Apalachicola is poised to hand the reins of overseeing the city administration to a well-known native son, who is returning to his hometown to take on the challenge,
Travis Wade, son of former Clerk of Courts Kendall Wade, was the top choice of four of the five city commissioners following the interviews of the three top candidates at a special meeting Tuesday afternoon, held in the county commission chambers because of its excellent sound system.
Salary negotiations with City Attorney Kristy Banks and interim City Manager Chris Holley are expected to begin immediately, with the hope to have a contract ready for approval at the Tuesday, May 5 regular monthly meeting. As it stands now, Wade would be hired as city manager, but the commission is at work to revamp the definition of the position which could alter his ability to hire and fire employees, among other proposed changes.
In the event those talks fall through, the next to be considered for succeeding former City Manager Ron Nalley will be Elmon “Lee” Garner, the former city manager of Chattahoochee, who now in his early 80s, has come out of retirement from both an Army and city manager career to apply for the post.
Ranked third was Harold Emrich, now of Houston, Texas, who over his career held the top manager posts in Jackson County, Deltona, Oakland, Madison, Marianna and Greensboro.
Wade, who followed up his graduation from Apalachicola High School by earning a bachelor of science in criminology from Florida State, does not have experience in county or municipal government, instead accumulating his know-how as a staffer with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and more recently, as an investigator for the Florida Elections Commission for five years, and for the Florida Commission on Ethics for the past 20.
In addition, he has worked as a part-time real estate agent in Liberty County for the past decade.
Wade, who grew up at Breakaway Lodge, and around his grandfather’s seafood house, told commissioners that he would turn to experts when it came time to get answers on city budgeting, finance and other issues.
“I would reach out to other city managers, and other experts in the community,” he said, noting that his work in state government, and his own personal research, has given him a handle on the basics of government accounting.
Wade, who turned 50 this month, said he was pursuing the job as part of a longstanding desire to move back home.
He said when he left town as a young man, it was on the advice of his father, who encouraged him to go to FSU.
“I left in 1988 and wanted to come back ever since,” he said. “My friends identified me with Apalachicola; friends called me ‘Apalach.’ It’s been a part of me and I’ve always wanted to come back.
“I’ve lived in other places but I’ve never felt home unless I was here,” Wade said. “I would work here until I was old enough and I wasn’t effective anymore. I see myself being her 10, 15 years.”
Following the meeting, Mayor Kevin Begos, for whom Wade was his top choice, said the initial contract will be for one year, on a probationary basis, with the city commission having discretion after that whether to offer a longer-term deal. The salary is expected to be in the $65,000 range, similar to what Nalley was earning.
Wade’s familiarity with the issues facing the city stood in contrast to the answers by the two other finalists, who evidenced knowledge of their subject but not necessarily of the city itself.
“The city’s unique because it’s a tourist economy,” he said, noting his early years at Breakaway gave him insight into what now has eclipsed seafood as the city’s leading economic driver.
“You have to take care of your citizens and cater to the tourist economy,” Wade said. “A lot of stuff here is maintenance that needs to be tackled.”
He said during his early career with a restaurant supplier, he evaluated employees but has not supervised employees in his current role with the state.
He said “money, time off and ‘attaboys,’” were the three leading incentives to encourage a staff.
“Recognition of city employees is a big motivator,” Wade said, adding that cross training employees can lead to greater flexibility in managing tasks.
He said his first priority would be to sit down with each city employee. “I would want the city employees to be involved in everything that went on. A team for all the players for one goal, that would be my first week.”
Next he would meet with people in the community and assemble a list of priorities. “Recovery (from the coronavirus shutdown) would be one of the big things. It’s the city’s responsibility to provide services to the community, deciding and finding out what services are needed. There’s a lot of maintenance issues in the city that need to be handled,” he said.
“And I’d have to learn the job. There’s going to be a learning curve, taking the experience I have and relating it to the new position,” Wade said. “I’m always game for seeking advice.”
He said he’s prepared to tackle the challenge of further healing any remaining rifts with the county.
“I can de-escalate things, I have a knack for it,” he said. “In a situation where there’s factions, I have the ability to mediate situations, with open communication.”
Wade also noted that he would have no problem with rendering decisions that could affect friends and family, of whom he has many in the county. “The rules are the rules,” he said.
“I’m confident in my abilities,” he said in his closing remarks. “I know that ‘m capable. I’ve seen a lot of how cities operate and I’ve seen a lot of how cities shouldn’t operate.
“I bring a love to this town that goes back to my birth,” he said. “I have a really good foundation of public service and would like to add to that legacy of my family by serving the city of Apalachicola.”
Prior to the vote, Wade got a boost from Apalachicola resident Ottice Amison, who addressed the commissioners remotely on his friend’s behalf.
“Now more than ever we need someone that has more local appeal, to bridge the gaps,” he said. “I can’t think of a better ambassador for that.”
Amison said in many ways Wade’s learning curve would be shorter than most. “With Travis he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time (getting to know people and the city). He already knows 99 percent of everyone around here,” he said. “He can hit the ground running.
“Another positive is the locals trust Travis, the department heads trust Travis, the city employees trust Travis, there’s already that bond there,” Amison said.
He said Wade can help lessen any negativity and animosity that might persist in the city. “I can’t think of a better person that can accomplish that,” said Amison. “I grew up with Travis, and I’ve never heard him more nervous than he was today. He’s passionate, he has wonderful ideas.
“After the hurricane, he was here with saws, cutting people out,” he said. “This is still home to Travis. It’s that kind of stuff that’s part of us being a small community. We still need someone who can get on that level.”