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How Galloway’s guiding hand set the stage for Waynesville’s success

coverTo some, it might seem like luck. But Waynesville’s rise as one of the state’s preeminent small towns has been anything but.

The quality-of-life magnetism Waynesville has become known for during the past two decades is instead largely owed to an intelligent design set in motion by its methodical town manager, Lee Galloway.


It’s not easy, of course, to balance the mundane — potholes to be filled, habitual speeders to be slowed, sewer lines to unclog — while steering a long-range course.

“Being town manager is a hard, thankless job. Somebody is on your butt every day, whether it is the board or town people, ‘this didn’t get done or that didn’t get done.’ But give the devil its due. He did a good job,” said Jack Nichols, a town board member in the ‘80s and ‘90s and owner of a local flower shop.

Nichols wasn’t always a Galloway fan. When Galloway first came to Waynesville from a series of town manager jobs in Georgia, he wasn’t the local boy many were used to being at the helm.

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But he buckled down and got to work, elevating Waynesville during the past two decades to its status as one of the most envied small towns in the state — one that has appeared on countless top 10 lists, racked up a laundry list of honors and become a model other towns long to emulate.

“If you take a picture of Waynesville 20 years ago compared to today, it is obvious somebody did a good job,” said Nichols. “I don’t think luck plays a part. I think it is the people who make up the town and the town fathers that pave the way. Right or wrong. At the end of the road, you can see what has been done.”

So just what has been done? Sure Galloway’s tenure could be boiled down to bullet points: a new police department, a new fire house, a new recreation center, downtown revitalization, building a walkable community one brick sidewalk at a time, and countless water, sewer and electric grid improvements.

But, it hardly captures the essence of Galloway’s time at the helm, how his subtle and understated persona worked tirelessly behind the scenes to move all the right pieces into all the right places at all the right times.

If Waynesville’s success wasn’t luck, what was its secret recipe? If there’s a single strategy that captures all Waynesville has done right, it’s this: don’t sell yourself short. Go big, or go home.

On a trip down memory lane his last week on the job, Galloway took a break from those bittersweet final days to take a driving tour of Waynesville with The Smoky Mountain News.

Galloway pulled up alongside exhibit A, the town’s well-designed new fire station posted prominently at the entrance to town.

It’s brick façade is wrapped in a rock foundation, decorated with stacked stone columns, dormer windows peaking out of the hipped tin roof and sparkling glass garage doors — features that pushed the project toward a $3.8 million price tag.

The town could have scraped by with about $2 million for a metal warehouse.

But, that type of fire station wasn’t on the table.

“We wanted to leave a lasting legacy for this community,” Galloway said.

In typical Galloway fashion, he credits others — in this case the philosophy of Henry Foy, mayor of Waynesville for 16 years and an architect by trade.

“I said, ‘Henry, it is going to cost more money,’ and he said ‘You need to make a statement about Waynesville, make it a monument building, say that we are something special and give the community something we can have a lot of pride in,’” Galloway said.

Ultimately, the town hiked the property tax rate in 2005 by 2 cents to pay for the fire station, along with a new town hall and police department. Apparently, the town leaders’ ideal of building a lasting legacy had rubbed off on residents during the years.

“Nobody came to the public meetings objecting to it,” Galloway said. “They knew where their money was going.”

The town holds private developers to the same design standards, mandating a modicum of curb appeal, from street trees and sidewalks to attractive building facades in commercial districts.

“Waynesville said, ‘If you are going to come here you are going to make it look decent,’” Galloway said.

Galloway arrived in Waynesville in the mid-1990s just in time to cut his teeth on a raging feud that would ultimately set the stage for Waynesville being an early comer to the smart growth trend.

The Old Asheville Highway was being widened, but the question was how. Conventional wisdom by road builders called for a five-lane cluttered with strip malls, stoplights and fast-food joints.

“We argued with the DOT to make it an attractive road and not just settle for five lanes of asphalt,” Galloway said.

The town claimed a partial win in the end, with a roundabout at the entrance to town, sidewalks, and a landscaped median.

It seemed a radical departure at the time from the idea that any and all growth was good no matter what form it came in.

“It was just a change of philosophy from growth and expansion to smart growth and making it attractive,” Galloway said. “Do we want to grow? Yes, but we want to do it in an intelligent, smart manner.”


