County's point woman saw it through

Patty Hill Thomas would prefer that her role in building the Gallo Center for the Arts remains a behind-the-scenes story.

Trouble is, people keep pushing her into the spotlight.

"Every steel beam, every stone, every piece of glass, every little detail -- Patty made sure it was perfect, in place and on budget," said Marie Gallo, president of the arts center's board of directors.

Hill Thomas, the county's chief operations officer, has guided the center's construction as project manager since 1999.

That task required her to oversee dozens of building contracts while balancing priorities between the center's two primary funding groups, Stanislaus County and the nonprofit Central Valley Center for the Arts.

Sometimes her work on the Gallo center -- coupled with her regular assignments overseeing the county's budget -- kept her busy at odd hours, managing the project from a BlackBerry. She said she didn't count the hours.

Still, Hill Thomas insists her role was an easy one.

She credits the county Board of Supervisors for setting aside $15 million to build the center when the Modesto City Council backed away.

She thanks the Central Valley Center for the Arts for stepping in to raise the rest of the money for the $40 million building.

And she can't say enough good things about the center's executive architect, Steve Gaffney, and its lead construction man- ager, Don Phemister.

"I get way too much credit," she said. "I'm very uncomfortable with it. This is one heck of a team and they make everything happen."

But like Marie Gallo, the people who were most involved in the push to build the center point to Hill Thomas when they talk about who kept the project on task despite obstacles that could have derailed it.

She's the "quintessential public servant," said Fred Silva, chairman of the arts center's board of directors. "She really has gone beyond the call of duty, and so has the rest of her staff."

Hill Thomas, 52, took the lead on the arts center immediately after she, Gaffney and Phemister wrapped up work on the $55 million Tenth Street Place government building at 10th and J streets.

They were sitting together, joking about how they never would work as a team again, when Reagan Wilson, former Stanislaus County chief executive, walked in and asked whether they wanted to build an arts center.

"We all said, 'Yeah!' " Phemister remembered. "And we were off and running."

Their collaboration hit a few snags quickly.

Setbacks call for changes

The city of Modesto, originally envisioned as a contributor of $15 million to the arts center, in 1999 decided it could not afford to participate as an equal partner with the county in building the project.

In 2003, primary construction bids for the center came in at $25 million -- $6 million more than the county and the Central Valley Center for the Arts esti- mated for that phase of the project.

That forced Hill Thomas and her group back to the design table, where they cut out certain features -- such as an art gallery -- to reduce the cost. In 2004, supervisors awarded a $21.1 million construction contract to Sacramento's Clark & Sullivan builders.

When it opens, the center will cost about $9.5 million more than its estimate of $30.5 million when it was proposed in 1999. Stanislaus County's share of that cost did not rise; the nonprofit group bears the responsibility for those increases.

Hill Thomas hopes people see the project as a transparent one.

"There is nothing you need to be more accountable for than the public's money," she said. "You add on top of that accountability to people who made a gift of a contribution to their county (through the Central Valley Center for the Arts). I hope this community thinks it's their arts center."

Hill Thomas can't resist checking the center's locks some nights. Her son, Johansen High School senior Matthew Cody Thomas, sometimes tags along, as he did when she worked on Tenth Street Place.

It's a habit she shares with Gallo center contractors, who take an unusual sense of ownership over the work on the new building.

One of them, for example, is known to keep cleaning the concrete work outside the arts center.

"This whole effort is simply about people. It's not about steel and plaster and Venetian block," Hill Thomas said. "This would've never happened with- out all the people."

Hill Thomas did her best to thank all of them at the center's grand opening Sept. 10. She gave a speech where she intended to name about 45 contractors.

She got through the list and looked out into a crowd where she saw even more people who had a hand in finishing the building. Hill Thomas started naming them, too.

"She's one of the most humble people I've ever known," Gallo said.

Hill Thomas' graciousness to her colleagues and her modesty pay off as leadership tools, Gallo noted.

"That's her beauty," she said.

"And that is why she's so successful, because she gives credit to everybody, but in the end everyone does what she wants," Gallo added, laughing.

Hill Thomas, a Davis High School graduate, got her start in county government as a temporary employee overseeing a $933,000 state grant to improve the downtown jail in the late 1970s.

It was her first job in her hometown after she graduated from the University of California at Davis with a political science degree and worked for a couple of years in Sacramento.

Since then, Hill Thomas has guided construction of several county buildings, including the 12th Street Building next to the county courthouse and the public safety center on Hackett Road, from her various positions in the chief executive's office. She served as interim county chief executive for about a year after Wilson resigned in July 2003.

"She's very sincere, a very nice person, down to earth and very hardworking," Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O'Brien said. "Taxpayers are getting one heck of a deal with her."

Hill Thomas said she's unsure which county project will gain her attention after the center's gala celebration this week. She's attending most of the opening week concerts and has tickets to catch Tony Bennett with her mother and her husband, Jay Thomas.

Afterward, she intends to carry on the philosophy that drives her work.

"You care about the community you serve," she said. "This is my hometown and I care about it."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.