Public Works Director to retire after 33 years working to keep city clean, clear and beautiful
You might not expect a Hamline University graduate in sociology to be hired as the city’s Director of Public Works. When Jeff Davies took a job with the department in 1986, he came to Grand Rapids with several years of road construction experience under his belt on top of his degree in sociology.
“It fit well because I’m a social person and I had the roads and construction background,” explained Davies who will be retiring this month after 33 years with the Grand Rapids Public Works Department. “It’s made my career very fulfilling for me - getting to meet people of all ages from youth programs to seniors and everyone in between. It’s been a very fortunate opportunity to work for the city. I love Grand Rapids.”
Davies was first hired as the street superintendent working under Glen Hodgson. It wasn’t long until he realized “there’s so much more to public works than just streets.” In 1989, the city merged the parks and streets maintenance crews under public works. Over the course of time, the department has taken on building maintenance, cemetery, stormwater and airport maintenance as well.
Thirty years ago, Davies was the youngest employee of the original crew. He credits his supervisors at the time for being open to change. Working with the city’s budget, the structure of the department was modified and Davies was eventually named director, working closely with the city’s engineering department.
“Every city does things differently. I think we’ve done a good job at doing what’s good for Grand Rapids,” said Davies of the city’s employees. “From the department heads to the councilors, we have good people citywide - they’re passionate about what they do and are in it for the right reasons.”
Davies has worked with various committees and groups on several projects over the years including the Sports Complex, the new library, street reconstruction, trails, walking bridges and more.
“When I started we had 53 miles of streets, now there’s 93 and we’ve quadrupled our sidewalks and trails.”
Another big responsibility of the public works department is snow removal and if you ask Davies he’ll tell you “we have more snow than any city.” With sidewalks adjacent to highways, the city must make sure all snow removed from these sidewalks be cleared. One change that’s really made a big difference in city snow removal has been the implementation of the Parking Ordinance.
“I have to give Scott Johnson (GRPD Chief) credit for the snow ordinance. It’s something that’s been in the making but there was fear of what the reaction to it would be.”
With city council support and good communication, the ordinance has greatly improved access to snow piles and efficiency in removing the snow. After a snowfall, the ordinance requires no parking on city streets until they are completely cleared. This eliminates plows from having to push snow around parked cars.
“It was the second biggest step we’ve taken to change snow removal,” said Davies who explained the first step was the purchase and use of a snowblower for clearing streets. “Now that we’re in our third year (of the ordinance) I think people realize the level of service has improved. Plus, economically, it saves taxpayer money because the plows don’t have to go back down the streets again.”
The improvement to public safety with the ordinance is also a benefit, according to Davies as he explained how plows are able to clear intersections for better visibility.
Davies has been pleased with the response he’s received from the city council and other city administration about changes and ideas either he or his employees have presented over the years.
“If you have an idea to implement, we’ve been comfortable enough to try things. Some things didn’t work out but some did,” he said. “We don’t want to do things just because it’s the way we’ve always done it. If you’re doing it the same as we did 30 years ago, you’re a dinosaur.”
Technology has really changed the way public works does things. For example, salt application equipment can now be carefully calibrated according to the conditions of the streets so that they don’t apply too much salt.
“We’re trying to be smart in the way we’re doing things - that’s so important.”
Davies is also proud of the intergovernmental collaboration between the city of Grand Rapids and other surrounding communities, as well as with the state and county.
“We all have the same passion and vision to get things done.”
When Davies visits other cities throughout the state or elsewhere he admits “I drive my wife crazy,” because he’ll want to drive around block after block looking at the way they do things elsewhere and thinking about ideas he could bring back to Grand Rapids.
One such idea has been the summer flower baskets. About 30 years ago, local leaders started a beautification movement with whisky barrel flower pots downtown.
“At that time, I thought, I have enough to do already; 30 years later and I’m known as ‘the flower guy,’” chuckled Davies who sought help from the cities of Ely and Redwing in creating flower arrangements downtown.
The beautification efforts haven’t stopped with flowers.
“We did the paver bricks downtown, the antique lighting, the hanging baskets, the Big Chair and it’s been growing from there. We get a lot of calls from mayors driving through town who want to know how to do our flowers.”
A big improvement, in Davies’ opinion, was the addition of round-abouts in town.
“I’m a big fan. The traffic flow is great and maintenance is awesome - at a minimum. Also, there are no issues during power outages with no traffic signals.”
Davies is passing his position on to Grand Rapids City Engineer Matt Wegworth who will also serve as Director of Public Works and Kevin Koetz who has taken the position of Public Works Superintendent. His official last day is Aug. 23 but Davies has already left most of his duties to Wegwerth and Koetz this summer.
“I think the town looks good this summer; they’ve done a great job.”
Davies and his wife plan to stay in Grand Rapids where their sons and grandchildren also live. He said he hopes they can do more traveling, especially in the winter.
“But I’ve never disliked plowing snow; it’s what we do in public works.”
This past January and February, with the record snowfall, was the “most challenging period of time in my career,” says Davies who explained that crews worked more nights this past winter than some summers. “The crews have always been able to handle things.”
A department motto for Grand Rapids Public Works is focused on random acts of kindness, explained Davies, “We always keep in mind that most of the time, we can help people out.”
There will be a retirement celebration for Davies on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Public Works/Public Utilities Service Center (500 SE Fourth Street). Burgers, brats, cake and refreshments will be served. The community is welcome to attend.
“I’m looking forward to (retirement) and taking care of my honey-do list,” added Davies with a smile.