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Good vibe expected from new Modesto city manager

Greg Nyhoff, in a visit to this city a few months ago, noticed the Modesto Nuts was a farm club of the Colorado Rockies in his home state.

That was hardly the only reason Nyhoff sought the Modesto city manager's job. But assets such as minor league ball clubs, libraries and community centers are things that Nyhoff seems to care about along with managing large capital projects and municipal operations.

People who have worked with Nyhoff — in small cities and large — say Modestans can expect a competent, personable manager who is easy to work with and likes to be visible in the community.

He starts his job in Modesto on June 1.

"He is extremely professional, he is very kind, he is comprehensive in his approach," said Penelope Culbreth-Graft, city manager of Colorado Springs. "He considers the human element on the employee side and considers how issues affect people in the community."

Since July 2006, Nyhoff has been the assistant city manager in Colorado Springs, which also has a Colorado Rockies farm club. He was one of the front- runners to become the top executive for Colorado Springs but in November the job went to Culbreth-Graft, who came from Southern California.

Nyhoff spent 14 years as city manager of two smaller cities, Fountain, Colo., and Montague, Mich., and his desire to be the top manager again drew him to the Modesto position, he said.

In Fountain, he led an effort resulting in an All-American City Award in 2002 that reflects how the city matured during his eight years there. The National Civic League recognized the city for having a plan to address rapid growth and development issues, for youth initiatives, and a community center that offers recreation, education and health care services.

Nyhoff said he enjoyed working with the school district and groups such as the YMCA to convert a building for the community center.

"People believing in themselves is the best way to improve the image of a community," he said. "If people want the community's image to improve, they will work together to do that."

During his tenure, Fountain grew from 13,000 to more than 20,000 residents. According to city officials, Nyhoff worked with the area library system to open a branch library and a new city hall was built.

"He was always a pleasure to work around," said Dave Smedsrud, Fountain's deputy city manger and planning director. "He likes to delegate. He picks members of the management team and gives them the tools to do their job."

Smedsrud said the city has a "smart growth" approach to managing its 7 percent to 8 percent annual growth rate. That means growth with a mix of homes, shopping outlets and places to work, with a high level of services, while minimizing environmental impact.

Nyhoff and his wife, Cindy, a school board member, live in Fountain and are considered leaders in the community, a councilman said.

"During Greg's time here, the city really moved forward," said Councilman Bryan Johnson. "He hired city staff who are still here today and are pushing things forward. I hate to see him leave the community, but I know this is a great opportunity for him."

Nyhoff also has worked in larger ponds. He was operations manager for a government serving the 22,000-acre Highland Ranch Metropolitan District, a Denver-area planned community with 90,000 residents.

In Colorado Springs, a city of more than 400,000 residents, he manages several city departments with more than 700 employees and $200 million in operational and capital budgets. In the past two years, he worked on a stormwater enterprise fund that generates $15 million a year for stormwater improvements.

Nyhoff also worked on an urban renewal project to revitalize a shopping area near the city's University of Colorado campus and worked with Frontier Airlines on an incentive agreement to build a maintenance hangar at the city airport.

Modesto officials considered Nyhoff a leading candidate early in the five-month recruitment proces despite the lack of a master's degree in public administration. The posted job description said the degree was highly desirable.

Nyhoff has a bachelor's in business administration and economics from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In his view, it's better to have the knowledge gained from his 22 years of municipal management. "Certainly, there are a lot of folks with master's degrees," he said Wednesday. "I have had a lot of continuous training at professional conferences and did a course with the Center for Creative Leadership."

Modesto Councilman Brad Hawn said Nyhoff stood out because of his integrity and professionalism.

"Some of the others didn't have direct city manager-type experience or were from smaller cities. Greg has crossed all the sectors," he said.

Nyhoff is leaving a picturesque city that's often near the top of lists of best places to live, for a city that's often near the bottom.

He said those appraisals are in the eyes of the beholder. Modesto has its strengths — downtown, the Gallo Center for the Arts and the newly opened Virginia Corridor bike path. And spending money on marketing Modesto will help build the image, he said.

If the budget allows, Nyhoff said he wants to move forward with other improvements that the council sees as important.

When he starts here in June, the city will be in the middle of a budget process that could be more drastic than 2007-08, when the city was forced to trim millions of dollars in spending.

In hard times, cities look at the best use of money and consider whether contracting out services might be more cost-effective, he said. New sources of revenue, such as the half-percent sales tax that goes before Stanislaus County voters in November, can help the city with road improvements.

Nyhoff said a 1 percent sales tax for roads and transportation in the Colorado Springs area was accepted because the measure was fairly specific in listing projects and promised benefits for the region.

He is coming from one of the fastest growing regions in the nation, and has firm ideas for managing development when Modesto's growth picks up.

"Every community that is successful is a growing community," Nyhoff said. "You have to have plans in place for utilities and transportation for years out. You have to figure out ways to finance those, whether it's development fees or development contributions. I know it's certainly one thing the council wants to do."

His management approach is to set expectations, and let city staff take the time to run with assignments. "Our customers come first," he added. "We need to pursue the highest level of customer service with the budget constraints we have."

Culbreth-Graft said she has talked with Nyhoff about Proposition 13, public meeting laws and other nuances of local government in California.

The move makes sense for Nyhoff's family in other ways. His daughter, Anna, expects, after healing from an injury, to play volleyball for the University of California at San Diego, which has California State University, Stanislaus, on its schedule. His son Phil is approaching college age and son Luke is getting ready for high school.

Culbreth-Graft said he shouldn't have trouble with the transition. "I find you can put a good manager anywhere and he will thrive."

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

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