Michael Brown: Futurist, wonk, nice guy

Fifteen years after Michael Brown took on the job of Savannah's City Manager, it's hard to imagine the version of our city that greeted him on his arrival.

Long stretches of unpaved streets threaded the central city. Whole blocks routinely filled with several feet of water during rainstorms. Broughton Street and its side streets were remarkable for their mostly vacant buildings. Hutchinson Island was a weedy, neglected sand pile.

MLK Jr. Boulevard? Forget about it.

In early 1995 the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was less than a year old, and was beginning to increase tourist attention. SCAD had about 3,000 students, less than half their current local enrollment.

And a single mother named Paula Deen, with help from her two sons, was planning to move her restaurant from the Best Western on Eisenhower Drive to Congress Street.

That's also the version of Savannah I found, when I moved back to my hometown and joined city staff as a neighborhood planner in October 1994. For five years I worked in city government-two months under City Manager Don Mendonsa's leadership and the rest in Michael Brown's.

Brown worked here before. In 1980 at age 29, he was hired by Mendonsa as Savannah's Assistant City Manager for Financial Services. For six years he led the city's budgets, purchasing, revenue, hiring, info systems, and fleet maintenance - the unnoticed underpinnings of government. A job only a wonk could love.

As City Manager, Michael Brown the futurist emerged, and applied those wonky tendencies to a long list of civic improvements. He responded to the visions of three mayors with three unique perspectives (Susan Weiner, Floyd Adams and Otis Johnson) while giving equal attention to the input of almost two dozen other council members, and attending to concerns of business, neighborhoods and individuals.

In this way, Brown carried on a legacy established by Mendonsa, who was favorably regarded by Savannah's civic leadership and by the communities he worked to improve.

But Brown also listened to ideas from a key group that Mendonsa ignored-the employees of the City of Savannah organization. The shift in attitude toward staff was palpable.

One lunchtime a few days after Brown became manager, his receptionist, who'd worked in the City Manager's office for years, stopped by the Gamble Building. A coworker asked her what it was like working for the new guy.

"This morning when he came into work he said ‘How was your weekend?' and I looked behind me to see who he was talking to," she said. Brown's predecessor was not inclined to ask such questions. The respect he garnered from employees was grounded in fear.

If a tour guide decides to launch the Michael Brown Legacy Tour, she'll have plenty of sites to visit. Some are obvious. The Roundhouse Railroad Museum and Battlefield Park, assembled through years of Brown-led negotiations with CSX/Norfolk Southern Railroad and SPLOST project identification. Two City-owned parking garages on Bryan and Liberty Streets that adhere to historic preservation regulations.

The Trade and Convention Center on Hutchinson Island, now in the city thanks to annexation and more negotiation. Public restrooms and improved disabled access on River Street, and the extension of the River Walk to the Marriott. Ellis Square. Historic facades on Broughton, refurbished using City grants.

Less interesting to most tourists would be a trip to Fell Street and Baker Street in West Savannah, where a FEMA grant was used to buy and demolish chronically flooding houses. Or a visit to pump stations around Savannah and a peek at giant underground stormwater pipes, large enough to drive a car through, that keep neighborhoods from flooding.

And then there's the 2010 budget, perhaps the most impressive and also the wonkiest stop on the tour. This is the budget where the city anticipated an $8 million revenue shortage from a year ago, as a result of the recession.

Instead of just whacking off a slice of services and calling it a day, Brown and recently departed Assistant City Manager Chris Morrill asked city employees from every level to come up with ways to save money and work smarter, so employees wouldn't lose their jobs.

In truth, being a futurist wonk and a nice guy won't ever get Michael Brown his own Savannah tour. But his mark on our city is everywhere, and sets the bar high for the next occupant of that fourth floor office in City Hall.

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