A decade in charge
WILLIAMSTOWN -- Since starting as town manager 10 years ago, one thing Peter L. Fohlin has learned is patience.
"Everything else I knew," Fohlin said Friday, during an interview at Town Hall.
It was on June 5, 2000, when Fohlin first took his seat in the corner office at Town Hall, leaving his job as executive secretary to the Board of Selectmen in Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard.
Since then he has guided the town through difficult budget years, overseen several projects, helped grow the town's relationship with Williams College and encourage professionalism and a "we work for you [the taxpayer]" attitude among town employees.
"I took this job because I wanted to work in a place where I could get things done. I wanted to take the best of Williamstown and make it better, and improve the things that needed to be," he said.
Too often people come to a place because they like it, and they end up wanting to make it just like the place they left, he said.
"It's not unlike people who go to foreign countries to experience the culture and stay at a Holiday Inn," he said.
When Fohlin came to Williamstown, his priorities were the Spring Street reconstruction project, the disposition of the former Photech building on Cole Avenue, and the appointment of a new police chief.
The construction of a new elementary school and identifying and fixing wastewater discharge problems at the Hoosac Water Quality District treatment facility off Simonds Road were soon added to the list.
A decade later, Photech remains the only one of Fohlin's original goals that has yet to be realized.
Eby Realty Group LLC had planned to purchase the property from the town and transform the former mill building into an assisted living facility, but the plans fell through in 2009.
"I think I will probably recommend the Photech property be rezoned residential and be developed in the spirit of the surrounding neighborhood," Fohlin said.
Fohlin has two additional goals he wants to tackle before retiring on Feb. 10, 2018.
"I would like to build a new police station in the next eight years," he said.
The present police station, which is behind Town Hall, is inadequate for the officers, but especially for the prisoners.
"We don't have adequate protections for females and juveniles. No one feels sorry for the men, but we ought to do better for the female and juvenile prisoners," he said.
Fohlin has stated in the past that the town is in need of a new police station, but hasn't moved forward with plans to build one.
"The primary reason I've held off as long as I have is because I'm trying to time the financing of a new police station with the pay-off of existing debt in hopes we can build an addition to the municipal building without a burdensome impact on the tax rate," he said.
Fohlin's second goal -- which the town has begun pursuing -- is to see through a project to reconstruct and widen Water Street from the bridge to Meacham Street. The proposed project includes the addition of on-street parking and handicapped-accessible sidewalks on both sides of the street.
While Fohlin describes himself as being "about today and tomorrow and not too much about yesterday," he is very pleased with the outcome of the reconstruction of the Field Park rotary, which was spurred by the completion of the town's Master Plan in 2002.
"We spent two years designing it, and four months building it, and I think the outcome shows that good planning is critical to a good outcome," he said.
Fohlin also praised Williams College's investment in 100 Spring St., the expansion and improvement of the Spring Street municipal parking lot and the development taking place on Spring Street with the involvement and investment of Mark Paresky.
"All communities complain the reliance on residential taxpayers is too great. Gov. [Deval] Patrick] ran for office on a platform to reduce local taxes, and in the last two years, just the opposite has happened. State aid continues to be cut, and residential taxpayers continue to bear more of the burden. The only antidote to that -- because state aid isn't going to come back to where it was -- is local, commercial and industrial development," he said.
In order to promote such development, the Route 2 corridor between Bee Hill Road and Margaret Lindley Park needs to be rezoned to mimic Spring Street, he said.
"I have two businesses that want to be in Williamstown right now, but can't find the space," he said.
One is a financial management firm and the other is a home center that isn't a Lowe's or Home Depot needing two to five acres of land, he said.
Before Fohlin came to Williamstown, he had changed jobs an average of every seven years.
"I tend to get itchy after seven years both in private industry and government," he said.
He said he was restless about three years ago when he applied for the town manager job in Middleborough.
Fohlin then withdrew his candidacy for the position.
"I didn't feel the political culture there was amenable to getting things done as in Williamstown," he said.
Fohlin said in Williamstown he has been blessed with good select boards.
"If the Board of Selectmen is chaotic, disruptive, too political, fuzzy thinking or indecisive, it becomes very difficult for the crew to follow their leadership," he said.
In addition, Fohlin said he has been fortunate to have a team of mature and experienced employees, which is a huge asset to any town manager.
"When I got here 10 years ago, I realized what a blessing it was that everybody in the building was 40 years old with 15 years experience. When you have that mixture of maturity and experience, you have a lot less drama because people don't get overexcited about the small problems and don't charge off a cliff without knowing how high it is. There probably isn't much they haven't experienced before and aren't prepared the handle," he said.
With most of those employees retiring in the next 10 years, Fohlin said the biggest challenge of his remaining time as town manager will be the transition from an experienced staff to a new crew.
"I will lose 10 key people by the time I leave here in 2018," he said. "Most of those people will have to be replaced with people of equal ability, and it has to be done very carefully because if you simply and indiscriminately pick candidates from other towns, the outcome isn't Williamstown anymore."
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