Updated 9:27 p.m. Tuesday
CHAMPAIGN — In a city where elected officials tend to come and go, City Manager Steve Carter has pulled the strings, often from behind the scenes, for nearly three decades.
But officials now have six months to do something they aren't used to doing — find his replacement — after Carter announced late Tuesday that he will retire as of March 29, 2013.
When he began his job in February 1985, a 39-year-old Carter saw a pedestrian mall on Neil Street and a flood-prone campus area. On Tuesday, a 66-year-old Carter reflected on a rejuvenated downtown area, a capital program that has expanded from about $5 million to $20 million annually during his term and a growth strategy that he thinks has rationalized the way the city is developing outward.
Carter will have been the top administrator in Champaign for more than 28 years when his retirement is official, and that length of time is unique among city managers. Carter's three predecessors combined to serve a total of 26 years as the city government's highest-ranking employee.
Four mayors and 35 different city council members have held office during Carter's 28 years.
Now he wants to spend more time with his family, he said.
"It's not an 8-hour-day position," Carter said. "I devoted a lot of time, as I needed to do."
Carter said the timing was good both for him and the city. He did not want to leave during a turbulent period, and he thinks the city has, for the most part, come out of a few challenging years where economic recession took its toll on the budget.
Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said Carter is leaving the city in a good position — there is money in reserves and the city has maintained the highest possible credit rating.
“He’s on a good run right now,” Gerard said.
What the city will lose, the mayor said, is intangible.
“He is the definition of a leader,” Gerard said.
Six months will give the city council plenty of time to select a new city manager, Carter said, and he hopes that a new employee will be ready to work on his last day. The process for how that will be done has yet to be laid out in detail by the city council.
Carter said that, even after nearly 28 years, the city of Champaign has not allowed his job to become stale.
"This community is an active community," he said. "There's always lots of issues to work on."
Council member Michael La Due’s 27-plus years on the city council makes him the longest-serving elected official in city history, but still a few months behind Carter’s tenure. La Due said Carter’s time can be characterized by financial stability, no appearance of financial malfaesance and steady economic growth and development.
“I think he’s made the city famous,” La Due said, adding that municipal leaders around the state have looked to Carter’s example.
Not long after he came on, Carter oversaw the 1986 demolition of the pedestrian mall on Neil Street and the return of traffic to that area, which city officials later came to know as one of the most important first steps in bringing vitality back to downtown Champaign.
The city followed up by creating the East University Avenue tax-increment-financing district, which allowed a significant investment of property-tax dollars in the area just east of the railroad near downtown Champaign.
He said he has found working in local government to be rewarding because he has been able to see the results of his efforts, something that is not always true in state or federal government.
"That's very rewarding, to see a project done successfully," Carter said.
Of course, "If you do something stupid, you get quick feedback on that."
Even through what he hails as long-term successes — the revitalization of downtown Champaign; redevelopment of the campus area; and reinforcement of the city's core services such as police, fire and public works — Carter said some of his biggest challenges have come just within the past several years.
"The economy, the recession, had to be one of the most difficult things, where our revenue took a four- or five-year backward fall," Carter said.
Local governments came to rely on incremental annual revenue increases as their cities grew. When people started spending less and new development ground to a halt while the costs of running a city continued to increase, cities everywhere took a big hit.
For Champaign, that meant hiring freezes and some cuts to services.
"The financial reality is we had to make those cuts," Carter said.
As he prepares to leave, he said city finances have stabilized, but it will be a while before Champaign officials can say they are back to where they were before the recession.
Still, Carter said his biggest challenge was the October 2009 fatal police shooting of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington.
"The most difficult thing to deal with during the 28 years was the tragedy, the shooting on Vine Street, and working through those issues with the community," Carter said.
The question for Carter became figuring out how to take a tragedy and come out of it in a better place, he said. City officials have since enacted changes to police department policies and new staff members have been put in place after the retirement of high-ranking police department officials, including the police chief.
The city has also built a "community coalition" comprising city and community leaders, nonprofits and social-service agencies. The group is dedicated to working together to resolve social issues, particularly ensuring resources are available for community youth.
Carter said his role has changed over the course of his time as city manager. In reality, he said, he does not do much management anymore. Instead, he spends much of his time working with elected officials and other area governments to represent the interests of the city of Champaign.
"That's what has helped us to be so successful over the years," Carter said.
Carter's 28 years in Champaign will cap a 43-year career in city management. Before arriving in Champaign, he worked in Phoenix; Sioux City, Iowa; and Moline.
But he does not plan on moving his family any time soon.
"If we didn't love Champaign, we wouldn't have been here 28 years," he said.
La Due said choosing a new city manager of equal caliber will be tough, but he will be looking for a certain characteristic: “As much of the same as we can get,” he said. “Good luck to us.”
Outlasting the rest
Champaign's council-manager form of government was established by referendum in 1958. Steve Carter's 28 years is by far the longest tenure of the four city managers in Champaign's history, and he has served longer than the other three combined.
— Robert Oldland, city manager from 1958 to 1962, served the shortest time. Like Carter, Oldland also began his career in Phoenix.
— Warren Browning held the position from 1962 to 1974. In 1985, a reporter from The News-Gazette asked Browning if he had any advice for Carter. At the time, Browning declined to give any specific suggestions. On Tuesday, Carter declined a News-Gazette reporter's request for advice to his successor.
— Gene Miller, Carter's immediate predecessor, was Champaign's city manager from 1974 to 1984. He left for a new job in Kansas City, Kan.
— Carter began working as city manager on Feb. 18, 1985, and will retire on March 29, 2013. He said he plans to remain in Champaign following his retirement.