After 19 years at the helm, Clayton Town Manager Steve Biggs is leaving for the same post in Christiansburg, Va.
The town council there voted Tuesday night to hire Biggs, ending its five-month search for a new manager and starting a search in Clayton.
Biggs’ last day in Town Hall will be June 10, and deputy town manager Nancy Medlin will take over while Clayton searches for a replacement. July 1 will be Biggs’ first day as manager in Christiansburg, a town about the size of Clayton. He will earn roughly what he made in Clayton, or $140,000 a year.
Biggs came to a Clayton struggling to pay its bills and under threat of being taken over by the state of North Carolina. He leaves the town as the economic leader of Johnston County, with talk of Clayton becoming the next Apex or Holly Springs.
As far as swan songs go, 2015 went about as well as Biggs could have hoped for: Industries are expanding, parks and subdivisions are under construction, and the median household income of $56,000 is $10,000 above the state average.
Town employees found out about Biggs’ departure the week before, when he sent out a staff-wide email. In it, he said his only real accomplishment was assembling the nearly 180 town workers.
“I take a lot of satisfaction in that fact, and I leave knowing that Clayton is in good hands,” Biggs wrote in the email.
Nineteen years is well above the average for town managers to stay in one place, and Biggs said the move follows a number of personal factors lining up. With his daughter attending Liberty University in Lynchburg next fall, Biggs will have two children in Virginia. His son is stationed in Norfolk with the U.S. Navy.
“I just felt the timing was right; a lot of things fell into place,” he said.
In his next job, Biggs said, he wanted to be in either a college town or one with a major hospital. Christiansburg was close enough; it is situated between Radford, with Radford University, and Blacksburg, with Virginia Tech.
While Clayton might have been on the brink of a state takeover when he arrived, Biggs said that’s not really what he remembers.
“There’s a difference when you’re living in a certain time and you’re looking back; I think about the opportunity that was there for growth and change,” Biggs said. “The best thing I could do was work as a facilitator for a new council. I came on in May of ’97 and there was a November election. I think I was able to work with them to begin to rebuild an organization that was positioned for growth.”
A decade in to Biggs’ tenure, Clayton and the rest of the country fell into a crippling recession. Biggs called it “just short of devastating,” but said “just short” allowed for Clayton to be what it is today.
“We had done a lot of modeling and made a lot of decisions about staffing and programs prepping for continuous growth,” he said. “We have great companies, and if we had lost any of our major employers during the recession, it could have been devastating.”
Now on the heels of the Novo Nordisk and Grifols expansions, Biggs projects 2017 and 2018 will be the town’s best years.
“Clayton’s best years are definitely ahead,” he said.
Biggs got his local government start in Wendell, where he was planning director and assistant to the town manager for six years. He was town manager of Aberdeen before coming to Clayton.
Mayor Jody McLeod said a young and energetic Biggs stood out among the candidates the town considered to replace Ralph Clark in 1997.
“Steve Biggs was the first one to make the interview a conversation,” McLeod said. “He gave a great interview. He was energetic, ambitious and had a vision. We wanted to hire him.”
At the time, McLeod said, Clayton was not seen as a plumb job, as poor management led to deteriorating finances. He said Biggs and Clayton took a chance on each other.
“We took a vote and decided to give this young guy a chance,” McLeod said. “At the time, Clayton was not a prime place to go and be a town manager.”
The town’s turnaround, the mayor said, stemmed from Biggs’ staff hirings, including Medlin, who had been part of the state team investigating Clayton’s books.
“How do you eat a white elephant? One bite at a time,” McLeod said. “Steve has a knack for hiring the right people, a gift really.”
Once Clayton had some breathing room, Biggs helped the town look to the future, focusing on infrastructure and quality of life, Councilman Michael Grannis said.
“He came in and clearly spent some time understanding the financial status of the town,” Grannis said. “He had foresight with respect to growth, promoting infrastructure, so that when someone comes knocking, you’re shovel ready for a project, instead of spending a year or more getting the infrastructure in place.”
Clayton will likely hire consultant Developmental Associates to help recruit the town’s next manager. The town council, the mayor said, won’t rush the process.
“Clayton is now, in 2016, a prime town to come and work in,” McLeod said. “I’m very confident we’ll find an extremely qualified person. We’re really sad to see Steve go, but he’s leaving us way better off than he found us.”
Grannis said what Clayton needs in a manager today differs from what it needed in 1997. Today the town talks about what to include in its sculpture trail, not whether it can make its debt payments.
“We’re dealing with a completely different set of issues than we were 20 years ago,” Grannis said. “In all my professional experience, I’ve never met an individual as diversified as Steve Biggs, who has such an expansive knowledge.
“I don’t think we would look for someone with the specific expertise Steve has, but rather someone whose strengths are a little bit different.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson