, and they had their first manager, so I wrote their first zoning ordinance and subdivision ordinance and stuff like that. At the end of that, I went to grad school at American University in Washington, D.C., and worked full time for the General Accounting Office and then helped set up the Federal Election Commission. I was one of their first 16 employees.
That’s how I worked my way through grad school, and I was working for the federal government until I got a job as an assistant to the manager of Durham, so I came back to North Carolina and worked there for a couple of years.
SMN: Durham’s similar but different, as compared to Waynesville — both have come a long way, but Durham’s much more diverse. What did you learn there?
RH: What I learned about Durham is that in order to progress in a diverse community, you have to compromise, and when compromise is made great things can happen.
When compromise doesn’t happen, the community permanently fractures into different groups and they essentially stare at each other, kind of like daring each other to do something. What I found is that Durham had a 13-member city council, and 13 members is too many people to run a city. When the council would get together on a project, Durham could really get its act together. But when the community split, it was just ugly.
We used to say that Durham in the late 70s was a little like the fissure between the liberal pro-integration South and the old Confederate South — the fissure ran right through Durham. Durham changed, and I’m certain it probably still has some of the vestiges of that, but Durham’s made incredible progress, and you can tell when you drive through it. They’ve finally mended most of their political fences.
SMN: So when did you finally become a city manager?
RH: My first job as a city manager was in a little town called Pittsboro, which is south of Chapel Hill by about 15 minutes. While there in Pittsboro, I was approached by a private development company in Greensboro.
SMN: Yes, you took a six-year foray into the private sector. Was that related to your experience in government?
RH: I helped them with their site plans, rezoning requests, and their interactions with government as they developed properties. They built shopping centers and apartment complexes and things like that, so I quit local government and I went with them. I became a real estate broker and a general contractor, so I learned the private sector development side, and as a contractor, I physically built buildings. I made presentations for councils, for developments, and even managed the sales force.
So I learned real estate development, construction, marketing, and retail leasing. And while I didn’t stay in that profession, it helps me to this day because cities build so much. Learning real estate marketing helps me with the economic development, and retail leasing helps me understand what commercial realtors need. Also, when developers or people are looking at locating a businesses, I kind of understand how their deal will be structured on the private market. So that’s always helped me.
SMN: Sounds a lot more fun and a lot more creative than managing a town. Why did that end?
RH: When Reagan changed the tax laws, he changed a very important law involving what’s called ACIR — Advanced Cost Investment Return. It allowed people to depreciate real estate in five years rather than 30.
We had a lot of limited partnerships with doctors and other wealthy people that we used as our money to build apartments and stuff. So when the Reagan administration did away with ACIR, all our money dried up, so they rounded us all up and fired us and did away with the construction division of the company. I found myself unemployed and I went back into local government and became manager of Southport.
SMN: Southport’s about as far as one can get in North Carolina from Waynesville — culturally, economically and geographically. What was that like?
RH: It’s south of Wilmington at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. I really liked Southport. I still love Southport. I love the people, I loved the board. I really enjoyed it. I met my wife there. She was a planner with the city of Wilmington. Any time you meet your wife somewhere, you know it’s a special place. It’s just a phenomenally beautiful city. But frankly, my goal was to run a larger government than Southport — they had about 50 employees.
Because I had some ambitions beyond Southport, I applied for and got the manager’s job in Lumberton.
SMN: Another distinctive community. How did your previous experience prepare you for that situation?
RH: Watching council members, and their art of diplomatic language, that helped me out because Lumberton’s really unique, a tri-racial community.
SMN: And how did that change the ruling dynamic from somewhere like Durham?
RH: Robeson County is one-third Native American, one-third Black, and one-third white. For the first time in my career, I was in a community that had three races and that actually worked really well.
The reason is because to get anything done, two of the races had to compromise; 80 percent of the time, our votes on the city council were 9-0, no problems. On occasion when there was a split, somebody had to compromise with somebody else either to defeat it or pass it.
And they were floating coalitions. One of my council members used to say, “We hate each other equally.”
It was just a fascinating thing to see the whites and Native Americans vote down something that was being done purely for racial reasons, and then turn around and the very next thing on the agenda the Blacks and the Native Americans vote down the whites. Having a three way split probably worked better for politics than anything I ever saw.
SMN: But then you left Lumberton for Statesville, your most recent permanent position as a manager, and you were there for a long time, so it obviously will have a lot of influence on your work in Waynesville. How do you think what happened there will contribute to what’s going to happen here?
RH: I left Lumberton in 1998 to go to Statesville, and we did a tremendous amount of urban revitalization. The year after I left Statesville, they finished a $9 million downtown renovation, which made the downtown a newer version of what you’ve already got in Waynesville.
SMN: True. A lot of the heavy lifting in Waynesville has been done over the past 30 years by the Downtown Waynesville Association. Where does a “revitalized” downtown go from here?
RH: There’s some talk about revitalizing some of the areas in and around Waynesville now that the downtown’s taken off; I also did a lot of economic development work with our director of economic development in Statesville. We were the number one micropolitan community in the nation for recruiting industry for a number of years, so I did a number of deals, and we set up small business and business parks and outfitted some buildings and stuff like that.
SMN: When you start your job in Waynesville on Aug. 22, you’re not coming straight from there, though. What have you been up to for the past 4 or so years?
