Larry Groth, 61, Waco city manager for the past decade, recently announced his retirement, effective March 1, after some 33 years at City Hall where he began as a city engineer. He says he wants time to spend with his family, including nine grandchildren, and to travel. In an interview with the Trib conducted in the third-floor conference room at City Hall, Groth discussed the wide variety of projects he’s overseen during his tenure, including design and construction of Cameron Park Zoo; overseeing a water supply he now fears some state officials covet in the thick of an intensifying drought; construction of the controversial $46 million Dissolved Air Flotation plant at Lake Waco to clean up water from the dairy country upstream; and passage of a $63 million bond package that, among other things, renovated the Waco Convention Center, relocated police in the old Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center Tower, made improvements to 414-acre Cameron Park and overhauled library facilities. He also discussed what he regards as fundamental in terms of leadership; his relationship with City Hall colleagues (including Deputy City Manager Dale Fisseler, Groth’s suggested successor); and what he believes is his most significant accomplishment.
Q You’ve worked for the city of Waco a long time and probably done a little of everything but janitorial services —
A I’ve done a little bit of that, too. (Laughter.)
Q Which of your many jobs for the city have you most enjoyed doing — city manager or one of your other duties, such as running the zoo?
A I don’t know if I can answer that. I’ve been fortunate in that I can say I’ve really enjoyed every job. When I was doing engineering, I enjoyed it thoroughly till the time I left for the zoo. I enjoyed the zoo, then came up here (to City Hall as assistant city manager). I never had a master plan about what I was going to do next.
Q There isn’t one that you just particularly enjoyed?
A My advice to anybody working here or anywhere else is to get in a job you enjoy — and if you don’t enjoy it, get into something else. I’ve just been fortunate in that each job I’ve done, when I left, it was because it looked like there was something a little bit more fun ahead. But it was never because I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. I enjoyed them all.
Q How has the Waco community changed during your years at City Hall?
A The single biggest change in the community is just the difference in expectations. The expectation level of city government is much higher than when I started. It’s our society. In the past people seemed to be more willing to wait for us to get something done — maybe build a street or whatever. And some of it is age. When I first started, so many of the older people were so gracious and it was like, “If there is any way you can just get this done....” Now it seems more like, “By golly, I want this now! Why aren’t you out there?” And so it does put a much higher expectation on the mayor and city council. I mean, they’re getting the same thing I believe that we’re getting now. So I think you have to do business better, you have to do it more efficiently and everything is at a much, much faster pace.
Q What accomplishment are you proudest of?
A I’m going to have to think of projects, but the thing I’m really most proud of is the relationships I’ve built in this community. Because of those relationships, people would at least have a feeling of comfort and confidence when I said, “This is something that in my professional opinion I think is best for the city,” even if it might have at first seemed kind of strange. Because of those relationships, people have been willing to do that. And that takes a lot of years to build. I really believe in trying to be honest, trying to be consistent, trying to do what’s right. That’s the single most important thing I could cite. Looking back at projects, I was real proud the City Council made a long-term commitment (of some $40 million) to streets in the early 1980s, and it paid off. I mean, it was a 20-year deal but, by the early 2000s, we had pretty well made a lot of improvement.
Q And street reclamation isn’t sexy.
A Yes, but it was still the No. 1 issue in the early 1980s. We had something like 500 miles of streets and 125 of them you couldn’t ride. And the council made that commitment and that was long term. That meant several city councils had to stay the course. Even when things got tough, they had to keep a pot of money (set aside for streets).
Q And I notice we’re starting a renewed push on repairing and reclaiming streets even now.
A Development of the zoo was a lot of fun, but seeing the downtown area being revitalized is important to me.
Q Did you have a favorite animal, by the way?
A (Pause) I enjoyed the elephants.
A I don’t know — massive.
Q Is there an issue or challenge that, despite all your work, you acknowledge you’re going to have to leave to other hands to finish off or address after you’ve left?
A No, because I told the council everything was in pretty good shape. (Laughter.)
Q Let me put this another way. Is there a challenge you see coming that must be addressed in the coming years when you talk to council members and administrators in your last months on duty? I imagine water is one.
A Oh, yes. Raising Lake Waco (by 7 feet) was important. We’ve made a lot of good decisions with water, we’ve built a lot of good infrastructure.
Q And now the state wants some of our water in Lake Waco for downstream interests in the midst of drought.
