March 18, 2018
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Barrett reflects on 2 decades as Bangor manager

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Ed Barrett looked down at his desk inside his third-floor office at City Hall last week. He could see the wood grain for the first time in a long time. Nearly 10 years’ worth of computer files — ordinance changes, budgets, comprehensive plans and other documents — were crammed onto a 2-inch flash memory drive. His time in Bangor had whittled down from months, weeks and days to hours.

After nearly 22 years as Bangor’s administrative leader, Barrett will depart for Lewiston shortly after the new year begins to take a job as that city’s top official.

Barrett’s tenure in Bangor didn’t end the way he wanted. The City Council, which has hiring and firing oversight over city managers, told Barrett that it was looking to take the city in a different direction. He could either retire or be let go. Barrett chose to retire and take a severance package.

But his career wasn’t over. The same week he retired in Bangor, officials in Lewiston contacted him about an open position. He was a finalist after the first interview and beat out three others for the job.

Barrett steered Bangor through part of the 1980s, all of the ’90s and nearly all of this century’s first decade. He survived four presidents, three governors and about two dozen city councils. His achievements in the Queen City are too numerous to print here.

The Bangor Daily News sat down with Barrett in his office during his last week as Bangor city manager. Here’s a portion of what he said:

When you took this job 22 years ago, did you imagine staying as long as you did? What kept you here so long?

No, I didn’t imagine I would stay here this long. Everybody recognizes that that length of tenure is unusual for a city manager. I came to this community for the opportunity to be a manager and because it was in New England and, in part, because of the nature of the community. I saw it as a challenge given that this city operated much larger than its population because of its role in the region. I think a whole bunch of things converged to make me stay as long as I did. It’s a community I love. It was a great place to raise my son. It’s going to be hard to leave.

What will you look back on as your finest achievement during your tenure as city manager?

It’s awfully hard to pick one out. There is a whole series of things. One is the whole issue of parks and open spaces — redeveloping existing parks and creating new open spaces. The waterfront park, for instance, started before I came, and I think the end point is not that far in the future. Another thing that I think will have some lasting impacts is the whole effort with the racino [Hollywood Slots]. That took a tremendous amount of discussion and effort over a long period of time and, for better or worse, has been good for the city. The third area would probably be in the environment, starting with treatment facilities, sewer overflow maintenance, coal tar remediation and, recently, energy conservation efforts. And so many other things.

Is there anything you regret or wish that you had accomplished?

After 22 years, you have to fess up that you’ve made mistakes. One of my favorite mistakes was when I came up with the brilliant idea that we ought to have a consistent on-street parking policy. This was a really good idea, but the difficulty was that a good concept doesn’t always meet reality when you’re talking about people’s neighborhoods. It didn’t go over well.

Not all my hiring decisions have worked out perfectly, although most have. I’m proud of the staff here, and they will continue to serve the city well after I’m gone.

As a general caveat, nothing I’ve done was done alone. Staff, councilors, even members of the public have contributed to the shaping of this city in the last two decades.

How close is Bangor to building a new arena?

I think the city is closer than it’s been, at least based on the last study, which proposes a plan that, if done in phases, would be within the city’s financial capabilities. The next big checkpoint is the actual proposed price. The big problem all along was necessary funding that didn’t rely on taxpayers. Until we had the racino, there was no way to do it.

Do you see the American Folk Festival surviving?

Clearly, I think everyone would like to see it continue as a major event that has helped to transform Bangor’s image. An effort that is under way now is to try to come up with a way to restore financial stability. The city needs to be a supportive partner, but the extent of that will have to be determined by the council.

As someone with 22 years of experience, what do you see as Bangor’s biggest challenges over the next decade?

The biggest short-term challenge is the economy and the impact of actual and proposed state budget reductions. We’re going to be in a position to have to prioritize what we want to do. We won’t have the luxury we’ve had from time to time to be able to make strategic investments until the economy turns around.

Another area of challenge is in the area of general economic development. We’ve had some, but we’re still seeing the loss of jobs in natural resource-based industries and other areas. I’m firmly convinced that economic development must be undertaken as a regional task. We also need to recognize that it’s unlikely that someone from away is going to come in and save us.

Do you wish that your tenure here had ended under different circumstances?

Well, of course, this wasn’t exactly the way I planned on leaving. I think, as I’ve said all along, city councils have the right to determine who they want as a city manager. The last two months certainly haven’t been the most memorable, although I will say that the thanks, appreciation and support that I’ve had from members of the community and in the broader statewide community has gone far beyond my expectations. So, when I look back, I’m going to have nothing but good memories of Bangor.

How will you transition to your new job in Lewiston? What do you see as similarities and differences between Bangor and Lewiston?

There are some very clear differences. Lewiston is a much more industrial community historically and it has a strong French heritage. Redevelopment of mills has been and will continue to be a big project for Lewiston. Housing is a big problem there. They have had a much bigger impact with immigration, which creates both issues and opportunities.

But there are some similarities, too. The cities are roughly the same size. They are both service center communities. The demographics aren’t tremendously different. My plan on arriving in Lewiston is to learn as much as I can about what their issues are, what their strengths and goals are. But I’ll still be keeping an eye on Bangor.

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