Ace in the hole

Galloway admits Waynesville does have one dirty little secret behind its success, a cash cow it keeps in the closet for rainy days.

The town is one of the few in the state with its own electric utility. It buys power wholesale from Progress Energy and resells it to thousands of customers on its own electric gird, making a tidy profit each year that allows Waynesville to provide more perks than most towns its size.

Waynesville’s prized Recreation Center was built on the back of the electric fund. Two basketball courts, workout rooms, an indoor walking track, a huge indoor swimming pool and waterpark — a crowned jewel indeed for a town its size. Other towns across the state thinking of building a rec center come to Waynesville to get inspired.

“They say ‘How can we have recreation center like that?’ and I say, ‘Well, unless you have an electric system, it is going to be pretty difficult because that’s what provided the money for this,’” Galloway said.

It’s rare for a small town to be in the utility business — from building substations to maintaining a fleet of bucket trucks for electrical workers — and while hardly glamorous, it’s one of the many balls Galloway had to keep in the air each day.


Pride and joy

Making the rec center a reality was part of Galloway’s marching orders when he first took the job 19 years ago and indeed one of the things that attracted him to Waynesville.

The rec center was the first of many improvements undertaken during Galloway’s tenure to the sprawling recreation park Waynesville owns along Richland Creek. Greenway extensions, a dog park, a new playground, a disc golf course, and a second dog park — each year something new would turn up. This year, it was a new sidewalk leading to the rec center from downtown. New restrooms are in the works as well.

One project that hung over Galloway, uncompleted yet perpetually on the wish list, was a long-held dream to build a skateboard park. Despite years of fundraising and writing grant applications, the town had only made a small dent in the $300,000 price tag to build a skate park.

At the town’s annual planning retreat this year, Galloway finally called the question, so to speak.

“This project is lingering and lingering and lingering, and like my dad would have said, ‘We need to fish or cut bait,’” Galloway recalled telling the town board.

He wasn’t sure the town had the stomach to step up and foot the bill itself, however.

“I thought maybe Wells was going to be backing a hearse up and loading this project into the back of it and burying it,” Galloway said, referring to Alderman Wells Greeley, who runs a funeral home in town.

“Lo and behold the board said, ‘We want to do this thing,’” Galloway recounted.

Galloway in part credits the perseverance of Alderman Gary Caldwell, who’s pushed tirelessly for the skate park for more than a decade.

“He wouldn’t stop,” Galloway said. Also, “the board realizes not everything is a ball sport.”

Construction is slated to start within the year, but that doesn’t mean the town’s strides in recreation will be done.

“You’re never done. There are a lot of good things that have happened, but there are things for a new manager to do,” Galloway said.

That’s one thing that kept him here so long.

“There was always something else to do. There was always another project, another building, another waterline, another improvement to be made. I’ve been in other towns where it was boring,” Galloway said.


Walking a tight rope

While the rec center was Galloway’s first formal charge, he was thrown a curve ball shortly after taking office. He walked in on the middle of Hazelwood’s merger with Waynesville.

For decades, Hazelwood was Waynesville’s smaller next-door neighbor. But by the 1990s, Hazelwood was on the verge of bankruptcy. Nonetheless, being swallowed by Waynesville was an impalatable choice for the majority of its residents.

Galloway spent his first few months on the job as the new town manager navigating the emotional merger of the two towns.

“There was always this fear in Hazelwood that we were going to be treated like red-headed stepchildren. We tried to make sure that would never happen,” Galloway said. “We probably spent more on a per capita basis in Hazelwood just to kind of catch them up.”

Mary Ann Enloe was the mayor of Hazelwood when the merger occurred,

“I found him excellent to work with, very easy to work with and very easy to talk to,” Enloe said.

Even after Enloe said goodbye to her old office at Hazelwood’s town hall, she would be on the phone to Galloway, passing along concerns from the townspeople. He never brushed her off but always took her calls or returned them quickly if he wasn’t in.

“He understood the necessity for us to retain our identity,” she said.


Navigating political change

Town managers can often fall victim to the prevailing political winds. When elections bring turnover to a town board, managers can quickly find themselves on the outs with a new regime.