A We’ve got to be very, very diligent and make sure of the quantities we have for our citizens now and in the future. We’ve also made great strides in the quality of our water and we’ll have to continue to make sure our watershed is as clean as it can be, all while keeping a good relationship with the state and, quite frankly, with the dairies (upstream). We’ve made strides.
Q We sure didn’t have good relations a few years ago.
A Well, (Assistant City Manager) Wiley Stem has done a good job, even though he was probably considered a devil up there (in dairy country upstream) for a while. And sometimes personalities change. You know, some of the people who were there are not there now and some of the leaders of the dairy association are different. And obviously the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality changes, too. But we’ve always had a good opportunity to work with them and to get to know the TCEQ executive director and just make sure they know our concerns. We need to make it clear we’re not after anyone but that we have some concerns. I mean, we need to let them know we spent $46 million on a Dissolved Air Flotation (DAF) unit. That is one single thing we spent a lot of money on but, by God, you can really see the results. I’m proud of that. And that was tough. Again, that was one where we had a lot of opposition about placing that DAF unit (near Lake Waco in part of a privately owned pecan orchard). That was one I felt so strongly about that I told the council that this was where it needed to go, that this is for the benefit of the whole community. And the council stood strong. And sometimes that’s hard to do. The other thing was the council has been very supportive on financial issues. We set in place a method to really get out of issuing a lot of debt which in this day and time is kind of unusual. We’re on that path and the council has made that commitment and I hope future councils stay with that because I think it’s the right thing to do — pay as you go and save all that interest money and invest it back into the community.
Q How concerned are you about these weekly state reports on this worsening drought and other interests downstream who might covet the water we’ve got? I mean, in some places in Texas they’re running out of water.
A I think we need to be concerned. We are fortunate. I would think we’re the envy of a lot of cities in Texas. That being said, it doesn’t take a real rocket scientist and worsening drought conditions and looking across the state now and the total reservoir capacity across this state to know that — well, it’s not much better than in the 1960s.
Q Just after the state’s seven-year drought.
A Right. And we haven’t really built (much significant reservoir infrastructure). And then look at our state population — where we were in the 1960s and where we are in 2013 — and how we’re going to continue growing. We have got to stop allowing special-interest groups to impact things that we need to do. We have to look at it whether it’s water or energy. I mean, we’ve got to do things right. There’s no question about that. We’ve got to be environmentally sensitive. But we also have to understand there are things we need to do. We can conserve all the water you want, but you can’t conserve enough to accommodate the difference between population and capacity. If we don’t get out of this drought pretty quick, it’s going to show up more. But even if we get out of the drought, even if we start getting some normal rainfall, we still don’t have enough capacity in some parts of our state to address the needs of the population. And a lot of that is due to big reservoir and power plant projects being held up. By the time you get started (on such massive and intricate projects), it may take 30 years till completion. We have to figure out a way to get through everything quicker so we can respond to the needs.
Q What’s one of the biggest headaches you’ve had?
A My first budget as city manager, we made some pretty significant cuts in long, carry-over expenses. And that was hard, knowing all the needs and looking at a lot of positions and trying to eliminate some that maybe we could get by without. In fact, if I’ve ever come close to worrying and taking it home and losing sleep, it was just putting the budget together early on and seeing the difference between projected revenues and potential expenses and knowing we’re a people-heavy organization. The only way you get that balance is people and that means worrying about having to tell people, “You’re not going to have a job anymore.” That’s tough. So we worked very hard in the early days and it paid off. We were able to put ourselves in a position where we could get through the lean times, get through a recession. When other cities were firing people right and left, we never had to do that.
Q Have state and federal officials been any easier to deal with? I’ve heard city and county leaders talk about the frustration they sometimes have.
A Why don’t you talk to me in about five months. (Laughter.) We are not as dependent as much on state and federal funding as the county is. We obviously get our share of federal grants and some state grants for transit, airport, health and housing, but our day-to-day operations, it’s locally (funded). So it’s been my observation, particularly when the state legislature is in session, I worry more about what they’re going to do to us than how they’re going to help us. I mean, they can pass stuff—
Q They can pass laws that significantly cap local tax revenue.
A Yes, that kind of stuff. So I’m glad that we don’t depend on them.
Q Looking at the quagmire and gridlock in Washington, D.C., at present, how does all that fit with notions you might have about local leadership?
