Elected Decatur leaders pay Wally Terry the ultimate compliment. They say his multiple talents will make it difficult to replace him as city director of development ahead of his April 30 retirement.
Terry's achievements in his role have come even though he had built a career in banking rather than municipal government when he began working for the city 10 years ago. Still, he said, he was prepared.
"My background had always involved dealing with city government," said Terry, who will turn 68 on Oct. 2. "I was over construction for the bank so I was very familiar with managing construction lending. My job also gave me a background in compliance, and reading regulations and city code."
Officials plan to begin interviews this week for his heir apparent and hope to have someone hired in time to work alongside Terry for several months.
The City Council voted to accept Human Resources Director Richelle Sandlin's recommendation that a City Council committee interview five of the 23 applicants. The committee will then select finalists for final interviews with the full City Council.
The selection process could be complicated by elected city officials' disagreements about the future of the position. Council members have raised issues about whether too many departments fall under the director of development and whether the mayor should directly supervise the heads of those departments.
But whatever happens with the director of development position in the future, council members agree that Terry has had a positive impact on his hometown in that role.
“Wally is such an asset to the city because he has a lot to offer and a lot of knowledge about so many different things,” Councilman Billy Jackson said.
Councilman Charles Kirby said Terry is like a talented football player who can play multiple positions. He said the city has benefited greatly from Terry’s knowledge, derived from a career in the banking industry and from service on the Planning Commission.
“The city has done a good job taking advantage of his assets,” Kirby said.
Fresh start with city
After getting laid off as a bank executive when First American Bank was sold to RBC in 2009, Terry was free to lead the Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority’s capital campaign and serve on the Planning Commission. That opened the possibility of helping the city even more.
Terry said he tried initially to work as a consultant for the city, but liability insurance issues were an obstacle.
He was hired in 2010 as assistant to then-Mayor Don Stanford. His job title was director of general services.
Terry said neither he nor the mayor knew what his job would entail. Stanford said this month his idea was to use Terry as a kind of a public relations person.
"I thought he could sell Decatur," Stanford said. "He knew so many folks from being in the banking business. He was a good communicator."
Terry said he didn't have a long-term vision for his position. "I was just happy to have a place I could help my community at the time," he said.
The job evolved in the first three years, Terry said, into helping the mayor communicate with the City Council, staff and constituents "while avoiding personnel matters."
His first project was overseeing completion of the new animal shelter at Wilson Morgan Park that was already behind schedule and over budget.
“We worked for three years together and Mayor Stanford gave me full confidence,” Terry said. “We never had a cross word with each other.”
Much of Terry’s first years with the city were spent dealing with the repercussions of the 2008 recession, and city officials continued to add to his responsibilities.
Former Mayor Don Kyle this month said the city had about 15 departments at the time and that was too many. He said he wanted to combine a number of departments.
First, Terry was placed over the Community Development, Planning, and Building departments, three areas that Kyle said are critical to city development. The Engineering Department was added to his oversight later.
“I was very pleased and surprised with the amount of information Wally absorbs in a short period of time,” Kyle said. “He seemed to grasp the nuances of government bureaucracy and he was able to create a business-friendly atmosphere.”
Kyle remembered a time when a business was considering a project in Decatur and the company’s leaders wanted to meet with city department and utility leaders who might work on the project.
“Quite frankly, they were amazed he could have so many people, and the right people, in place so quickly,” Kyle said.
Kyle said Terry is effective in using his banking skills when dealing with contractors, especially when drawn-out city decisions could mean project delays or cost increases.
“He never comes across confrontational,” Kyle said. “Wally will use that PR bank skill in which he can turn you down for a loan but make sure you come back later when you’re in a better financial situation.”
Terry said he was "blessed" with the working environment at City Hall because it gave him a chance to contribute. He admitted he came into the office with a short-term perspective but found city government often requires patience.
Councilman Chuck Ard said it helped that Terry has a personality that allows him to get along with almost everyone. He said Terry isn’t a micromanager but he knows what’s going on in his departments.
“He’s usually able to find common ground so they can work on a solution,” Ard said.
