Incumbent Mayor Bob McDavid offers focus, economic development in second term

Thursday, March 21, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:46 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 21, 2013
Bob McDavid is running for a second term as mayor of Columbia. He plans to continue his work to create jobs.

COLUMBIA — When posed a question, Bob McDavid tilts his head as if turning a better ear toward the person asking the question. New lines supplement the few already worn into his forehead as the incumbent mayor presses his lips together, eyes averted, and waits.

McDavid’s expression isn't empty but manages to convey very little. It's a poker player's dream — or it would be if he could suppress the clever glimmer in his eyes. That’s what gives him away now: McDavid is thinking, measuring his words before he has even heard the full question.

It’s easy to feel as though McDavid is not listening. He cracked a toothy smile as he mentioned that his peers have accused him of as much. When you operate as analytically as McDavid, though, it’s hard to keep a quiet mind, even during conversations about something as benign as his high school basketball career.

Then again, it's a Monday morning in February, and news just broke of Frontier Airlines' exit from Columbia Regional Airport. If the state of his hair is any indication, McDavid has had a busy morning, and though he's silenced his buzzing cellphone more than once, his mind seems closer to Airport Drive than his city hall office.

Two weeks later, as he lounges in one of the easy chairs that form a semi-circle across the room from his desk, McDavid referenced a different kind of distraction.

Twenty-eight years and 5,000 deliveries as an obstetrician, McDavid said, couldn't prepare him for the birth of his first grandchild. When his daughter, Kim Schmidt, went into labor, McDavid's technical knowledge kept the rational concerns at bay. Instead, the notion of his eldest child becoming a first-time parent gave him pause. He recalled what it was like when he became a father.

"They just put a kid in your arms and you go, 'Now what?'" McDavid said.

That terrifying yet exciting moment is somewhat akin to McDavid's relationship with politics. Although he's become embedded in local government, McDavid has never considered himself a politician. In fact, the way Greg Steinhoff, president of strategic operations at Veterans United, told it three years ago, McDavid was surprised to be approached about running for mayor at all.

McDavid found his footing, and in 2010 launched a mayoral campaign as a "salesman," a nod to his investment in shoring up Columbia's business community. The word this election cycle is "volunteer," but the mission remains by and large the same one he articulated in his first acceptance speech: To hold office is not an honor but a responsibility to take action.

McDavid takes that responsibility seriously. He remembered taking his first look through the 600-page city budget three years ago. "Oh, dear," he thought.

Unfazed by the enormity of the task, he identified the city's pension plan as a weak point and resolved to address it — quickly.

"Kicking the can down the road was not an option," McDavid said.

In September 2010, five months after his election, he established the Pension Review Task Force to determine a more sustainable pension plan for city employees.

The task force in its first year found that the city faced a $118 million shortfall for its existing plan and that the gap between earnings and liabilities would continue growing at an alarming rate. The new plan brokered during the following year by McDavid, City Manager Mike Matthes and city employee groups is projected to save $50 million over 20 years. It received no negative comments during its introduction to the council, according to a previous Missourian report.

As a member of the Boone Hospital Center Board of Trustees, McDavid made similar strides toward efficiency in renegotiating the hospital's lease with BJC Healthcare. As with city pensions, he felt the hospital was overspending. The new lease included a smaller management fee and altered the division of annual surplus, ultimately saving the county-owned hospital $10 million.

McDavid said there's a bit of a learning curve to navigating city government. Mastering the bureaucratic process of task forces, budgeting and public hearings was also a challenge after years of split-second decisions as an obstetrician.

If there's one thing McDavid took to quickly, said Dave Griggs, chairman of Regional Economic Development Inc, it's recruiting. 

At the time McDavid was elected, REDI was in final talks with an Internet-based company, which Griggs declined to name. Griggs said McDavid seemed  "surprised and inspired" by the extent of REDI's efforts to attract businesses to the area.

Griggs called McDavid an "extremely quick study." The mayor threw his weight behind the development firm and has played a regular role in recruiting efforts ever since.

McDavid has proven particularly adept at negotiating. Griggs said he can adapt to courting a variety of firms, from a foreign venture fund to a Fortune 100 company. His cool demeanor allows him to sit back and let everyone at the table make his or her point. When special arrangements such as incentives come into play, McDavid really shines in his supporting role.

"Bob's a closer," Griggs said, and he often works behind the curtain to ensure a place in Columbia for out-of-towners as well as homegrown businesses.

That's how, when MU researchers developed a chicken alternative from soy, McDavid had a hand in keeping that innovation here. Beyond Meat announced plans to open a 16,000-square-f0ot plant in Columbia last fall, which could create around 60 jobs by 2017. Griggs said the company is set to expand to weeklong production this spring.

