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Stafford reflects on tenure as city manager

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Not since 1928-1946 and the 18-year tenure of City Manager R. J. Brule, has Navasota seen the forward momentum it has experienced under soon-to-be retired City Manager, Brad Stafford. While Brule and the WPA brought infrastructure, bridges, parks and a stadium to Navasota, Stafford put the name “Navasota” on the map of national retail consciousness and is transforming that 20th century infrastructure to accommodate 21st century needs. Before retiring Oct. 29, Stafford shared memories as Navasota city manager for nearly 16 years with The Examiner.

Building a team

When Brad Stafford became Navasota’s city manager in 2006, not only did city services need attention but how it was provided did as well.

Stafford said, “A lot of city departments did their own thing. Some of them didn’t even know each other. I found out real quick getting out and talking to people that we had a real issue with no communication among departments which was hindering productivity and customer service.”

A contributing factor was that City offices were spread out over multiple locations, but sitting down with individual employees, Stafford also learned that directors weren’t sharing information with lower-level employees. He sat out to change that.

Stafford said, “When your directors are coming together, that’s one thing, but your directors have to have the conversation with their staff about what’s going on. If the street department needs to close a street, the police need to know, and they weren’t doing that previously.”

Those conversations, and something as simple as changing noon departmental Christmas parties to evening with family included, has changed the culture of City Hall.

Stafford said, “It really helped us start working more as a team and understanding how each department affects each other. We’re a whole lot stronger as an organization and I think our customers see it.”

Where is Navasota?

Stafford began “selling” Navasota by developing a relationship with the Texas Municipal League and the Retail Coach. Sharing his vision of Navasota’s great location and potential, city council allowed Stafford to hire the City’s first marketing director, Courtney Gruner.

Stafford said, “Everyone was trying to put brochures out (before Facebook) but had other duties and Courtney got it going. That department has really exploded.”

Stafford recalled that first trip to the International Council of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas. Chamber director Pam Beard, councilman Grant Holt and Stafford worked nonstop for three days responding to ‘Where is Navasota?’

Smiling, he said, “They’re the only people in this community who’ve seen me tired enough I could not talk!”

The next year they “dropped cards and talked and talked and talked” at the Texas show. Each succeeding year Navasota’s name recognition increased.

Stafford said, “Rayna (Willenbrink) and I went last week to Retail Live and now I can walk up to several booths, and they know who I am, what locations we have available. Today we get phone calls instead of us making the calls. They know where Navasota is, the advantages of Navasota. It just takes time, a lot of time.”

Ruffling feathers!

Stafford thinks the City has always had pretty good relationships with Grimes County, Navasota ISD and the Navasota-Grimes Chamber of Commerce, but there are times when there is disagreement and “it can be tough.”

He said, “Some people remember when I got here and instigated a name change for the Grimes County Chamber of Commerce. I ruffled feathers but it wasn’t to make Navasota the focal point. It was to make sure that people knew where we were. People don’t know small counties. Put a name of a city so people can look us up on a map!”

He continued, “It was hard for some people to understand when I got here that my loyalty was to this city, not to other entities or groups. I was loyal to them as well but when it came down to priorities, my priority was always the City of Navasota. At the end of the day, everybody wants to do what’s best for this area and we all have our vision of how you get to that point so you may disagree on some things.”

New city hall, city pride

As Stafford approached his fifth anniversary, he, Mayor Pat Gruner and city council were in agreement that city services in multiple locations was not business or customer-friendly, or conducive to a growing community. On top of that, the “ugly 50s modern” three-story City Hall on Washington at Farquhar had crumbling walls, smelled like rats and wasn’t being used to its potential.

Architectural firm PGAL was hired to evaluate the building and facilities and the cost to fix what they had, but they returned with a quote of $3 million just to bring the building up to code! That would not address the façade and parking and the building still lacked space to consolidate city services.

Back to the drawing board, PGAL’s new city hall design replicated that of the beloved 1903 building that was demolished years earlier and would cost $5-10 million. Stafford joked that then-councilman Russell Cushman rallied citizen interest when he suggested August Horst Park as possible location for the new city hall.

Seven to ten town hall meetings were held explaining the cost and funding options, and citizens overwhelmingly supported Certificates of Obligation. The final cost was $6.5 million with the remaining $3.5 million borrowed used on streets and sidewalks, jump-starting the Downtown Streetscape Project.

Stafford said, “This downtown had a lot of pride and folks never let it die like a lot of downtowns did. That’s a testament to the people of this community. They did not want downtown to go away. They built Walmart, and yes, it impacted them and yes it was hard, but the people of this community said, ‘You will not kill downtown.’”

Next Week Part 3: Strides and setbacks