Hugg led town departments for almost 15 years while population of Smyrna doubled

Retiring Smyrna Town Manager Dave Hugg said he probably would have never thought about applying for the job if it wasn’t for his neighbor.

In 2002, Hugg was an adjunct associate professor in the University of Delaware’s Urban Affairs graduate program, after serving as state planning director during Gov. Tom Carper’s administration.

“My neighbor, Len Rippa, was on town council and he said, ‘You need to come work for the town,’” Hugg said.

Three main reasons led Hugg to consider applying.

“A university is more bureaucratic than any other agency,” he said. “Teaching is great but the whole ‘publish or perish’ notion of writing and research to get grants is frustrating. I wanted to teach, but I didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy.”

Also, he and his wife, Jaci, had moved to Smyrna in 2000, and he wasn’t exactly enjoying the drive to the university.

But mostly, Hugg thought that with his background, the position would be a good fit for him and the town.

“All my experience and training led me to think this is a job I can do,” he said.

Now, almost 15 years later, Hugg said he definitely made the right decision, but he said he had a good indicator shortly after he started.

“In the first couple of weeks I was here, I rode up to an area where we’d had a water main break at about 2 a.m. with a pot of coffee for the staff,” he said. “Most of them probably didn’t know who I was or they thought, ‘Why is he checking up on us?’”

After Hugg offered the crew coffee, he watched what they did under difficult conditions in the middle of the night to restore water service, just one of many times he witnessed the dedication of the employees.

“We have the best staff in the world,” Hugg said. “Usually by the time they tell me what’s happened, the staff has already fixed it or dispatched someone to fix it. My job would not have been as much fun without really dedicated employees. There’s no reason for towns to exist except to provide services for people. That’s who we work for. If we start with that premise and everyone works for that, it’s a really fun place to be.”

He said some of the most challenging parts of the job are dealing with snow and power outages.

“Snow’s a four-letter word. It’ll be nice to be able to lay back and not have to worry about that,” he said.

While the town has had a few electric outages that took longer to find the source than everyone would have liked, Hugg also pointed to all the preventive maintenance that kept problems from happening, like trimming tree branches away from power lines, and the many times when the crew helped the town weather a storm.

“During Hurricane Sandy, we never lost power. One pole snapped, but our crew found a way to prop it up and keep it in place until the storm was over,” he said. “What a group of people – thank God they worked for me. They’re family. I wouldn’t have any of the success if it wasn’t for all these people.”

Managing growth

Hugg became town manager in 2002 when the population was about 6,000 and now he estimated the population at nearly 12,000.

To keep up with that growth, Hugg said improving utility services is “clearly at the top of the list” of accomplishments by the town during his tenure.

“When I got here the town hadn’t invested a lot in terms of long-term infrastructure. Probably the most significant upgrade in town is in utilities across the board,” he said.

Those improvements include a second electric substation for the town in the Smyrna Business Park, a variety of water and sewer upgrades throughout the town, and the streetscape project downtown with granite curbs, benches, and Victorian-style streetlights after water and sewer upgrades.

Hugg said he led the development of a long-range plan for utility upgrades on an organized basis.

He also implemented a similar schedule for the town’s vehicles and equipment

“The policy had basically been, ‘When it breaks, fix it,’” he said. “We instituted a major equipment replacement schedule. Now we’ve gone to leasing because we have warranty protection and if we find that the vehicle or piece of equipment isn’t the right fit, we can turn it back in and get a replacement that is.”

A new public works building and police station were built during Hugg’s tenure, the town hall was expanded, and upgrades were made to the library and Opera House.

Attracting businesses, attracting jobs

Hugg said he’s proud the town took the major step of installing water and sewer service north of Duck Creek to serve land the town has annexed in New Castle County, including an area east of U.S. Route 13 where a business park is planned.

“We lost a number of business prospects to Middletown because we didn’t have water and sewer ready. This will make us much more competitive,” he said. “I think the town is poised for some really significant projects in the next few years.”

Along with the business park, Hugg said other proposals are in the works at the following sites:

• Mid-Del Auto Parts site just north of the Smyrna Rest Area;

• Former Harris Manufacturing site on West Glenwood Avenue;

• Field along southbound U.S. Route 13 at Carter Road just south of Walgreens;

• Planned barbecue restaurant now undergoing renovations on West Commerce Street.

Another source of pride is the town’s effort to preserve historic properties like the Phillips building on the corner of Main and Commerce and the former Wright mansion on the corner of East Commerce and East streets. In both cases, the town worked with private investors to save buildings that might have otherwise been demolished.

Smyrna Mayor Joanne Masten said Hugg’s many years of state planning experience “have been very beneficial to the town.”

“He’s very visionary,” said Masten. “With his network at both the state and federal level, Smyrna received a $300,000 grant which began the upgrade to the downtown area as well as the recent announcement that Smyrna had achieved Downtown Development District status which will add to growth initiatives.”

Hugg led the effort to secure that $300,000 revolving loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program to help with the renovations to the Phillips building which is literally a cornerstone of the downtown. As the loan is paid back, the money can be lent again and again for other business development projects.

One of the people Hugg worked with on the project was Dr. Bill McGowan, USDA Rural Development State Director.

“For small towns, hiring a town manager may be the most important decision a town council can make during their tenure,” said McGowan. “The day Smyrna hired Dave Hugg it was a win-win for the community and one that will extend well beyond his retirement.”

McGowan called Hugg “an outstanding public innovator.”

Hugg said the projects don’t come without risk.

“The investments we made were costly and it’s hard when you have to pay debt service and you’re not seeing a return on those yet,” Hugg said.

However, once a few businesses move into the business park, the town should benefit from an increase in property taxes and electric usage while providing more jobs for residents which in turn leads to more spending at local businesses.

“Usually what it takes is one or two guys to be pioneers and then others see that success and follow,” he said.

Hugg said he always carries a stack of business cards wherever he goes so if he meets a business owner or walks into a business that would possibly be a good fit for Smyrna, he’s ready to tell them about what the town has to offer. Then he said he goes back every six months or so to give them “a nudge” to see if he can connect them with property owners they can work with.

Retirement and reflection

Hugg, 74, said serving the town has been a rewarding experience.

In his previous job as state planner, he said he’d work years to see one idea come to pass.

“In this job, you can pretty much make things happen fairly quickly. A lot of times I could say, ‘I did something important today,’” he said. “I had the chance to work with the crew, citizens, business owners and government agencies to better the town. Every day was different. It didn’t matter what I had on my agenda, other things would always pop up that would take me in another direction. I used to come in and ask, ‘What went bang last night?’”

Mayor Masten said while Hugg helped the town, he also helped her become a better mayor.

“I am very appreciative of the opportunities that Dave provided me by allowing me to attend meetings with him and expanding my network of contacts which has proven to be advantageous,” said Masten. “I enjoyed my time with him and wish him all the best in his retirement.”

Hugg said his retirement, effective Dec. 27, will provide him with the opportunity to spend more time with his wife who has a new career with innovative therapy and yoga.

“I’m still going to be working, doing some consulting,” he said, as he reflected on his time as town manager. “My personal philosophy is to leave a place better that when you got there. I can say I left the town better and I hope that it will prosper.”