The son of a factory worker with a 10th-grade education, McDavid made jobs — "especially for those without a college education," he said — a primary focus of both his 2010 and 2013 campaigns.

Yet, not all of McDavid's efforts to spur job growth have succeeded.

When the City Council declared a swath of Columbia blighted in early 2012, public push back was hard and swift. Blight, as well as certain levels of unemployment and poverty, is required by Missouri statute to create an enhanced enterprise zone. Within the zone, qualifying businesses that hired two new employees and invested $100,000 would have paid half as much tax on real property and been eligible to receive further tax credits from the state.

McDavid discounted the precursory finding of blight, saying at a March 2012 meeting that it "doesn't really have a definition." His focus was instead on manufacturing jobs, which on average pay two times the wages of positions in food and retail.

And though fear of eminent domain, decreased property values and corporate welfare brought the city's EEZ effort to its knees in December, McDavid hasn't given up on the use of incentives.

When accused of being stubborn, however, McDavid answers with an emphatic, "No."

"I'm willing to change if the facts change," he said.

McDavid displayed his persistence when he sat for 12 years on the Boone Hospital Center Board of Trustees. The management strategy known as "Six Sigma" was originally developed by Motorola as a way to minimize loss in business ventures. But its DMAIC methodology — define, measure, analyze, improve, control — has become an integral part of McDavid’s operational paradigm.

Too often, McDavid said, government has a way of focusing on the process rather than the problem.

"Sometimes you create a task force and forget what the task force is for," he said.

He offered Providence Road as an example. What began as an effort to alleviate traffic congestion evolved into a plan that would have required knocking down eight houses and spending almost $7 million. That's a far cry from the original objective of better access for the Grasslands Neighborhood. McDavid said the city should return to the root of the problem in developing a new solution.

Although outsourcing to experts remains an option, McDavid tries to interject when he can. Most recently, he was lauded by Brent Gardner of the Historic Preservation Commission as instrumental in putting the Niedermeyer Building back into nurturing hands.

The city lacked any authority to insist that the 176-year-old boarding house, which was slated for demolition, be preserved. After a proposed moratorium on downtown demolition drew threats of litigation, McDavid switched gears and implored the would-be site developer, Collegiate Housing Partners, to find a new buyer.

McDavid played coy on the Friday before news of the deal he'd brokered became public.

"All I'll say is I remain hopeful that a private buyer will come in," he said. If he were a less subtle man, he might have waggled his eyebrows. Instead, he gave a tight-lipped smile.

People thanked Bob McDavid the obstetrician, but Bob McDavid the mayor defers most recognition to other members of the team. Still, during small victories such as the Niedermeyer, McDavid can't help but enjoy himself — a quality that hasn't gone unnoticed.

"That's just his personality," Griggs said. "He really seems to relish his role as mayor and as spokesperson."

While the professional transition from trustee to public figure has gone smoothly, McDavid’s personal habits have adapted. As a physician, he acted quickly. Getting ready for work took at most 10 minutes: pull on scrubs, find the keys and iPhone and get out the door.

The incumbent’s mornings take a little longer now, usually involving a shower and a shave. For McDavid, it’s not the routine that’s the problem; it’s the wardrobe.

As a physician, McDavid said he was encouraged not to wear ties. Dangling clothing can spread germs from patient to patient. As a public figure, ties — and the suit and shiny shoes that go with them — come with the territory. McDavid hasn’t taken to the sartorial world as readily as he has the political. He owns four suits, all standard cut and neutral in color.

“My family calls me fashionably challenged,” McDavid said, unembarrassed.

For Bill Tillotson, that unapologetic nature is what makes McDavid "the same old guy" he's been since McDavid delivered one of Tillotson's children 24 years ago.

"He's busier than most retired people," Tillotson joked.

Despite his schedule, McDavid retains a dry sense of humor. When prompted for an example, Tillotson said he couldn't think of any specific instance. "At least not something he wouldn't mind being published," he added with a laugh.

McDavid also knows when to be serious. Tillotson, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Sixth Ward council seat last year, likened Columbia to a corporation in that it hires, fires, buys and sells. Tillotson praised McDavid's role as CEO but wishes his old friend would take off the leadership hat more often.

"We'll go out to dinner, and invariably he turns into the mayor," Tillotson said. "I have to reel him back and say, 'No, leave that in the office.'"

McDavid estimates he works about 50 hours a week on city business. Over three years, including two weeks off annually, that's 7,500 hours, or about 313 days. He's not done yet.  

Three more years in office would mean fewer bike excursions on the Katy Trail with his wife of 42 years, Suzanne McDavid. It would mean fewer opportunities to peruse Twitter and delve into "trashy spy novels." But McDavid is in this for the long haul.

According to his website, "I am seeking another term because I believe we must continue the momentum we’ve established."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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