A Oh, I think they’re a bunch of kids. I always felt like if you’re elected to federal office, there ought to be some statesmanship that goes along with that. Everyone has his own issues and obviously you get in because you’ve got a constituency that votes you in, but I would just hope we’d have people who go up there and try to look at it and do what’s right for the country rather than what’s right for one or more groups. They’re not dumb people. They’re smart. And smart people I’ve always felt ought to be able to sit around a table with 20 other people or 50 senators or however many House members and say, “Hey, guys, let’s look at the facts and try to do what’s right.” Unfortunately, we all have different views of what’s right, but at some point you’ve got to look at it and make things work.
Q The city really began to emphasize quality-of-life issues during the previous decade. Is there something we still need to do in terms of parks and recreation?
A I think we’ve made a lot of strides, but there are still some areas in town that are really underserved with parks. I think the stuff that’s going to happen on the river is going to be great and we’ll start seeing more of that as downtown continues to grow. It’ll be fun in the years ahead to see how more activity occurs downtown. I mean, in the 1980s people were just gone. Nothing was happening (there).
Q Poverty is a tough situation. The council has devoted a lot of energy to it.
A I’ve watched this over the years, particularly as city manager but even as a city engineer. I’ve worked in a lot of economic development projects. I’ve spent probably the larger majority of my time working in economic development than anything else, working with the chambers of commerce trying to attract good, quality, higher-paying jobs. That’s one aspect (to addressing chronic poverty) right there. But if our people aren’t ready for those jobs, it doesn’t do any good.
Q You mean education.
A Education. And so I’ve really been pleased with the heightened awareness of a need for citizens to be better educated, so much that we started the Greater Waco Community Education Alliance some five years ago (headed up by former Mayor Virginia DuPuy). And pulling all these people together who are great — I mean, the public schools, exploring pre-education opportunities, and then on to McLennan Community College, Texas State Technical College and Baylor University — getting all of them together to talk about this and to tell the community, “We need to have an expectation of our kids being well educated.” And that doesn’t just mean sending them to school. It means parents’ coming to have expectations that these kids will learn. We have to change that culture in education. And the third thing is health. We do have good health providers. I mean, Waco compared to some has great opportunities through Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, Providence Health Center and Family Health Center. It’s really an unusual setup here. They work together. They’re good competitors, too. But we’ve got to build better access to health care because you can’t send a kid to school to learn if he isn’t healthy, if he’s got, say, teeth problems. If we can develop good access to health care, educate them well and bring people in to create more jobs — that’s the way you take care of those poverty issues on a threefold basis. I mean, you don’t get out of it quick. Again, it’s one of those long-term commitments this community has to make.
Q What’s one quality you must have as a leader, especially in dealing with a city council of lots of different personalities and a public with a lot of different perspectives and wishes, plus dealing with everyone from state and federal officials to neighborhood associations?
A To be a leader, you’ve got to have people who are going to follow you. People have to have confidence in you. Again, that goes back to what I was talking about in building relationships. As a leader, people have to see you as somebody they can trust. From a military standpoint, if you’re sitting there leading a squad and you’re going to go over that hill not knowing exactly what’s there, those guys are going to go with you if they trust you. Even if it’s kind of scary, they’re going to step out and go because you’ve been consistent and honest and have integrity and they know you’re not going to risk them just for your benefit. A lot of people get confused with what leadership really is. Sometimes they do it for what’s in it for them. Well, you do that once, your leadership is over. I also think it’s being willing to be courageous because there are times when you have to do things that are not popular.
Q Were there times when you had to take an unpopular viewpoint?
A Well, I mentioned the DAF. It was tough, but I knew it was the right thing to do. You stay with what you know is right. You don’t compromise when it’s convenient. The other thing is you’ve got to make decisions. People look to you to make decisions. And you need to make those decisions based on good data. You don’t make them like some cowboy because you’re shooting from the hip and think, “Oh, I’ve got a gut feeling.” You’ve really got to know what you’re doing and be prepared. Then again, you shouldn’t have so much ego that you can’t change. I mean, I’ve always felt the decisions of our best leaders were not necessarily their first decisions. It really may be their second or third because a lot of times in our business or other businesses you’re making decisions on the fly based on what you know. You think, “Hey, this looks like the best thing to do.” But then some new external factors come in, and if you sit back and say, “By God, I’ve made my decision and I know I’m right,” you’ll probably go down in flames.
Q When you reach our age, much of what has passed is viewed in terms of history. Is there a period when things just really clicked?