No mayoral campaign
City Council President Paige Bibbee said Terry is an “even-tempered” person who rarely shows his temper and avoids the politics of city government whenever possible.
This is why Bibbee said she’s not surprised Terry never ran for mayor, although his name often came up whenever qualifying approached. Terry said he did consider running for state House of Representatives but he never considered running for mayor.
"I always preferred to work from within to make a difference," Terry said.
Mayor Tab Bowling said Terry is process-driven and someone who “does everything with integrity and character. I know protecting his name is very important, and he’s also the type of guy who will give someone a pat on the back or support when they’re sick and hurting emotionally.”
Bibbee said Terry gave her support after her father died not long after she was elected to the City Council in 2016.
“I’m a daddy’s girl and Wally Terry has really been there to support me,” Bibbee said.
Terry said he enjoys the impact he can have on his hometown, and Bibbee said he doesn’t care which district he’s dealing with as long as it helps the city.
Terry looks back at his tenure with the satisfaction of several big accomplishments. Among those he mentioned were the Decatur Mall incentives agreement; the arts and entertainment district formation; the retail development of the U.S. 31/Alabama 67 intersection; the city receiving a $14.2 million Build grant for the planned Alabama 20 overpass; the formation of the truck routes to relieve congestion and the formation of the One Decatur comprehensive plan.
He said the achievement he's most proud of since leaving banking may be "the momentum that our downtown has going for it" that began with his fund-raising efforts for the Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Association's Partnership for Progress. The campaign to raise $2.7 million came in the aftermath of the 2008 recession and some questioned the timing, but Terry said the eventually successful effort was promoted "as a community-driven project for those that saw the value of a vibrant downtown."
As the fund-raising wound down, he began his city tenure and was still able "to work with both public and private partners in helping move this vision forward. There are so many who have been involved, starting with the Ralph Jones family, Temple Electric, The Brick, Simp McGhee's and others who, as an example, were there before it was cool to be downtown. They never gave up on Decatur.
"Every great city has a great downtown, and we are well on our way in both regards, not because of me but because our community began believing in itself in the worst of times."
While most have been happy with Terry’s contributions, there is talk about a reorganization or change to Terry’s position. Officials plan to hire Terry's successor initially as his assistant to learn from him.
Terry said the director of development needs an assistant director, even after he retires.
“Sometimes I feel like my departments get shortchanged when I'm in a meeting all day and there's no one around who can answer questions and make decisions," Terry said.
Bowling said he would like to continue with a director of development to oversee supervisors in each of the four departments Terry is responsible for.
But Kirby said the city is “too top-heavy,” and he would like to see the department supervisors go back to answering to the mayor.
“His job is very unique and I don’t know if we’re doing to find someone else with Wally’s skill set,” Kirby said.
Jackson said the city needs to hire a certified planner and make sure the other departments have employees with the necessary education and experience to push the city forward.
“Other cities are outpacing Decatur in many different ways because we’re lacking expertise in certain departments,” Jackson said.
Bibbee said she thinks the city “has been unfair” to Terry in piling so much responsibility on him. She said she also agrees with Jackson that the city needs a certified planner and the city is already working toward making this happen.
“I do think you will see some changes,” Bibbee said, in the director of development role.
Ard said he would like to see the director of development be able to focus on economic development, but he doesn’t agree that the city needs a certified planner.
“Unfortunately, Billy doesn’t recognize that many of our people do have many years of experience that can make up for a lack of certification,” Ard said.
Terry has unfinished tasks he hopes to tackle in his remaining eight months with the city. He said he wants to get the Alabama 20 overpass and the Morris residential development and associated sewer extension on their way towards completion.
He said he wants to make progress in rewriting the city's outdated zoning codes. He would also like to "get something started" on improvements to the appearance of Sixth Avenue, from the river bridge to Delano Park.
Then he'll be ready for someone new to bring "their enthusiasm, their energy level to wanting to take on what we've got ahead of us in this town, and it's good stuff."
Terry said he doesn't have any definite plans for after retirement except to spend more time with his grandkids and travel some.
"I plan to stay involved in the community," Terry said. "I'll always do that in some fashion, but it's not appropriate to talk about those plans yet."