Those who want to last often have to keep their heads down and bow to the politics, even if it means taking the low road. But that’s not Galloway’s style.

“He has a high degree of ethics and always does the right thing for the right reasons,” said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed. “He didn’t make decisions based on politics or what was good for him personally but what was good for the town.”

Unwilling to go along with the politics du jour nearly cost Galloway his job during his first few years in Waynesville, however. Galloway got stuck in the middle of a power struggle between an old and new guard.

Galloway was ushering in a new era of a professionally run town government, a marked departure from the cozy good ole boy politics of yore. The old guard took a particular dislike to Galloway’s independent streak when it came to hiring.

“They wanted to do the hiring themselves. They wanted control of everything,” recalled former Mayor Henry Foy. “He had to fight that element. Lee was going to find the best person for the job. Too many people had been too used to the other way.”

Indeed, Galloway bucked the established power circles when filling town jobs and that landed him in hot water when he chose Hollingsed to serve as the town’s police chief in the late 1990s.

“I will always appreciate the risk he took going out on a limb to hire someone from outside,” Hollingsed said. “He was at risk of losing his own job to do what was right.”

As Galloway was staring down a heated town election between the two camps in the late ‘90s, he began looking for jobs elsewhere. It was a pivotal time.

“The other group wanted a mayor in there who would transcend the town manager,” Foy recalled. “They wanted control of everything. The town couldn’t go anywhere.”

Ultimately, the election went the other way, however, and Galloway withdrew his applications and hasn’t looked for another job since.

“Town hall has taken on a new look since he has been here. Not only the way it looks, but the inner workings of what goes on there,” Foy said.

One of the new town board members to oust the old guard that year was Gavin Brown, who later became mayor. Brown recalled worrying Galloway would leave after the election of 1999.

“I said, ‘Mr. Galloway, if you are going to leave, I am not going to run. I need a professional at the helm, and if you are going to leave, I simply won’t run,’” Brown said.

After that tumultuous election, the town board has seen remarkably little turnover, but it was precisely because of Galloway’s management style — one that kept the town moving forward and largely devoid of political controversy — that allowed the town board to keep winning re-election and, in turn, guaranteeing Waynesville was a place Galloway wanted to stay.

“Really Waynesville during his time has seen some of its golden years,” said Foy, who served 16 years on the town board.

Indeed, Galloway’s tenure was surprisingly devoid of conflict. The town board rarely saw split votes.

“His 18 years are probably the most civil and cooperative period in Waynesville’s history with local government,” said Ron Huelster, who was the director of the Downtown Waynesville Association for more than a decade. “I think a lot of that is due to Lee. He set the tone for an innovative and progressive local government and overcame this fractured attitude.”

Controversy isn’t a bad thing in a community. Competing views, each putting their best foot forward until one eventually prevails, is democracy in action. Of course, there’s a difference in healthy discourse, the kind that allows a community to hash out its ideals and values, versus the unhealthy kind, the petty feuding that is more often about personalities and power than honing a vision for the town.

“Lee could read the situation very well and direct the board out of getting into squabbles,” Huelster said.

Foy remembers the thing that he liked most about Galloway in his first interview for the job.

“He had a very gentle manner. You could tell that he could deal with people in a gentlemanly way,” Foy added.

That’s something that hasn’t escaped Woody Griffin, the town attorney for the past six years. Galloway, a stalwart UNC fan, forgave of Griffin his particular shortcomings.

“I am most appreciative of him showing me patience even though I went to Wake Forest,” Griffin said.

Every December, employees looked forward to the annual town employee Christmas lunch — not because of the food or getting a couple hours off of work, but because of the rolling punch lines Galloway lobbed as emcee of the event.

“If some chief executive officers tried to roast an employee, it would fall flat on its face. But he could roast an employee and have them laughing,” Mayor Gavin Brown said.

It worked because Galloway knew his employees.

“He knows their family, their children, what their hobbies are — it’s like these are friends of his as well as employees of his,” Galloway said.

That, in turn, made the management side of his job run seamlessly — another example of Galloway’s approach on the front end setting the stage for smooth sailing.

“There was no crisis management with Lee. That’s just not an issue,” Brown said.

Police Chief Hollingsed said Galloway was the perfect manager.

