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Stewart closes out tenure as town manager

By Susan Dickson
Staff Writer

One of the things that’s immediately apparent about Steve Stewart is his modesty.
When asked about his accomplishments, the retiring town manager gives much credit to those he works with. For his knowledge and skills in municipal government, he thanks his mentors from his school days and early in his career.

Retiring Carrboro Town Manager Steve Stewart. Photo by Alicia Stemper

Including his eight years in Carrboro, the soft-spoken Stewart has worked in local government for 37 years, beginning his career as an intern with the City of Burlington, his hometown.
“It was fun,” he said, but also “really scary.” That first internship taught him much about local government.
“I knew that I had two ears and one mouth for a reason, so I did a lot of listening,” he said.
Stewart went on to work for Mecklenburg County, where he stayed until 1978. He’s served as a town, city or county manager ever since, including his tenure with the Town of Carrboro, which will come to an end on Aug. 1. According to those who’ve worked with him, he will be sorely missed.
“I’ve benefited immensely from Steve’s knowledge and understanding of the processes of government and the many issues facing the town,” Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Dan Coleman said. “He helped me succeed as an alderman in every way possible and is 100 percent committed to the town and the people of the town and to the town staff.”
“He’s an elegant professional,” board member Randee Haven-O’Donnell said. “He has a genuine respect and care for the folks that he works with in all facets of the work, and that comes through in everything he does. He is a people-first professional.”
When Stewart came to Carrboro, he thought it would be a good opportunity to return to a community with which he was somewhat familiar. Plus, “I said when I came here that this was the community I wanted to retire in,” he said.
But the Carrboro Stewart came to eight years ago was quite different from the one he’d visited while growing up in Burlington.
“Now people don’t come through Carrboro – they come to Carrboro,” he said.
Though the changes the town has seen in recent years have been less obvious than those prior, Stewart said, he’s witnessed small but significant transformations during his time here.
With the sidewalk bonds approved by voters in 2003, Carrboro has seen a vast expansion of sidewalks throughout town in recent years.
“We’re an incredibly walkable and pedestrian- and bike-friendly community,” Stewart said, adding, “I’m confident that there’s not another town in North Carolina … that puts the resources that we do into public transit.”

‘Exciting possibilities’
During Stewart’s tenure, he’s also seen the town increase its commitment to grow and support local business. He’s been in the manager’s seat while Carrboro has considered a number of large developments – including the planned 300 East Main project, which includes the redevelopment of properties extending from the intersection of Main and Boyd streets near Nice Price Books to the present municipal parking lot on the corner of Main and Roberson streets.
“That project has the potential … to really change the face of downtown,” he said. “I just think it has so many exciting possibilities.”
Looking back on his work, Stewart is pleased with the town’s fiscal status, given the current economic climate.
“I’m really proud of the financial condition that the town’s in,” he said, noting that the town has had no tax increase or reduction in service in three years, nor has it made layoffs or furloughs in that period.
He’s also proud to have seen the town’s second fire station opened on Homestead Road.
“I think it fits really well,” noting the project’s environmental features and sensitivity to the surrounding area.
Stewart also launched the town’s Better Together initiative, which got town employees working together across departments on a variety of project, formulating ideas and drawing leadership from all levels.
“Employees here have always worked well together,” he said. More than anything, he says he’s most proud of what the employees have accomplished together.
Stewart attributes much of his success as town manager to his employees, whom he approaches with high expectations.
“I think people want to do well,” he said. “If you have that expectation, I think people rise to that expectation.
“It takes all of us to deliver services to the community,” from police officers and custodians to firefighters and receptionists.
Stewart tries to know the names of all of the town’s 155 to 160 employees, and makes sure to send each of them a birthday card every year.
“I think we all like to be recognized,” he said.

‘Built out’
As the town moves forward, Stewart said he would like to see more commercial developments come to fruition.
“I’m very concerned about the lack of commercial tax base here,” he said, acknowledging the burden that places on property owners. Stewart said he believes population growth for Carrboro has likely leveled off.
“We’re close to being built out from a population standpoint,” he said. “A lot of things would need to change for the town to see significant growth.”
In addition, “I’d like for [home ownership in Carrboro] to be an option for more people,” he said.
After Stewart finishes his last day as town manager, he’s going to take the month of August “to sit back and take it easy.” In September, he’ll begin part-time work for the Town of Chapel Hill, working on special projects in the town manager’s office.
He hopes to use his free time for volunteer work and other activities.
“I’ll continue to be a part of the community,” he said. “When I walk out of here, it’ll be somebody else’s responsibility.”
But, he added, “I’ll be around and interested.”
Overall, Stewart has loved his experiences working in local government.
“We really do get a chance to touch people’s lives every day,” he said. “There’s just so many ways that we touch people.”

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