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Myrtle Beach’s outgoing city manager reflects on his time on the Grand Strand, his years on the job and what’s next

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City Manger John Pedersen talks to the Myrtle Beach City Council and thanks them moments after they agreed to offer Deputy City Manager Jonathan F. “Fox” Simons Jr. the city manager job on Thursday. The council is slated to meet Jan. 7. Pedersen announced his retirement earlier in the year. Mayor Brenda Bethune said 66 people applied for the position. Bethune said the 66 candidates were narrowed to 11 semifinalists and eventually down to three candidates. The city council interviewed three finalists over two days in executive session. Simons started working for the city in 2015 as an assistant city manager. He began serving as deputy city manager in 2019. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Myrtle Beach City Manager John Pedersen is retiring after six years in the city manager role. He previously served 12 years as Myrtle Beach’s assistant city manager.

The Herald conducted a Q&A with Pedersen about his time with the city and his future. Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: You’ve worked with different city councils and with current Mayor Brenda Bethune and her predecessor John Rhodes. What has that been like? How has working for different personality types and under different directions been?

A: John and I got along great. Obviously, [he has] a really unique personality. But at the end of the day, he really did lead Myrtle Beach. And it's all about trying to make the city better. So, I have nothing but respect for John. Brenda has been wonderful to work with. The amount of energy she puts in her job, I've never seen anything close to that in any other mayor. And without her, we certainly wouldn't be where we are now with the downtown, which I think is being able to convince the community that this is a real thing.

Q: What are your thoughts on your successor, Fox Simons? I know you have worked with him for a few years.

A: I couldn't be more delighted. Fox has been the deputy city manager for at least the last couple years. And that person actually operates as the chief operating officer. I've spent a lot of my time focused on the downtown master plan the last couple years, and Fox has taken a lot of the day-to-day responsibilities away and has done a beautiful job with that. He has the operational knowledge. He actually brings eight years of city management experience with him from before he got here from Easley, and his experience with downtown redevelopment in Greenville is extensive, so I really couldn't be more pleased with Council's selection. I think they made a great selection. Fox has got the support of the staff and the support of the workforce, and I think he's going to be a great city manager.

Q: What are some challenges you feel the new city manager and the city itself face going forward? Obviously, we’re in the time of COVID-19.

A: COVID is obviously a concern, and I think if you think about what the pandemic has taught us, I think it is that a city whose economy is almost completely based on tourism is going to suffer to a greater extent than a city with a more diversified economic base. I'm hoping that, going forward, the city and the chamber (of commerce) and the business community work together toward that diversification. There's a lot of things, a lot of potential out there. What could be better than living in Myrtle Beach for a young person? The pandemic has kind of made us rethink the idea of working from home. What better place to work from home than Myrtle Beach? So, I think we've got all sorts of opportunities. We've got a lot of folks moving into the community, a lot of folks retiring from the Northeast and from the Midwest, coming here to retire. Those are folks with some disposable income, but they're also of an age where they have some medical issues. And I see the medical sector in our community really expanding at a very unprecedented rate. I think that's a real opportunity for us in this community as well. But I think economic diversification is a challenge. I think the diversification of some of our revenue sources is something that we've got to strongly consider moving forward. I think the idea of us being exclusively a tourism-driven town, I think that day is over, and that we need to think, OK, what is the appropriate way to distribute the revenues that are coming into the city? And how are they used?

Q: Looking back, what are some accomplishments in Myrtle Beach that you’re proud of? What are areas that maybe need improvement?

A: Probably one of the areas that I do feel a lot of pride in, when I got the job, [former city manager] Tom Leath, my predecessor, had really built kind of an all-star team of department heads. Really good group, a lot of experience, very sharp, worked together very well. But almost every single one of them was going to be retiring within three to five years. So, I knew and talked to the council about needing to build that team to reestablish it. And by and large, that has happened. I think after [Chief Financial Officer Emeritus] Mike [Shelton] and I retire, we'll only have one department head that was in the position they're now in when I took over. So, we've had just a full-scale turnover in that group. And I'm just as proud of this leadership group as I was with that group. The group that I got, I think that they're just as strong. I think that they are dedicated public servants. And I'm really proud of the group of leaders that we have in the organization. I'm also really proud, from top to bottom, of the individuals in the organization. We talk a lot about being public servants. As someone who’s spent 43 years in public service, that means a lot more to me than just somebody that gets paid by the government. We have about 900 city employees, and they are the finest group of public servants I think you'll find anywhere. Just the sort of things that they do and the way that they do their job day in and day out I think is unparalleled.

Q: Do you consider downtown redevelopment being underway part of your legacy? What challenges have you faced getting to this point? 

A: I do feel that I played a role in helping the downtown get where it is, but I have to really give a lot of tribute to the city councils. [They] deserve the most credit because they got behind this. Both the previous council, the one that appointed me, and this council now have really gone out there and made some things happen, particularly this last council in an environment where it's very tough to make things happen. Going back to our challenges for a second, one of the challenges that we have is the perception and, to some degree, the reality of, crime in our downtown area. And we have certainly done everything that we know how to do in terms of policing that area. We've probably got five times more police in that area on a given Saturday night in the summertime then we had previously. We've got cameras. We've got all sorts of electronics and technical devices. But I still think that the key to that is changing the environment. And I can't emphasize how strongly I feel about that. I can't think of a single city that has a reputation as a really cool place to be where you're not thinking about the downtown. You don't think about the suburbs of the cities, you think about the downtown, whether that's a cool place to be. On the other hand, I can't think of the opposite either. I can't think of a single place with a cool downtown [where you would say] “I'd rather not go there.” What happens in the downtown in the city sets the reputation of the entire community. And for us to thrive the way we need to, the downtown needs to change. I'm incredibly pleased about the progress has been made the last couple of years with the adoption of the downtown master plan, the framework, the implementation plan, the advanced plan. And now finally seeing some construction that's taking place is very, very gratifying. I believe that the community as a whole is starting to understand why this is such an important thing.

