It was not the way he planned to go out.
But Hutchinson City Manager John Deardoff’s response to the novel coronavirus sweeping in during the last weeks of a 40-year career was typical for the respected community city leader.
He was set to retire March 27, but in February the Hutchinson City Council asked him to stay a little longer until his replacement was set to arrive.
The county’s first confirmed COVID-19 case was reported on March 21. As the virus spread around the region and state it led to local and state stay-at-home orders, resulting in city hall being closed to the public and the sudden need to cut at least $1 million from the city budget in anticipation of shortfalls in sales tax collections.
“It turned out for the best that I was able to be here during the early stages of setting up the city organization’s response, to be a part of that,” Deardoff said. “I would have had a hard time walking out March 27 and leaving things as they were. I feel pretty good that things are in good shape and we have a plan to move forward.”
His leadership exhibited over the last few weeks, said Hutchinson Mayor Jade Piros de Carvalho during comments at Deardoff’s last city council meeting on Tuesday, “were reflective of the way you led this organization for the past 15 years.”
“You didn’t wait to see which way the political winds were blowing, you immediately took action to safeguard your 400-plus employees and the public,” Piros de Carvalho said. “Just thinking about the decisions you made without hesitation to close city building and playgrounds, extend utility shutoffs beyond the governor’s order, and to institute practices internally that would keep your people safe is commendable.”
His foresight in building up city reserves over the last several years, resisting pressure to spend those dollars down, is also proving to be critical, she said.
“Not all of those were popular decisions,” Piros de Carvahlo said. “But you made them because they were right.”
Not bad for a guy who hadn’t planned a career in municipal government.
“I really had no plan for my life after college,” said Deardoff, who was born in Nebraska but moved to Scott City with his family when he was in second grade. His freshman year in high school, the family moved to Hutchinson, where, though not Catholic, he attended Trinity Catholic High.
“We were moving from a small town to Hutch and my dad felt like I should be in a smaller school,” he said. “I could participate in sports and still get a good education.”
He also attended a Catholic college, graduating from St. Mary of the Plains in Dodge City. He attended there on a football scholarship, playing as a wide receiver for four years while earning a Political Science degree.
“When I was in high school, I was a 5-foot-10, 150-pound wide receiver who ran a 4.94,” Deardoff said. “Not a lot of colleges were looking for a wide receiver of my type. None, except one. I don’t know how I stumbled into it but I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. I made a lot of great friends.”
He got involved in an internship with the city manager’s office in Dodge City during his junior year. He returned there his senior year and, upon graduation in 1979, received a job offer.
“The rest is history,” he said. “A key part of that is I had two city managers, Ed Daily and Bob Livingston, who saw something in me. They mentored me and set a path for me in local government. It’s a job I would never have picked out of any catalog. I think I was just in the right place at the right time.”
A road repeatedly traveled
While working as an assistant administrator in Dodge City, his boss encouraged him to pursue a master’s degree in Public Administration, which he accomplished at Wichita State University during an 18-month leave of absence. He then returned to Dodge City for several years before taking the manager post in Sterling.
“That was my first city manager’s job and I was there just a little over four years,” Deardoff said. “Sterling was a community, and still is today, that is a strong supporter of the city manager form of government. They liked the model of younger men coming in and getting ready to start a career. They’re there for four or five years and move on. They’ve comfortable with that.”
From Sterling he returned to Hutchinson in 1989 as the assistant city manager, working under longtime manager Joe Palacioz for five years.
“I learned a lot,” Deardoff said. “It was a bigger organization and really helped set the table for me. I could compete for city manager jobs in larger cities in Kansas.”
He left after he saw a posting for the city manager post in Dodge City, making the familiar 120-mile trip back west.
“When I went back in 1994 one of the first jobs was to go with the city attorney and meet with the Sisters of St. Joseph to negotiate the purchase of the (St. Mary of the Plains) campus by the city.”
It was a strange experience, he said, being involved in buying his old college, which had closed a year earlier.
“It’s still a great asset for the Dodge City community,” he said. “It’s a big part of the rec program. It turned out to be a good deal.”
After a dozen years, he turned his car back east and returned to Hutchinson when Palacioz retired.
“This is my home,” Deardoff said. “I’d spent most of my life in Hutch.”