“He felt like he put people in place that were fully capable of running their departments, but if you needed advice, he was as hands on as you wanted him to be,” Hollingsed said.

It was the same with the town board: Galloway let the elected leaders do the leading. He didn’t strong-arm them or bend them to his thinking.

“There was never a time that Lee misled us or failed to give us any information we wanted or needed,” Brown said. “There were no secrets.”

Sure, he advised them, but usually from the sidelines. That’s where he preferred to be, even when there were accolades being dished out.

“You give your board credit,” Galloway said.

For him, “I get personal satisfaction.”

He took the same approach with town staff, not swooping in to take credit for their success or keeping them under his thumb.

“My philosophy in management has always been to hire good people and get out of the way,” Galloway said. “You are there to give them guidance and make sure they have funding.”

Galloway also knew when to get out of the way and let others run with a vision. There’s no better example than the remarkable downtown success seen under Galloway’s tenure.


Nurturing Main Street

Strolling the vibrant, bustling streets of downtown today, it’s hard to imagine Main Street was ever on the verge of drying up and blowing away. But it was, and the revitalization movement was just beginning to bear fruit when Galloway arrived in Waynesville in 1994. He credits downtown merchants and property owners for rallying together under the banner of the Downtown Waynesville Association to turn the tide.

“People like Ron Huelster didn’t need my help,” Galloway said, referring to the longtime director of the DWA. “He may have needed financial help, but he had enough innovative thoughts and ideas to know what needed to be done.”

Huelster said it wouldn’t have been possible without a partner like Galloway at town hall, however.

“He understood the value of downtown,” Huelster said.

Galloway’s supporting role was a lot like a backstage set builder. Today, brick sidewalks, benches and lampposts have become ubiquitous for small mountain towns trying to claim a slice of the tourist pie and lure all-important foot traffic.

Downtown Waynesville was one of the first to deploy this signature look. And it came at a cost. The town spent $350,000 to put in the antique lampposts in partnership with individuals and businesses that also donated money, transporting Main Street to a Norman Rockwell scene.

It wasn’t just to pretty things up. It was economic development, Galloway said.

“We have a downtown that is second to none in North Carolina. It is the envy. Our economic engine is this downtown,” Galloway said, looking up Main Street from the courthouse toward town hall.

Waynesville has a nearly constant parade of downtown boosters and town leaders from across the state come to study Waynesville, hoping to unlock what’s clearly worked so well.

Waynesville made it look easy, but it also took risk. Galloway credits downtown merchants and property owners for taking the first leap — namely by volunteering to pay higher taxes than the rest of town to fund downtown projects.

“You have to invest some town money, but at some point, the private sector has to say we want to do this,” Galloway said of the town’s early revitalization efforts.


Calculated risk

Galloway is hesitant to take even a sliver of credit for downtown’s success, but the town’s supporting role was critical. Waynesville constantly puts its staff and resources on the line for a packed calendar of downtown parades and festivals.

Town maintenance workers regularly set up and take down bleachers for Friday evening street dances and a revolving door of summer festivals. Whether it’s firing up street sweepers after street fairs or ramping up police presence at blocked off intersections, the town eats the cost.

“It is part of the cost of doing business. It is part of the entertainment value to provide people a reason to come, a sense of place,” Galloway said. “If there is nothing there, they aren’t going to come.”

Whether its $2,000 in overtime for street workers during a festival — or $2 million for a downtown parking deck — Galloway sees those costs not as costs at all, but rather an investment.

“I am sure he had to deal with people complaining about spending all that money downtown for the merchants. His argument was always, ‘I can support something like this because they are contributing and paying taxes.’ That became his way of deflecting that type of criticism,” Huelster said.

Indeed, the town has no doubt made a hefty return on its investment during the years, from the property tax paid by downtown merchants in the now thriving business district to the sales tax the town collects.

In hindsight, the formula worked. But at the time, it was a gamble.

“Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” Galloway asked.

The town faced a similar question when an abandoned, crumbling, polluted factory on South Main fell into bankruptcy. The town put up $650,000 to help buy the property out of bankruptcy and turn it over to an economic development nonprofit arm, which in turn actively courted buyers to do something with the languishing, decrepit plant.