Q: Do you envision Myrtle Beach becoming a place like Durham (where Pedersen previously worked) or Chapel Hill, North Carolina? Or how about Charleston? Or a mix? Or something new altogether?

A: I think Myrtle Beach has its own separate identity. I don't think it's going to be anything like Durham. Durham had its own unique identity. Myrtle Beach has got its own identity. … It’s an identity that I hope evolves, one a little bit broader than what we've traditionally looked at.

Q: You, like other city leaders, have had critics. How would you respond to them, whether it’s the residents or folks in the business community?

A: I think at some point, we realized that there are certain critics out there, it's not going to matter what we do. … There are certain people looking to find sinister reasons behind everything. The stuff that bothers me are the allegations of corruption and underhanded dealings and cronyism … which just doesn't take place on a daily basis. But there are people that spread that, and the damage that they do to the community is terrible. There are people that will just jump on any excuse to make the city look bad. And I think that is really, really unfortunate. The abuse that Mayor Bethune takes is ridiculous. I've never seen anybody that works harder, whose love for the city is greater. I’ve never seen anything even remotely approaching unethical from any council member that I've dealt with here. And it just really bothers me when I read the stuff [where] people use the word corruption so flippantly when these are people who are trying their very best to make the right decisions for this community. That really, really bothers me.

Q: One thing that journalists often focus on is executive sessions, which you see a lot when it comes to local government. Do you believe in fewer executive sessions, or do you feel those meetings are warranted and for a good reason?

A: When we go into executive session, we announce the purpose for it. If you're doing a lot of stuff, we're going to be going into executive session. We've been doing a lot of stuff. Particularly, we've been trying not to go it alone and by searching for partners, and that then gets into contractual discussions. And I do think that any board is going to want to be comfortable with what the contract says and have it presented privately before it's voted on publicly. Property acquisitions are another case where you can't get into deciding how much you are willing to pay for a property in a public setting. It just is not appropriate. Both the current city attorney and the previous city attorney were very good at saying, “Hey, we're getting away from the reason why we went into executive session, we have to bring the conversation back on point.” The councils have been very good at heeding that advice and doing so. I understand why journalists don’t like it. But if you're doing a lot of things and being aggressive and proactive at making the city better, you're going to get into the sorts of discussions that the state law allows you to do in executive session. I can't remember a time when we went into executive session for something [in which] I thought, well, we really should be out in public session for this.

Q: What are some difficulties you’ve experienced on the job?

A: Certainly, this past year was incredibly challenging. This was not the type of year that I would have picked to have had as my last year. Dealing with the pandemic has been tough, particularly early on when the city had to make decisions about closing down the businesses or the city to keep the pandemic from spreading, realizing there were people that needed their jobs to be open to put bread on the table. That was very difficult to balance. Ultimately, going through what we did with the voluntary separation program and then having to do an involuntary separation for [roughly] 10 employees was a really difficult thing. All the people that went out were veteran city employees. Fortunately, we had about 40 or so that went out voluntarily under their own terms and took the settlement offer. There were about 10 [where] we had to go and ask them to go ahead and submit their retirement. So that was difficult. Easily, I think, the biggest professional challenge that I've ever had to deal with. 

Q: Do you feel the city’s efforts to deter crime have been successful the past few years?

A: Yeah. There is no question that that's the case. If you look at Part 1 crimes, they continue to drop per capita. The crime rate peaked in about 2006 I think, and now, I think it's down about 40% and probably will be down even more after this year. The plans the city council put into effect to increase the pay of our police officers, increase the number of police officers and invest in technology has definitely paid off. At the same time, though, what's happened is you have the critics who are out there that are looking for individual instances of crime and magnifying that. And that’s a real shame. Any community's got individual instances of crime. But if you look at what the trends have been, trends have been really down significantly. I also feel very good about the way that our police go about their business and the efforts that they try to make to build relationships in the community and to be there to help and support the residents. I feel particularly good about that. I think that our police department has done basically a pretty heroic job in the last five or six years.

Q: Why did you decide to come to Myrtle Beach?

A: I had only worked for one employer as an adult. I was very proud of my service in Durham and had competed to become the city manager unsuccessfully there and felt if I really wanted to accomplish my dream of being a manager, I needed to do that someplace else. And, like everyone else, I was familiar with Myrtle Beach by coming here for vacation. I kept going back and forth. I literally faxed my resume in at 4:30 on the day the applications were closing. I was blessed to find out about the opening and have been unbelievably blessed to be in this position and in this community, particularly to get to work with the people that I get to work with.

Q: Do you plan on staying in Myrtle Beach? What do you plan on doing once retired? Will you stick around to help city council in case they have any questions or need help? 

A: Yes, I plan on staying in the community. I do love this community. I would like to continue to serve it as a volunteer in whatever capacity I'm needed. So yeah, I'm going to stay around. This is home now. I've got one daughter that graduated from Coastal (Carolina University) and another daughter that graduated from Horry Georgetown [Technical College.] This is home for the family at this point, and we don't intend to go anywhere.

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