Happy trails to Eagle Town Manager Willy Powell
June 5, 2013
June 4 was Eagle Town Manager Willy Powell’s last day on the job.
It was also 29 years, to the day, since he started with the town. The symbolism of leaving the job on the same day he started it was intentional.
“You have to pick some day to leave, right?” Powell said with a grin.
After 29 years, Powell left as the longest-serving town manager in the state of Colorado. What’s more, according to the Colorado Municipal League, the national average for town manager terms is three to five years. Powell’s 29 years as Eagle’s manager means he worked for six different mayors and 44 different town board members, and logged more than 1,000 hours of night meetings. But more significantly, he started work when Eagle boasted about 1,000 residents. Today the town’s population is approximately 6,000 residents. Back when Powell started, Eagle’s annual operating budget was $950,000 compared to today’s municipal operations budget of $12 million.
As a manager who has worked with 45 board members over 29 years, Willy has earned his place as the longest serving town manager in Colorado through innate savvy and being able to earn respect very quickly.
There are many accomplishments of Willy’s that I admire. Most are unseen by most: folding of the old sewer district into the town and taking over of that unsustainable model, the careful accumulation of water rights up Brush Creek that have allowed the town to grow and be positioned for the future, the agreements with other water users up the creek to keep water in the stream during low-flow periods, the Eagle Area Community Plan, instituting a housing plan and impact fees before other communities — these are the building blocks that allow others to come in with new ideas, and for town boards to be able to say, “Yes, we can do that.”
Eagle Mayor 2004 - 2008
And how about this: Powell’s hiring made front-page news back in June of 1984, but it wasn’t the lead story. The top story that week in the Eagle Valley Enterprise proclaimed, “Eagle water — boil it before you drink it.”
Obviously, a few things have change over the past 29 years.
While he has lived in Eagle for the majority of his life, Powell is a native of Ohio. He graduated from Ohio State University with an MBA in finance. His first job was with the state of Ohio in the office of Budget and Management.
After three years, however, Powell made a couple of life-directing decisions.
“I decided I wasn’t going into the corporate world and that I wanted to live in a place of my own choosing.”
Both those decisions eventually led him to Eagle.
He had been to Colorado on ski trips and had a friend who lived in Eagle County. When he first landed in the state, he worked and lived on the Front Range. “But I decided if I was going to live in Colorado, I was going to live in the mountains and I choose the Eagle Valley,” Powell said, with emphasis.
Initially he and a friend, J.T. Thomas, operated a construction company. Powell Thomas Construction did several residential projects in the Eagle-Vail and Edwards areas. Then the recession of the early 1980s hit. “Much like it is now, the construction business wasn’t particularly lucrative,” said Powell. That’s when he noticed an ad for a town manager in Eagle.
The community had moved to a town manager style of government during the mid-1970s, but there had been a lot of turnover in the position.
“At that time, the town board was particularly interested in hiring a local, thinking they would get more tenure, although little did they know I would have the job for 29 years,” Powell said.
Making a difference
When he first came on board, Powell figured he would work as town manager for five or six years and then return to his construction business.
“But I found municipal life to be very interesting, always a learning experience,” he said. “It was rewarding to be in a place where you could really affect change.”
There has been a lot of change for both Powell and Eagle since 1984. In his early years with the town, Eagle had a small budget, big debt and lots of needs. The municipal water supply was a top issue and debt resulting from construction of a filtration plant sucked up a large portion of the community’s revenues. The town had drainage issues and aging infrastructure. On top of everything else, Eagle was still coping with one of the biggest changes that has ever hit the town.
“In the early ‘80s, that’s when Interstate 70 bypassed the community. Up until then, Highway 6 businesses had flourished,” said Powell.
One of his earliest projects was to open the Eagle Regional Visitor Information Center in an attempt to bring more vehicles back to town. His other early efforts were centered on firming up the town’s water rights portfolio and laying the groundwork for the town’s future growth. By the end of the ‘80s, Eagle started a 20-year growth boom that lasted until the Great Recession.
For much of the time that Powell has served as Eagle Town Manager, the community has experienced rapid growth cycles. In the early 1990s, it was the more modest Terrace and Eby Creek Mesa subdivisions — projects in the 200-unit range. Then Eagle Ranch arrived in the late 1990s and the community was presented with its first large-scale project of 1,200 units.
The numbers are telling — back in 1990, the town issued 33residential building permits. By 2003, that number was 117and in2005, the busiest year ever, Eagle issued 290 residential building permits.
