Town manager lays out vision for Pittsboro; talks growth and historic character

BY JAMES KIEFER, News + Record Correspondent
Posted 10/5/20

PITTSBORO — Landing in Pittsboro is something Town Manager Chris Kennedy might say he’s been groomed for.

He describes the areas he grew up in  — Welcome, a town a few miles …

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Town manager lays out vision for Pittsboro; talks growth and historic character

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PITTSBORO — Landing in Pittsboro is something Town Manager Chris Kennedy might say he’s been groomed for.

He describes the areas he grew up in  — Welcome, a town a few miles north of Lexington, and later Asheboro — as feeling more “rural” than urban. He jests that after living in Davidson and Randolph counties, moving to Chatham County is part of his plan to “gradually relocate east.” 

Kennedy, who was unanimously picked by Pittsboro’s Board of Commissioners for the position in July from a pool of 65 candidates, replaces former Town Manager Bryan Gruesbeck, who resigned in late January at the request of the town board. Interim Town Manager Robert Morgan had been serving as town manager since February.

Kennedy got a taste of small town life while attending Davidson College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art and had the hopes of becoming an architect — until he saw the job market after graduation.

“I graduated undergrad in 2010, probably a terrible time to be an architect (and) one of the worst times if there ever was one,” he said. 

So when someone recommended the idea of exploring city planning in graduate school, Kennedy said it felt like a good fit. After getting master’s degrees in both Community Planning and Public Administration from Auburn University, he found himself working for the town of Southern Pines.

He said Southern Pines, in Moore County, felt like the most urban place he’d ever lived in up to that point. Starting out as a city planner, he worked his way up to heading the town’s public works and planning departments and eventually settled in as assistant town manager. 

Then Pittsboro came calling, followed by a unanimous nod from the board of commissioners hiring Kennedy as town manager. Since starting the job in mid-August, Kennedy said he’s still adjusting to the role, but there’s plenty in his resume that has him feeling prepared. 

Full service

While working in Southern Pines, Kennedy said he saw a small town that didn’t act like a small town. Instead of expanding city limits and skylines, he explained town hall was a full service operation where refining systems and municipal efficiency was more the city’s focus.

He pointed to the city’s maintenance teams as an example. 

“This is really kind of a municipal thing, but to go out, have a water problem, be able to go out dig it up, fix it and patch back the road — a lot of places can’t do that,” Kennedy said. “They don’t have the utility crew to go fix it. They don’t have the expertise to try and fix it. They don’t have the asphalt worker to try and fix the road. I think that was one thing in Southern Pines — it allowed me to look at a place that was mainly developed.” 

And development is still on his mind. Pittsboro’s growth has it feeling the pinch of large-scale development, like a stressed wastewater management system and major, once-in-a-generation projects such as Chatham Park. He said other areas which deserve focus include affordable housing and water quality as the town deals with the “explosive, exponential type of growth” that comes with being a part of the Triangle region.   

Kennedy also realizes the town manager’s job comes with a balancing act. As a town that was incorporated just two years before George Washington was inaugurated as the nation’s first president, Kennedy said protecting aspects of Pittsboro’s more than 200-year existence is a legitimate concern.

A unique patina

He likened the town’s legacy to antique woodwork.    

“Our downtown is kind of like a piece of barn wood,” Kennedy said. “You can try to replicate the patina on a piece of barn wood, but you cannot beat 200 years of wind, rain, sunshine, snow, all that dry air, whatever you want to call it, beating on the piece of wood on the outside of a barn or wherever it sits. That patina is unique and cannot be recreated. Our downtown and some of our older areas are like that, they cannot be recreated. I think we can balance the old stuff with the new stuff and not treat them like different things.”

Pittsboro Mayor Jim Nass agrees, telling the News + Record that Kennedy’s biggest challenge is “the very rapid changes that are happening in Pittsboro and how to respond to those changes in a way that preserves the soul of our town.”

And crafting the appropriate response isn’t going to come without some needed help. Kennedy said that if Pittsboro stays on its current growth trajectory that it could easily become one of the largest 15 towns in the state in terms of population size. He added that cities in that population range have municipal staffs in the hundreds. Even his old haunt Southern Pines — with something like three times the population of Pittsboro — has around 200 employees.  

Kennedy is working with a fraction of that with just over 40 staffers in Pittsboro, which he says isn’t going to be enough for both projected and current demands.

“I think it’s a necessary action that’s going to have to occur that we’re going to need more people,” he said. “It’s going to be everything, it’s going to be your street maintenance operators, people who maintain vehicles, people who are in the finance department, more planners, you name it. You could probably add 20% and we might not still cover everything. So I think that’s going to have be part of our growth.” 

A unique mix 

But he also sees potential in Pittsboro to offer a unique mix of rural, modern and historic qualities. That could be everything from offering an electric car charging station outside of Virlie’s Grill, a revitalized downtown or things like innovative stormwater infrastructure. Part of his plan is tapping into the “funkiness” that he hears about from residents, a quality that he thinks gives the city heart. 

Kennedy said that’s going to come from earning the trust of residents, but also building an organization that fosters camaraderie among existing staff. It’s the level of planning and foresight of someone who knows how to build space would use, kind of like an architect. 

“I hope in five to 10 years that town managers in other places are begging me to quit my job because they want to be in Pittsboro,” Kennedy said. “Because we’re doing things the right way, because we’re doing things that no one else is messing with... That’s the opportunity and the vision that we have is that we don’t have to create this overly planned, very sterile environment. Pittsboro’s got that artistic flair, that funkiness that has made it what it is for so long, that we will keep some of those historical qualities (and) the character, but with some modern touches. We hope it becomes the envy of the region.”


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