When Frank Powell first came to work for Garner in 1987, he figured he would pay some dues and move on to a bigger town at some point. But some point never came.
“I never thought I’d be here this long,” Powell said. “Eventually I decided I’m happy where I am and need to stay where I am.”
At the end of the year, the town engineer will retire after roughly 27 years with the town. During that time he made a home in Garner, enjoyed the eclectic work of a smaller-town engineer, and proved invaluable to a place experiencing nearly three decades of rapid growth.
“He’s a consumate proffessional,” Town Manager Hardin Watkins said. “He’s a huge asset for me in terms of technical knowledge, asset knowledge.”
Powell played a key role in the 2001 merger of the water utility systems with the City of Raleigh. He said water capacity had been a key roadblock to growth in Garner, but not anymore. Watkins praised his work on that issue.
One thing Powell liked about his job was the ability to wear different engineering hats. Water, sewer, roads; you name it, he’s worked with it in Garner.
“Being town engineer in a small town, you get to cover a lot of different areas rather than be locked into one thing,” Powell said.
Watkins said the length of Powell’s tenure begat encyclopedic knowledge of Garner’s assets and infrastructure. Hardin said he often leaned on Powell to understand local history and why the town had done what it had done in the past, to help inform new employees as well as himself.
“Frank is a wealth of knowledge. Frank is sharp. He has a really good analytic mind,” Assistant Town Manager Rodney Dickerson said.
Engineering a path
Powell grew up on a farm in Turkey, N.C., and it didn’t take him long to figure out what he wanted to do.
“I’ve been interested in construction since I ws a little boy,” Powell said. “I knew when I was in high school – even before high school – that I wanted to be an engineer.”
Powell left Sampson County to attend N.C. State University. Watkins joked at a Dec. 17 council meeting while paying tribute to Powell, that “One thing he’ll be able to do is be a little more honest about his true feelings about UNC.” He met a girl named Janet there in 1975 as a senior, and they married in 1978.
Powell earned a masters at Virginia Tech and worked in Richmond, Va., for the Department of Aviation for a few years. After that, he put time in at a private consulting firm that designed airports and storm drainage.
But he wanted to get back to his home state, and got a job in a small town just south of his wife’s family’s hometown of Raleigh. He’s spent nearly three decades since facilitating various projects that aided Garner’s rapid growth.
In the meantime he raised two children – a son, 27, who works in construction management and has made him a grandfather, and a daughter, 22, in nursing school. He is also active in his church as well as Boy Scouts.
“He surprised us all with how he looked in his Scout uniform,” Watkins ribbed at the council meeting.
Now with work off his plate, he doesn’t have any post-retirement plan; he said he’s heard retired people advise to just not plan anything for the first six months. But he figures he’ll stay busy anyway.
“Of course I have my honey-do list of things around the house,” Powell said. “I’ve talked to people who say they are busier than when they worked full time so we’ll see if that happens with me.”
Powell leaves Garner in the hands of Assistant Engineer Tony Chalk who will serve as the interim town engineer, and is being vetted for the permanent job. The new retiree will watch the town’s growth with keen interest as a resident. He sees stress put on a planning department as the biggest challenge to the town going forward; it must review and approve the influx of building plans before that development begins paying property taxes.
He also said developing downtown has been a goal his entire career. He didn’t call it an unworthy goal, but thinks “you need to be prudent on how much money you put into downtown.”
Not that Powell doubts the possibility of drastic change. He has seen plenty of it. Garner has more than doubled in size, added countless retail and other amenities residents had to find in Raleigh, and seen both elected leaders and town staff come and go.
Ultimately the town from the onset of his tenure encouraged that growth; in the past he said he gathered leaders had been willing to let well-enough alone.
“If you look at it as a whole, I think that Garner, our expectations or our hopes were met,” Powell said. “Obviously as time moves on you develop additional hopes and dreams.”
Other than the growth he says one of the changes he’s noticed has been in Council’s relationship with staff. Although typically constructive – he did call one council early in his career “very distrustful of staff,” but added “that lasted one election cycle” – the dynamic has seen a disconcerting shift, he said.
“It used to be Council was a policy-making group. It seems the last couple years the Council wants to be more involved in day-to-day operations of the system,” Powell said. “I’m not sure that’s a good thing but that’s where it is.”
He mentioned Council overruling staff recommendation on the town’s choice of insurance broker as an example. He said in other cases he felt the pull of micromanagement when they didn’t necessarily affect the outcome.
Another general trend he sees is that “people ask the government to fix everything,” though he sees that as more of a broad trend than a Garner-centric one.
But overall his recollections of his experiences were positive – he did stay for 27 years – and said the town is fortunate to have good leadership, in particular a “very good professional staff.”
“It’s been a good place to work, and a group of people to work with,” Powell said.