When he first started with Eagle, Powell was not only the manager, but also the town planner.
“Early on, we decided that Eagle was going to be a pedestrian- and bike-friendly community,” he said.
The town’s first sidewalk and bike path planning efforts identified community “nodes” — locations that residents wanted to walk to such as local schools, the library, downtown business and Town Park. The vision was to connect both existing and new neighborhoods to those important amenities.
“Then we had a willing partner with Eagle Ranch to expand the trails network along the creek and to connect to the BLM,” said Powell.
Today, when residents are surveyed, they identify Eagle’s trails network as the community’s top amenity. Additionally, a recent study compiled by the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit public-policy group that advocates for better management of growth in the West, concluded that homes within walking distance to shops and restaurants are forecast to drive the housing markets and economies in mountain communities of the interior West as the recession’s effects wane. The study points to Eagle as a prime example of great walkability.
Big issues abounded
Eagle has always been a small town with big issues. Community members have passionately debated proposals throughout the community’s 108-year existence. During Powell’s early years the issue was Adam’s Rib – a proposed Beaver Creek-sized ski area located 17 miles southeast of town. Eventually, that proposal was scrapped and the area proposed for the development is now Sylvan Lake State Park.
“Up until the mid-90s, the town was laboring under two different growth scenarios — one with Adam’s Rib and one without it. Those two scenarios resulted in a great deal of consternation within the community,” said Powell.
At the end of the day, Powell proudly noted that Eagle led the charge to purchase the Sylvan Lake State Park property and partnered with Eagle County, the State of Colorado and the U.S. Forest Service on the deal.
Partnering with other entities has been a hallmark of Powell’s leadership. Early projects included the oversized gymnasium at Eagle Valley Middle School and Western Eagle County Metropolitan Recreation District playing fields at the Eagle County Fairgrounds. Later, Eagle would team up with WECMRD to build the pool and ice rink project, and with the Eagle Valley Library District for the Eagle Library.
There’s a slew of important public projects that happened during Powell’s watch — the new Eagle Town Hall, the Broadway streetscape, the Eagle Town Park renovation and the first Eby Creek Roundabout.
All of these projects and dozen of others were vetted during town approval hearings that could get contentious. The Eagle River Station debates of the past five years come to mind. But according to Powell, the most heated meetings of the past 29 years didn’t deal with large development issues but rather with issues close to people’s hearts. One was dogs, the other was the cemetery.
The dog issue dealt with whether Eagle should be a leash-law or voice-command community. The cemetery issue revolved around a proposal to locate a path along the lower road through the facility. Eventually, during often emotional testimony, the respective town boards decided to have a leash law and to locate the path uphill and separate from the cemetery.
“The most difficult part of this job has been the unbelievable cyclical nature of growth,” said Powell. He noted the record-breaking building permit numbers of 2005 were followed by a virtual standstill by 2012.
Powell is confident that the town is climbing out from the bottom of the Great Recession and he notes his successor —former Eagle Mayor Jon Stavney — will be leading the town as it takes on one of its most important projects ever this summer when work begins on the Eby Creek Road roundabouts.
Powell’s fondest memories about his time with the town of Eagle center around people, not projects.
“In the end, it’s all about the people you meet and know and work with,” he said. In particular, he cited his long-term working relationships with Eagle Town Clerk/Treasure Marilene Miller and Eagle Public Works Director Dusty Walls. Both Walls and Miller were already employed by the town when Powell started work 29 years ago.
In looking back on his vision for Eagle, Powell lived what he promoted. He and his wife, Nancy, raised their children — Tony and Audrey — in this community. They coached and cheered for local teams and attended the countless functions that come with raising kids in a small town. In the end, Powell has always wanted Eagle to remain the kind of place where people want their children to grow up.
Even though he is retiring, Powell isn’t leaving. He and Nancy will continue to reside in the area and Powell has agreed to work with the town as needed as a special consultant. Other than that, Powell said he plans to pursue the interests that bring people to this community — skiing, biking, hiking and more. He also wants to indulge his love of traveling.
“And because Nancy is going to work for a few more years, I am going to take over vacuuming and dusting and I am going to listen to my music on the stereo as loud as I want to while I do it,” he said.
An open house retirement party honoring both Powell and Eagle Town Clerk/Treasurer Marilene Miller, who plans to leave town government in July, is planned Sunday, June 23, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Brush Creek Pavilion. Refreshments will be served and all are welcome to attend.