RH: Probably foolishly, when I reached 60 I decided I was going to retire. So I retired and went in to the local government retirement system, and I guess within a few months of retiring, I got contacted by the city of Monroe and asked to be their interim city manager. I retired too young. I got bored, like a dog on a chain.
I was the interim in Monroe for 10 months. I enjoyed it thoroughly. After Monroe, I thought it was time to find another city.
SMN: So how did you find Waynesville?
RH: Waynesville came up by accident. I had interviewed to be interim manager. The board and I hit it off. I really was excited about Waynesville. I spent some time before my interview driving around especially downtown, and here it was January, and the place was mobbed! And I just couldn’t believe it. It was stunningly beautiful. And while I didn’t get the job, the council asked me to apply for the permanent job.
SMN: The search for a permanent town manager seemed to be proceeding nicely, and was down to two candidates. But you weren’t one of them.
RH: I understand the council interviewed a couple and they just hadn’t clicked, and they remembered me from my interview, so they asked me would I be interested in interviewing again, and we clicked even better. And so they offered me the job a couple Fridays ago.
SMN: And what was appealing about that offer?
RH: I’d been approached by a number of other towns to manage them, but the school systems just didn’t measure up. The reputation of Tuscola and what they are teaching is one of the reasons we were interested in Waynesville, where we weren’t interested in other cities. It’s a really phenomenal educational program there.
Aside from the physical beauty of the city and the incredible spirit of the city — you can feel the incredible energy of the city when you walk through it — and that’s exciting.
SMN: Exciting, for sure. How do you plan to manage all the excitement? What’s your style?
RH: Very informal, for one thing. I deliberately try to keep the organization malleable and upbeat with a little bit of a sense of humor, so that the citizens feel like the service they’re getting is being provided by somebody who likes their job and enjoys their work and is bending over backwards to help out.
We in government get the reputation of only saying no, and we do have to say no on occasion but what I try to do is instill in the employees that their attitude ought to be, “I understand what you’re doing, let me help you do it. There’s certain things you can’t do because there are ordinances against it, but rather than tell you no, let me help you succeed.”
And especially with economic development and stuff like that, there’s kind of an attitude that when you come in and want to do something the only thing that’s going to happen is the government’s going to tell you what you can’t do. Well my attitude is — the building codes are there, the zoning ordinances are there, and there’s nothing the staff can do about the ordinances, but we can help you work your way through them.
SMN: And as you went through the interview process in Waynesville, did you get a sense of — perhaps by the questions they asked — a sense of what they were looking for in a town manager?
RH: They were looking for a manager that was very customer-friendly, and worked very well with department heads and staff. I’m a very informal guy, I have an open door policy, where a department head needs to see me, they don’t have to make an appointment two days in advance. I feel like my job is to make sure that all my staff members are served before I do my own personal work. Any time a council member needs to see me that takes precedence, but I want the citizens and employees to know I’m not sitting with a locked office with a do not disturb sign on my door.
SMN: Town managers here in the past have had, let’s say, an interesting time managing staff.
RH: I work very hard at staff development. I don’t believe the manager is there to micromanage the department. You don’t hire highly trained department heads only to have the manager do their job for them. It’s insulting.
SMN: So how do you foresee yourself encouraging them to do their own thing while still being part of a team?
RH: One of my other big jobs is to work with council and structure a program of work that meets their long-term and short-term policy goals, and to ensure the staff orients their program of work to the council’s program of work.
One of the criticisms of professional staff sometimes is that they get into their own professional niches so that it almost appears that the council is working for the staff, and not vice versa. So I always have to make sure that staff members understand that the council sets the program of work and the tone.
You might be — and this has nothing to do with Waynesville — hypothetically an electrical engineer working for the electrical department and there’s a new toy coming out, and if you’re the engineer and become completely focused on that toy, the city council may not want to spend $2 million on an automatic meter reading system. But you’ve got to have it because that’s what all your colleagues have.
My job is to say, “Well I think the AMR is a wonderful toy, but council’s not focused on spending $2 million on it. Get over it right now. They want to build a fire station or they want to do something else.” So you sometimes have to let the staff member know that once they’ve made their pitch to council about a new program or new something, and council doesn’t want to do it, put it aside. It’s not your job to tell the council what they’re doing.
SMN: What sort of objectives do you have for your first year in Waynesville?
RH: My goal in the first year is to try to learn the first names of every employee. And that’s hard because I don’t remember names well. That’s one of my big failures — it’s embarrassing because I see people I should know in the office and I’m tongue-tied. I try to go out and catch the police department when they’re changing shifts, walk through the fire department and the public works department before they get away in the morning and meet all the employees.
At night what I’ll do is read the city’s code of ordinances, the charter, and the zoning ordinance because if a citizen comes to you on your second day, they’re not going to want you to say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
SMN: What are you looking forward to on your first day of work? Or first week?
RH: In the first few days, I look forward to getting to spend time with the mayor and the board, getting to know the departments and the directors of the area NGOs, the economic development folks, people in the community. That first week is exciting, but there’s also a lot of anxiety in it because you try to touch so many people so quickly that the first week usually leaves you pretty tired.
But usually what I try to do is sit down with the mayor and say, “What should I do out in the community?” Because I know what to do with the staff — this is my fifth or sixth city. So I meet with the department heads let them know my name is not Mr. Hites, and that I’m just an employee. I’m their mentor and their friend, as well as their manager.