Joplin’s new city manager is regarded by those with whom he worked in Lee’s Summit as a business booster with detailed knowledge of government budgeting who is willing to be an active community participant.

The City Council last week voted unanimously to hire Nick Edwards, who grew up in Joplin and graduated from Missouri Southern State University.

After he was discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps, Edwards went to work for the city of Lee’s Summit, where he started as a management analyst for the public works department. Promotions then came about every two years until be became assistant city manager.

That willingness to come up through the ranks made an impression on Stephen Arbo, the city manager in Lee’s Summit.

“I really admire Mr. Edwards for a couple of important reasons. One, because he served our country as a Marine, and when he had completed his assignment as a Marine, he was interested in local government,” Arbo said. “This is a person who was willing to take an entry-level position in our organization and make sure he understood the operations of our organization and our community, and over time he grew to be assistant city manager.

“To be willing to start on the bottom is really symbolic of Nick — that he’s willing to understand first and grow with the responsibility.”

Budget experience

One of Edwards’ most significant accomplishments while he was at Lee’s Summit was understanding and assisting with a $250 million budget, which Arbo described as a “very complex document.”

In recent years, “we have been challenged with funding and making sure our finances were assigned to the most important programs of the community, and he was in charge of preparing our budget and communicating with our finance committee and ultimately assisting me in presenting the budget to the city of Lee’s Summit council,” Arbo said.

Joplin’s budgets have been swollen the past nine years with federal grant funds for tornado recovery but constricted for enough funding to meet ordinary expenses by stagnant sales tax revenue and high costs for some items such as the police and fire pension fund. This year’s budget amounts to about $105 million, which has gone down by $40 million from two years ago when tornado spending was still going strong.

In addition to having smaller budgets, Joplin’s population is about half that of Lee’s Summit, where there are 100,000 residents. Joplin’s area is about 32 square miles, compared to Lee’s Summit at about 70 square miles.

Edwards also maintained the city’s membership in the Government Finance Officers Association and the city’s certificate of excellence for achievement in financial reporting.

“If Joplin selects Nick, not only are they going to get a person with great experience, but he is also a great community member. He became very much a part of the community and gave his personal time during nonwork hours in helping us with citizen volunteers,” Arbo said.

Business development

Edwards also served as the city’s liaison to the Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce, working regularly with executive director Matt Baird and other chamber leaders.

Baird said Edwards had worked on several chamber committees during his years with the city. Edwards helped to spearhead the chamber’s entrepreneurial and startup business committee.

That is something that the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce is putting a bigger focus on under the leadership of President Toby Teeter. Teeter wanted experience in fostering entrepreneurial growth to be one of the strengths of a new city manager, he said last week as the council examined the four finalists for the job.

One of Edwards’ strengths was communication and being able to connect developers that would maintain a good relationship with the chamber, Baird said.

“Communication was key with Nick. He was always keeping us informed” with developments taking place in the city, Baird said. “He helped try to marry us up with developers and business owners. And, honestly, he is just a very nice, great guy. He’s easy to work with.”

Downtown development

Edwards also was the city liaison to Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street. Donnie Rodgers, the director of that group, predicts that the Downtown Joplin Alliance “will have a great ally in their downtown efforts” with Edwards.

“He was always very supportive of our efforts and able to work with us. I think Nick really understands the role,” Rodgers said.

The Lee’s Summit downtown organization was established in 1989, a time when the district was “very much on the decline,” Rodgers said, and new and existing businesses were going to the outer perimeter of the city rather than coming to its core.

Through the work of the Main Street program, along with supporters such as the city, “we’ve had some great success,” winning awards such as being named a Great American Downtown in 2010 and a Great American Neighborhood, Rodgers said.

The 10-block downtown was nearly empty, with 19 vacant buildings when the Main Street program began there.

“We are now near zero vacancy, and we have a waiting list” of people who want locations downtown, Rodgers said.

Last year, the district had $42 million in taxable sales, and this year, a new apartment complex is being built there that will bring 270 market-rate apartments to the downtown.

“A lot of that has been from the support of (the) city of Lee’s Summit,” Rodgers said.

He added that he believes Edwards “will be a great advocate for Joplin — and especially downtown Joplin.”

That is encouraging to Lori Haun, executive director of the Downtown Joplin Alliance.

“Obviously, we like that he is familiar with a downtown program, so that we are not starting at ground zero” with a new city manager, Haun said. “We’re excited to have somebody in there that gets what we’re trying to do with historic preservation and how it all fits in the bigger picture.”

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