When Larry Groth took his job as Waco city manager, he expected to stay three or four years, or “until it wasn’t fun anymore.”
That was 2003, and he said he has never stopped enjoying running the city, as he presided over a record decade for public works improvements in Waco.
Groth, 61, announced his retirement Tuesday, saying he was leaving the city on a high note. He told Waco City Council this week that his last day will be March 1.
After that, he plans to build a log cabin on his family’s property near Lorena, spend more time with his nine grandchildren and take some long road trips on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
“I wanted to stay until the city was in great shape,” he said. “We have a lot of good things going and good management staff.”
Under Groth’s tenure, the city has raised Lake Waco, built a new $19 million low-water dam on the Brazos River, built a $46 million water pretreatment plant and passed a $63 million bond election that improved the convention center, parks, libraries and public safety.
Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said Groth will be “impossible to replace,” citing Groth’s expertise in engineering, budgeting and dealing with people.
“He’s certainly leaving the city in good shape, and he’s in good health to allow him to pursue other things,” Duncan said. “It’s hard to find someone who can do it that well for so long and be able to leave on such good terms.”
Noting Groth’s retirement plans, Duncan quipped, “We wish him all the best in hewing logs and straddling hogs.”
Duncan said the council hasn’t yet discussed the details of the search process for replacing Groth.
Groth said he will recommend Deputy City Manager Dale Fisseler, formerly city manager of Fort Worth. Groth said Fisseler, a Waco native, has the experience and personality for the job.
“I brought him in to fill that void because I knew my time would be short,” he said.
Groth, who hires and oversees most of the city’s 1,500 employees, is effectively the CEO for the city, answering to a volunteer six-member city council. Duncan said he has been a source of continuity during the last decade, as Waco has cycled through six mayors and many council members.
Groth, a Waco native and proud Aggie, has served city government for 33 years.
In the 1980s, he oversaw a $40 million program to reconstruct neglected streets throughout Waco and oversaw the construction of the first section of the Brazos Riverwalk. In the 1990s, he led the city’s construction of Cameron Park Zoo and became its first director in 1993. He rose to assistant city manager, and the council promoted him to city manager in 2003.
Linda Ethridge, who was mayor at the time, said that was “one of the best choices we ever made.”
“One of the things that made our selection easy was that because of his previous work, we knew this was someone we could have confidence in,” Ethridge said. “It worked very well to have him ease into that position, as opposed to bringing in someone brand-new who didn’t have that history. He had proven himself as a quality leader.”
Joe Mayfield, now retired as the city’s engineering director, hired Groth in 1980 as city engineer.
“There wasn’t much you could throw at him that he couldn’t handle real well,” Mayfield said. “I think everyone in the organization knew that if we could keep him, he would probably be city manager. He was that well respected by the council and other people. He was so talented that the private sector was making runs on him all the time.”
Mayfield said Groth’s engineering expertise allowed him to evaluate complex projects, such as the new Dissolved Air Flotation plant at Lake Waco that has improved the taste of Waco water by removing organic material.
But he also had a personal touch that helped him to win people’s trust.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody that had the combination of technical ability and people skills he had,” Mayfield said.
Duncan said he saw Groth’s negotiating skills in action last year while bargaining with Baylor officials about the city’s participation in the new $270 million Baylor Stadium.
Duncan said Baylor initially suggested the city should pay more than $50 million but settled for $35 million in Tax Increment Financing Zone funds, based largely on Groth’s analysis.
Groth said he’s proud of the infrastructure improvements Waco has made during his tenure, as well as the strides in downtown and riverfront development.
He said he expects Waco’s pace of growth to pick up in the next decade, noting three growing higher- education institutions, a diverse economic base, the abundance of water for industry and the seed of a research park with the new Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative.
Groth said he also is proud of the city for being able to make progress without breaking the bank. The city made it through the recession of the late 2000s without layoffs, tax hikes or major cutbacks in services, and the council has now adopted a long-term plan to lower its debt load.
He added he has enjoyed working with Waco City Council during the last decade.
“You’ve got to listen, that’s probably the biggest thing,” he said. “With six people as your boss, you’ve got to consider very carefully what is the consensus or will of that body and be careful in following that.”
Donna Groth, his wife since 1975, said Groth’s style is as no-nonsense at home as at work.
“When a problem is presented, he cuts right to the heart of the matter,” she said. “He’s very straightforward. . . . I have to talk things to death. When I go shopping, I have to go to 10 stores. When he wants a shirt, he goes to one store and tries on one shirt.”
Donna Groth has accompanied her husband on the back of his motorcycle on many of his cross-country trips. But she’s letting him go solo for his big trip planned next year: a 22-day ride to the four corners of the United States.
She also supports his plans to build a log cabin and sell the old family farmhouse to one of their three children. Groth plans to build the cabin out of dead standing timber he will buy from a Longview company.
“I’m excited about that,” Donna Groth said. “We’d been talking for years about getting something smaller and easier to take care of.”
She said she’s going to spend time with her husband after seeing him sacrifice his evenings to his job for a decade.
“I’m looking forward to having him back,” she said.