New North Plains manager 'can't wait' to settle in
At his last job, at least once every month, Andy Varner would get on a small commercial airplane and make the nearly 600-mile, two-and-a-half-hour flight from Anchorage, Alaska, to the small Aleutian port city of Sand Point.
These days, Varner's commute doesn't involve any flying. It still isn't great, he admitted — he's staying temporarily in Southeast Portland's Sellwood neighborhood — but the new full-time city manager of North Plains is nonetheless finding his feet.
"You know, for a small town, North Plains has a lot going on," Varner said.
Varner grew up in Missouri and earned his bachelor's degree in business from the University of Missouri. In 2004, he moved to Kenai, Alaska, a city of about 7,000 people south of Anchorage, on an AmeriCorps VISTA assignment as the city's economic development coordinator, he said.
"I didn't know what that meant," Varner said. "But it was great. That was my first foot in the door of local government."
What was originally planned to be a year in Alaska as an AmeriCorps volunteer ultimately stretched into more than a decade.
"I lived in Alaska for almost 14 years, which is way longer than I expected to be there," Varner said.
During that time, Varner got a master's degree in public administration from the University of Alaska Anchorage. He met the woman who would become his wife, an Anchorage resident. He worked on economic development in rural Southwest Alaska as executive director of the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference.
Varner found his way back into city government when he took a job as the city administrator of Sand Point — "It was a cool place," he said of the island city of about 1,000, seat of Alaska's Aleutians East Borough — while living in Anchorage.
Sand Point Mayor Glen Gardner Jr. said it made sense for Varner, whom he described as a "very effective" administrator, to live in Anchorage while working for the City of Sand Point.
Alaska is a vast but sparsely populated state, with more than half of its population living in the Anchorage metropolitan area. Like many rural agencies, the Aleutians East Borough — equivalent to a county in most other states, including Oregon — maintains an office in Anchorage, where Varner worked most of the time.
"It works out very well," Gardner said of the arrangement.
After a little more than four years for Varner as city administrator of Sand Point, his wife persuaded him to start looking for jobs near her siblings in Portland or Denver, he said.
"She'd been wanting to live closer to one of them for a number of years," Varner said.
But of the places he applied to work, he said, he is glad he ended up in North Plains.
"I really wasn't super-long into the search when North Plains came along and they showed interest," Varner said. "It was great."
Varner started work Thursday, Feb. 1. He's still meeting the major players in the region, including Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, which has been North Plains' fire agency since last July, and the Oregon State Police, which maintains a work site in North Plains. He's also getting acquainted with Oregon's land-use laws and regulations, which are very different from those in most other states. And he's also finding local trails to run, like the Banks-Vernonia Trail to North Plains' west.
"I can't wait until I'm about a month into this job and I've got my head wrapped around a lot of things and I can really dig into a lot more," Varner said. "Planning and development is something that I've wanted to do more in this field for a number of years. You just don't really get that opportunity in Alaska unless you (work) in Anchorage or another bigger city."
North Plains Mayor Teri Lenahan said Varner "just clicked" with her and the North Plains City Council during his interview process. He has "hit the ground running," she remarked.
"We anticipate about a month for him to get up to speed," she said, noting that former City Manager Don Otterman is under contract with the city for three more weeks to serve as a resource for Varner as needed. "He's a pretty quick study already."
Gardner said he has no doubt Varner can adjust to working in a very different community than Sand Point or the other cities where he spent time in Alaska.
"He's a great individual — nice person, well-rounded and did a fantastic job here in Sand Point," Gardner said.
He added, "I think he'll fit in well wherever he goes, and the community will be happy with his work."
Varner stepped into a position that had not been filled on a permanent, full-time basis since 2015, when the city chose not to continue its contract with then-City Manager Martha DeBry.
"He has a strong economic development background, and that is a direction that the (North Plains) City Council and the planning commission need to explore for our community," said Lenahan. "We've never explored that with any type of direction, and we're certainly hoping that Andy can bring his skills and his knowledge to the table and help guide us to the future."
North Plains is undergoing rapid growth. Portland State University demographers said last year that the city rocketed from an estimated 2,015 people as of July 2016 up to 2,980 a year later — at 47.9 percent, the fastest growth rate in Washington County and one of the highest in the state. Varner said the city expects about 1,500 more residents within the next couple of years.
One of the new city manager's major goals is finalizing North Plains' comprehensive plan. That document will lay out a unified vision for the city's development, including projects it must undertake to accommodate growth and maintain service levels. City officials are also weighing options for a more modern North Plains City Hall, which would replace the small, aging building where Varner is still organizing his new office at 31360 N.W Commercial St.
With his background in economic development and his experience from 14 years in Alaska, Varner said he is looking forward to the ride.
"I'm happy to be here during this," he said. "This is a great period of transition."
By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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