If it hadn’t been for a tough German course, Assistant City Manager Bill Watkins could have found himself in a different role — one that might include his name in a newspaper byline.
“To be honest, I’m in this field because I flunked third-semester German in college,” Watkins said. “I was in the J-school. I had to find a major that didn’t require a foreign language.”
Watkins found that major in public administration and adapted quickly. He graduated in three years, began interning in the Columbia city manager’s office and entered MU’s master’s program in public administration. Twenty-eight years after finishing graduate school, he is one of five finalists to become Columbia’s next city manager.
Watkins has worked in several forms of city government. He has been both city manager and assistant, worked in a chamber of commerce and directed an economic development program.
When things get crazy, the St. Louis native relaxes at his family’s house by Mark Twain Lake. The grandfather, who occasionally wears a Looney Tunes tie, also enjoys tending his orchard, working with wood, fishing and quail hunting. But he sometimes has trouble finding time for those things.
In 1977, Watkins, then 24, was hired as the city manager in Newton Falls, Ohio. The town had about 5,000 residents and a budget of $5 million. Watkins said it had adopted the city-manager form of government only seven years before and had already been through four managers.
“When I got there, the mayor was escorting me around, and he took me into a food store and ... I overheard (the owner) remark to somebody, ‘He’s hardly out of diapers,’” Watkins said. “I thought it was funny, but it kind of said ‘Hey, this guy’s young.’ You had to do a little proving.”
The citizens of Newton Falls unsuccessfully challenged the city’s charter during Watkins’ tenure. It was a tough election, Watkins said, but the city came back and got a capital improvements tax passed and reorganized city utilities.
After leaving Newton Falls, Watkins briefly served as city manager of Wood River, Ill., a town of about 11,000 with an $8 million budget. He stayed only nine months.
“I didn’t do as much background check on the community as I should have,” Watkins said. “Politics over there was just absolutely fierce.”
Watkins then became vice president of economic development at the Springfield (Ohio) Chamber of Commerce.
“I enjoyed working in a non-profit and a private sector,” he said. “It gives you a whole different perspective on using volunteers and getting things accomplished through people.”
Kathy McPommell, who worked with Watkins and is now the Springfield chamber’s executive, said Watkins had “a lot of talent in a lot of different areas.”
“He’s really flexible and easy to work with,” she said. “I just can’t say enough good things about Bill.”
McPommell said Watkins was adept at enticing companies to fill an industrial park. She said the chamber had estimated it would take 15 years to fill the park, but it took only 10.
Those successes under his belt, Watkins returned to Columbia to become executive director of Regional Economic Development Inc. REDI was new at the time.
“It was challenging, but it was also very rewarding because you got to make it what you wanted. There weren’t a whole lot of things set in stone,” Watkins said, adding that it was sometimes difficult to manage REDI, an organization that accepts city money but is not officially part of city government.
“Being schizophrenic was probably a plus,” Watkins joked.
While at REDI, Watkins attracted several employers and developed a master economic plan. He said REDI also came up with the idea of a research park.
“The research park was something we were pushing very hard back then, and it’s coming to fruition. I really think that’s going to be the future of economic development in Columbia,” he said.
Columbia Chamber of Commerce Director Don Laird worked closely with Watkins. “I found that he was very approachable, very knowledgeable,” Laird said. “I truly believe he has the best interest of all Columbia at heart.”
Watkins became assistant city manager in 1995. In 2000, he applied for city manager of Manhattan, Kan., but didn’t get the job.
Watkins has also acted as interim planning director for Columbia. He said the experience “added a few more hours to the day” but gave him perspective on development.
“Columbia’s just an absolutely great town. I think it has a lot of growing pains and I think ... we need to very rapidly have a dialogue and a consensus about where it is we want to go,” Watkins said. “I hear lots of different voices, and I’m sure, like most things, where we really need to be is someplace with a mixture of many of those.”
The debate surrounding Watkins is whether it is good having an “insider” succeed retiring City Manager Ray Beck. David Franta, executive director of the Columbia Area United Way, where Watkins has volunteered, believes so.
“He certainly knows the city better than the other applicants at this point,” Franta said. “Obviously someone like Bill would have a leg up because he’s got the whole history thing.”
Watkins isn’t as sure. “I think there were four other excellent candidates,” he said. “I’m not sure that having experience here in Columbia is a plus or minus.”
Watkins said at a news conference Friday that a Watkins administration wouldn’t mirror Beck’s. Watkins wants to emphasize other things such as strategic planning, the bus system, the airport and development corporations.
“I would hope that I would bring a number of traits Ray has to the organization,” Watkins said. “I want to take many of the stability and the community things that Ray has brought to the job and build on them.”
Missourian reporter Jamie Graham contributed to this report.