A It was when citizens voted to approve the 2007 city bond election.
Q That was the first in 40 years, wasn’t it?
A The first in 40 years. Kind of amazing. We went into that and the thing that kept going around in my mind was that line from “Apollo 13”: Failure is not an option. I thought if this was the first time in 40 years, failure is not an option because if you fail, you will never be able to go back. We were lucky. Really. What clinched it was we pulled together 10 or 12 committees of about 10 or 12 people from throughout the community. I wanted individuals on those committees that anybody in the community could identify with. “Oh, yeah, Bill, he’s on there, you know, and if it’s important to him, it’s important.” I gave them about $300 million to $400 million worth of potential projects and let each committee work those down to a list of projects they thought were the most important and were doable. I mean, we could’ve gone after a $200 million bond project, but you start looking at the tax rate and start thinking, “It probably needs to be less than 10 cents to pass.” So amazingly, these groups working independently reached pretty much the same conclusions, so all of a sudden you had all these advocates out there. And our timing was good. It was right before the recession. And then we issued the bonds and they were issued at historic lows. I mean, the interest rates on those bonds were unbelievable. And then construction costs were low. So we did a whole lot more with the money than we ever thought.
Q It also helped the local economy during an economic slowdown and, again, the city’s construction costs were lower than average because of the slowdown.
A It was pretty good. I wish (I could say) I orchestrated it all, but it just happened. But, to get back to your question, that was pretty exciting when the results came in and we got that thing passed.
Q What will you miss about this place? I imagine you’re going to say the people.
A The people — and the challenges. I just enjoy getting things to work. I enjoy taking challenges and trying to put together the resources, whether money or equipment or people, and figuring out how to get something done. I’ll miss that, but I’ll figure out other stuff to do.
Q Is there anything you’re going to try to prioritize over the next few months before your retirement?
A Well, hopefully getting some deal negotiated on riverfront development. That’s probably the biggest single thing. But other than that, I’m going to be working really hard making sure all of my staff are totally clued in to everything I do. My goal is that the day I walk out of here, I don’t want anybody to even notice. I want the organization so in tune with everything that we don’t miss a beat.
Q A good manager is one who can be absent and yet things continue to run efficiently.
A Yeah, that’s really my goal. Fortunately, I’ve got some really great people to work for me. For instance, I hired Dale Fisseler (as deputy city manager) two years ago.
Q You do have a strong bunch of folks.
A Luckily, (assistant city managers) George Johnson and Wiley Stem were already here and have a lot of knowledge and will continue to be able to offer that institutional knowledge when I leave. That’s always good to have. I hired (veteran city engineer) Joe Mayfield as assistant (city manager) for a short time because he’d been with the city a long time, had a lot of knowledge, had the right knowledge about things, dealt with people right, so that was easy. When I hired Dale as deputy city manager, I really wanted to get somebody who had experience running a city.
Q And as city manager of Fort Worth at that.
A I think it’s really important. And if I’ve had any success, part of it’s due to my growing up here (as a Waco native), building all those relationships and knowing the community. I just think you make better decisions knowing the community. So if I could get somebody (to succeed me) who had good city manager experience and at least knew this community, great. Well, Dale grew up here, his mom and dad live here, his wife’s mom and dad live here, he has ties, he knows the culture — and every city has its own identity — so that was important. But again it goes back to those same things I talked about concerning leadership — I wanted someone with outstanding character, someone willing to make decisions. But one thing I didn’t mention — we try to have fun. As hard enough as it is, we really try to create a family atmosphere and enjoy what we’re doing because we spend a lot of time together. And Dale’s perfect for that. And he was ready to get out of the big city. He’d been in Dallas for 10 years and Fort Worth for 20, the last three years as city manager, and times have been pretty tough up there. I kept calling him and saying, “Aren’t you ready to come home?” And finally I got him at the right time. So between those three guys, they’ll pick up everything that I’m doing.
Q So when someone comes to town and you want to show Waco off, where do you send them?
A I like for them to see the river corridor, the zoo and the lake. A lot of people kind of have this I-35 concept of Waco and it’s really just a beautiful town. I mean, even getting up to this level (on the third floor of City Hall) and looking out, you can see we’re a tree city. And if you get up very high, you can’t even see houses. It’s just trees and beautiful. And having Cameron Park is unbelievable. Having a town lake is really great. And Baylor University is doing such a great job. Man, we got a lot of great stuff to look at.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.