Editor’s note: Anita Favors Thompson, who is from Kansas City, Kan., retires this week as the city manager of Tallahassee, Fla., after more than 25 years of service there. She is a graduate of Wyandotte High School, Park College and Central Michigan University.
by Sandra Manning
You can hear the crowd roar and the paparazzi scramble to grab a perfect picture any time celebrities like LeBron James, Eli Manning, Jordan Spieth, Serena Williams or Viola Davis take a walk in public or enter a room. It’s this kind of fame and stardom that sells tickets, commercials, clothes, shoes and more. These individuals are recognized for being the best of the best in the world.
All too often, those who are exemplary in the field of public service receive much less fanfare but make a significant impact on the lives of others. Take, for example, the city of Tallahassee, Fla.
“To maintain management functions of a complex city government and administer the day-to-day operations of most facets of an organization is not easy or glamorous. It takes someone who cares about people, who is willing to make personal sacrifices and one who has a passion for the community he or she serves,” said Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. “Our City Manager Anita Favors Thompson is such a person.”
Favors Thompson is a trailblazer, having served Tallahassee for more than 25 years, being the first female and African American to hold this top position and distinction. Her business strategies are comparable to operating any Fortune 500 company, with oversight of a $700 million budget and approximately 3,000 employees. Her public service career began in Kansas City, Kan., when at 23 she developed the first Area Agency on Aging and later became assistant city administrator.
Her dream to help others propelled her to Tallahassee, known for its rolling hills and distinct Southern charm. It is a place where college town meets cultural center, politics meets performing arts and history meets nature; a place where the vibrancy is matched only by the city’s inviting hospitality. As the capital city of the nation’s third largest state, Tallahassee has more than 200,000 residents, a growth of 20 percent in the last 10 years, with a diverse population (43 percent minority).
Under Favors Thompson’s leadership, Tallahassee has been twice named an All-America City, No. 1 Public Utility in America (E.F. Scattergood Award), and recipient of the prestigious Governor’s Sterling Award for performance excellence. Tallahassee was also named a Green City for actions to preserve and protect is natural resources and the Parks and Recreation Department was selected “Best in America.”
During Favors Thompson’s years as city manager, Tallahassee has been recognized as an industry forerunner. With a focus on education and technology, Tallahassee is known as a “Smart City.” It was the first in the nation to offer a three-tiered wireless smart meter system for electric, natural gas and water utilities. As a renowned industry leader, the city has created a legacy of energy efficiency, environmental stewardship and customer-centered initiatives. Its vision and commitment to sustainability have led to award-winning programs.
One such program, which garnered recognition of Most Livable City in America by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, is Neighborhood REACH. This comprehensive initiative focuses on a community-wide delivery of services. At the core is a team of energetic professionals working in partnership with local businesses and service agencies. The team goes door to door to provide residents with free home energy assessments, education and installation of energy- and water-saving products to help lower utility costs for those in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.
While at the home, the team refers residents to other area services as needed. For example, weather-stripping and caulking provides nominal help when there is a hole in the roof or numerous broken windows. This program has served the purpose of conserving energy usage while, at the same time, reducing utility cost for citizens.
With an emphasis on improving the quality of life for all citizens, Favors Thompson has spearheaded several other initiatives such as the Creating Awareness of Resources and Educational Services (CARES). This project focused on outreach to those living in poverty to address unemployment, early childhood needs and social-economic disparities.
One of Favors Thompson’s most recent accomplishments is the development of Cascades Park. Tallahassee has a long history of championing environmental sustainability having created a 24-acre world-class park in the heart of downtown. This park is a state-of-the-art stormwater management facility. The construction of Cascades Park not only alleviated flooding issues, but also resulted in the restoration of one of Tallahassee’s most beautiful and historic locales. The combination of historical preservation, green space and amphitheater for performing and cultural arts, has made it an enormously popular attraction, bringing residents from every corner of the community and visitors from all over the country.
These achievements reflect Favors Thompson’s commitment to place residents’ needs as a top priority. She is a firm believer that a public office is a public trust and has established the motto “Customer Service is Our Business” for her 3,000 employees. Her philosophy and strategies of customer engagement, process improvement and fiscal stewardship has become a premier model for other jurisdictions around the world.
“Tallahassee has a bright future. I feel fortunate to have played a role in making it what it is today—a diverse, vibrant, caring and aesthetically beautiful place,” Favors Thompson said.
Sandra Manning is the city of Tallahassee’s utility marketing administrator.