New bosses, old buildings
One of the biggest challenges of the job of a city manager, Deardoff said, is that your bosses are elected and some change with each election.
“You get new council members you start to work with,” he said. “When you’re really connecting and things are going well, you have an election and new people come on. That’s one of the biggest challenges to me. Every two years you’ve got to learn to adjust your governing style, adjust your thinking to a new governing body. I’ve been fortunate to not see a lot of change over the years, but it’s always challenging.”
Deardoff was always successful in that, City Councilman and former Chamber CEO Jon Daveline said, because of his leadership style.
With his “calming voice”, he set the “tone and tenure for making tough decisions,” Daveline said. He also had the exceptional quality of being a good listener.
The other biggest challenge he found, Deardoff said, but one he took great satisfaction from, was on the “economic development side of the job.”
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed over my career being on the front line of trying to make economic development, in Dodge or Hutch or Sterling.”
Two projects that stand out are the redevelopment of the Wiley Building and the recruitment of Siemens Energy to Hutchinson.
“That building had a lot of memories for me,” Deardoff said of the onetime department store and office building at First Avenue and Main Street. “My dad had a job on the eighth floor with Garvey Elevator, and I had a dentist there. I was in there a lot growing up. To see it vacant hurt a little. I was happy to work with a lot of different people to bring that iconic building back to life. We finally found a developer to it that brought the tools to have the city partner with the private sector to make it happen.”
While Jay and Jack Manske, who converted the property into apartments, get credit for making the project work – “they’re just really classy developers,” Deardoff said -- Piros de Carvalho noted it was Deardoff who was able to convince the difficult out-of-state building owner who acquired the property through a federal tax sale, George Nerhan, to finally sell after many previous failed efforts.
“Your demeanor, that friendly, humble, accessible demeanor, has paid dividends to the city in so many ways,” she said. “Perhaps the most striking example is when you successfully brokered the acquisition of the Wiley Building.”
She also gave Deardoff credit for the rejuvenation of downtown Hutchinson, sparked in part by a series of streetscape projects, as well as efforts to make redevelopment easier.
While “always a believer in downtown,” Deardoff said, he was also frustrated by an inability to bring a lot of retailers back to the area and the slow pace of redevelopment in the city’s core.
The project he’ll never forget, Deardoff said, was the Siemens project, which he said was a “complicated, but whole community recruitment process.”
“I had the opportunity to work with Dave Kerr at the time, who helped lead the project,” he said. “I was happy to be part of the team. It was a very rewarding project. I always tell young city managers those types of projects only come along every so often. You’ve got to take the opportunity to reflect on that and be proud of the work, and then get busy on another project.”
A frustration, he said, was the growth of social media and the internet as primary communication tools, particularly with its tendency to be dominated by negative voices. But he’s learned to adjust.
The current situation due to the novel coronavirus, Deardoff said, will present a lot of challenges to the city and businesses that may take several years to overcome.
“We’ll have a cloud over the business community and financing for the city over the next couple of years, without a doubt,” he said. “Financing city operations are going to continue to be a challenge because we are so heavily reliant on sales tax and property tax.”
“Typically there’s no growth in property tax, so you’re back on sales tax,” he said. “When it takes a hit, you’ve got to look deep into the organization and cut expenses. To grow the sales tax based without retail competition is a real challenge. The way we consume things now, buying a lot online, was only accelerated by COVID-19. Sometimes you won’t get those back.”
With that, he said, comes the challenge of investing in infrastructure, “to make sure our streets don’t fall apart and our water and sewer lines are taken care of. It’s a delicate balance. You also have to fund the things that make Hutchinson a place you want to be, cultural and arts and park improvements.
“I worry as we come out of this how many more retailers we could lose,” Deardoff said. “We can't afford to lose much more of our retail base. Otherwise, some very difficult decisions will have to be made.”
Time to go
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” said Deardoff, 63. “You look back and wonder how quickly it has gone. But when you truly enjoy what you’re doing, whatever it is, time flies. It has for me. But I had 40 years in March and felt the time was right for me.”
In retirement, he plans to do some consulting work, spend more time with family, including his children and grandchildren, and travel. He’ll remain in Hutchinson, he said, with his father still living here.
“I’m not going to be sitting in a rocking chair watching TV,” he said. “I’ll do things. It will just be a different lifestyle for me going forward.”