Ultimately, it was razed to make way for the Super Walmart shopping center, rounded out by Best Buy, Verizon, and soon Belk’s, Michaels and Pet Smart.

“It was a risk. It was a gamble. It was like, ‘OK, we are going to roll the dice and buy this. We hope we’ll get our money back, but it can’t stay like it is,’” Galloway said.

Indeed, Waynesville’s successes haven’t been an accident. A series of calculated moves positioned the town for its progress and not just in the tourist and commerce arena.

The town landed Sonoco Plastics, a manufacturing plant that employs 135, in the mid-1990s, at a time when factories across America were shutting their doors. The plant has grown steadily since, adding jobs and expanding its manufacturing floor.

It wouldn’t have happened if Waynesville hadn’t built a new electrical substation with underground conduit leading right to the factory’s front door. The town also offers discounted power, a deciding factor in the Sonoco’s decision to not only stay here through the years but also relocate production from other places to its Waynesville location.


Substance over style

Galloway has rarely played offense, preferring instead to stack the deck in the town’s favor long before the first hand was dealt. But he wasn’t afraid to go head to head, especially if the town’s future was threatened.

That’s exactly where Galloway found himself in a standoff between the town of Waynesville and Haywood County in the early 2000s. Haywood County commissioners were locked in a heated debate over where to build a new courthouse and county office building.

As public outcry grew from all sides, siting the new courthouse devolved into a freewheeling game of pin the tail on the donkey. Every few weeks a new location was proffered, threatening to strip downtown of its epicenter status for civic and government workers.

“It would have weakened the downtown area,” Huelster said. “That was a trend at that time. Towns were losing their courthouses and post offices from downtown. We tried to make the case they were major generators of activity.”

Galloway was instrumental in brokering a deal to keep the courthouse downtown. But it once again relied on the philosophy of making upfront investments for long-term gains — a philosophy that was increasingly becoming an institutionalized strategy for the town.

Waynesville gave the county $2.5 million for a parking deck if it would keep the courthouse and county offices downtown. It relieved the parking conundrum the county claimed was the hang up to staying downtown and also helped commissioners save face as they came slinking back to the table.

“He just quietly worked behind the scenes. That was a major negotiation he played a key role in,” Huelster said.

The town had to use a stick along with the carrot: the courthouse must be located in the county seat. Waynesville had flatly refused to annex outlying property that was the county’s first choice into the town limits, thus forcing the county to stay put downtown.


Coming home

Galloway came to Waynesville in 1994 from a city manager job in Avondale, located in the sprawling suburbs of Atlanta. He remembers one of his first trips to the grocery store after moving here. The person in line in front of him was chatting away with the cashier and the checkout process had ground to near halt as the two swapped small town banter.

He started to get antsy wanting them to move it along, but then remembered this was precisely why he liked it here. Back in Atlanta, he had to leave the house at 6:15 p.m. to make it to a 7 p.m. movie just four miles away.

Galloway had grown up in Brevard, and coming back home in the mountains was surely part of Waynesville’s appeal.

“He wanted to get back in the mountains,” Foy said. “I think that was very fortunate for us because Lee could have moved right up to any city in North Carolina if he had wanted that. We were fortunate Lee has a little mountain blood in him.”

Marcy Onieal, who has replaced Galloway as town manager, knows what big shoes she has to fill.

“I am also scared to death because the standard is so high,” Onieal said. “Lee was among those cadre of managers that we younger ones look up to.”

Galloway is only 62. He surely had a few more years in him as town manager. But he also has a long list of hobbies waiting on him. Hiking and fishing top the list, but he wants to get into nature photography and maybe volunteer trail maintenance. There are at least half a dozen groups he wants to volunteer with.

“I like to sit in my backyard and watch birds. I love to drink my coffee, and I love to read,” Galloway said.

And he looks forward to walking his dog and spending time with his wife, Nancy.

He figured he better get around to those things while the getting was good.

“I might live another 30 years, but I also might only live another three years,” Galloway said.

It could take a while, though, before Galloway lays down his town manager glasses and stops viewing the town like a to-do list. Galloway wagers he’ll be a really active town citizen, the kind that logs on to the town’s website to report streetlights that are out.

“Can you let go? Can you stop worrying about it? I don’t know if you ever stop worrying about it,” Galloway said.

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