‘BAPTISM BY FIRE’: Maryann Ustick reflects on first year as city manager
It’s been a little more than a year since Maryann Ustick agreed to take the reins in Destin, and she says it’s been a busy ride.
“I remember when I walked in the door, it was Waste Management waiting for me,” said Ustick, Destin’s seventh full time city manager. “There was a date and it had to be done. It was really baptism by fire, but it turned out to be really good — it was an opportunity to learn all of the city’s systems.”
After stints as assistant city manager in Pensacola, the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the city of North Las Vegas, Ustick was selected by city leaders last fall to replace outgoing City Manager Greg Kisela.
With her first year behind her, Ustick sat down with The Log to discuss the city’s accomplishments during the year that was, and the challenges moving forward.
Since she took office, the city has agreed to a new contract with Waste Management, which was hotly contested by Destin residents, completed the first phase of the harbor boardwalk, streamlined the city website and public records requests, and put the West Destin beach restoration project out for bid.
“It was a whirlwind,” Ustick said. “There were so many things that were pending.”
With the bid for the West Destin restoration project awarded during a special city council meeting Oct. 22, Ustick said the city and county have come a long way on the project which has been tied up in litigation for quite some time, due to concerns over the quality of the sand and the projects funding through the MSBU.
County officials eventually dropped their portion of the project (Okaloosa Island) and handed the permits over to the city of Destin.
Due to the settlement agreement with the Oceania Condominium and a group of single-family homeowners, there will be a 2,600-foot gap in the middle of the project, but county officials say the “hotspots” that some experts worried about, wouldn’t be a problem. The gap is only expected to reduce the project’s lifespan by 10 percent.
“It was a huge challenge in terms of whether or not it was worth it,” Ustick said, noting that the longevity of the project was viewed as “favorable” after recent studies.
The city is expected to place about 550,000 cubic yards of sand along a 1.7-mile stretch of beach as part of the West Destin project, plus additional sands that were lost due to Hurricane Isaac.
As the city continues to make forward progress, there are still some challenges that must be worked through, given ever-tighter budgets and decreasing property values.
“There is a lot of old infrastructure that needs work, without a lot of resources to work with,” Ustick told The Log, as she talked about the repairs that had to be made to the outflow conveyance system at Coleman Kelly Lake and the repairs that will be made to the roadway on Gulf Shore Drive, which were “unexpected.”
Parking and pedestrian safety through the city’s Harbor District is also another challenge for the city, which has already taken steps to address the parking issue by making improvements to the Marler Street parking lot and the Zerbe Street lot.
Despite those improvements, many property and business owners are still waiting for the completion of a parking garage, which is part of the city’s long-term plan.
“Those are really tough issues right now,” she said. “It continues to be a challenge, but we are going to continue to address it chunk by chunk.”
With the design in place, and a decision made on who’s ultimately responsible for it’s management, Ustick says the city is on the right track when it comes to the stabilization of Norriego Point, which is expected to cost millions of dollars. The city currently has two plans working their way through the permitting process.
Given the lack of funding available, the city is exploring all avenues to complete the project, whether it’s through Restore Act funding or through the
Natural Resources Damage Assessment program — both compensatory programs related to the 2010 BP oil spill.
As for the biggest challenge in Destin, Ustick didn’t take but about 30 seconds to think before she pointed to the Town Center CRA.
“It’s the No. 1 financial challenge,” she said, telling The Log that the city will have to spend about $900,000 out of its general fund budget for FY2013 to help “subsidize” the Town Center CRA.
“We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them,” she added.
With a background in comprehensive revitalization, Ustick said she has some ideas to help turnaround the struggling area centered around Main Street.
Enhancing curb appeal, looking at code enforcement options and actively seeking development were a few ideas.
“We are looking at economic and physical infrastructure,” she said. “We need to take more of a comprehensive approach — we need to actively target businesses, not wait for them to come to us.”
Looking at the empty storefronts along Main Street, Ustick says declining property values in the town center aren’t that surprising, but with a little work and help from current property owners, the town center could make some improvements in the short term.
“We really need to focus on business development and new development,” she said, “but we also have to focus on the existing properties and try to improve their conditions.”
Looking back and forward
At the end of the day, Ustick says the city is on the right track and continues to do the best it can offering its residents top-notch services, despite limited resources.
Continuing on that path, the rest will fall into place, she says, as the economy continues to recover.
“I feel as though we have really accomplished a lot. There has been a huge community consensus on what needs to be accomplished and that’s what we’ve done,” she said. “The challenges have just been how to get things done with limited resources. We have our strategic plan in place, and we are ready to move forward.”