Hughes accepts Water Authority director's position

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   The Watauga River Regional Water Authority has taken another step forward. Charles Michael Hughes -- a man who has participated in the water authority project since it's creation -- has accepted the job of project manager/director.
   Hughes is a community development consultant with Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, and former manager of Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's Environmental Assistance Center in Johnson City.
   Carter County Executive Dale Fair said he and Elizabethton City Manager Charles Stahl are working on finalizing details before closing out the contract.
   "We've agreed on a salary, but we haven't come up with how to transfer his retirement and health insurance and all those things that go with the job," Fair said.
   Hughes is expected to begin his new duties the second week in July and probably will start the job with an office inside the courthouse, to keep expenses down.
   "We've got a couple of places here that just need a phone and a computer. Eventually we hope to have a stand-alone facility somewhere where it would be separate from any function of any of the utilities or the county or the city," Fair said.
   Hughes, in the meantime, is ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work. He was asked at a meeting with members of the water authority's personnel committee what it would take to get him to come to work.
   "I told them that salary wasn't the primary motivating factor ... that I believed in the project and that I was willing to put my money where my mouth was, and was willing to leave 10 or 12 years with the state and work with this project."
   Hughes will be giving up approximately 1,000 hours of accumulated sick time but will be able to take his retirement with him. "That was probably my biggest sticking point," he said.
   He also wanted to make sure that he wasn't leaving a job with the state for some fly-by-night deal that might never materialize. He sought input from a number of his peers before making his decision, outlining the steps that had been taken from day one to present, and the apparent commitment of the board to the project.
   "Everybody said, 'There's a real opportunity to do something with your life.' And that's the way I feel about it. I think this is one of those chances to do something that's not only progressive, but something that could actually help the city and the county in the long run. If I didn't think this thing would work, I wouldn't take this job," Hughes said.
   In his previous jobs, Hughes has seen other water authorities crop up across the state, including one in Hawkins County. "They just could never come together," he said. One in Cumberland County has been in the works a number of years and has yet to progress to the point the regional water authority has achieved, he said.
   Dickson County, on the other hand, "has been working for over 12 years and they're just getting ready to have their groundbreaking," he said.
   Once Hughes signs on the dotted line, he plans to get to work on administration of the $873,000 grant awarded to the water authority the first week of June by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "I need to see what we can do and can't do with that. We're pretty sure we can use my salary as part of the [local] match on that grant, so that will be of huge help," he said.
   "Then we've got to find office space. I have visions of water pipes dripping on my head, but that's great. Whatever. I'm just ready to get here and do it. It's going to be a great challenge and that's what I like ... something that takes some effort and some work, because those are usually the only things that are worth having."
   Hughes believes Carter County has a lot of potential for development. While the roads are here, he said, there simply are not enough water and sewer lines to promote development that would lure tourism and industry. "Once you start showing some success in that area, then you're going to see some success in some of these other areas, too," he said.
   If done properly, Elizabethton/Carter County could become "the jewel of the Southeast," he said.
   Of course, "We can't get stars in our eyes. We've got to be fiscally responsible. But I really feel like we can make good cases for a lot of these grant/loan combinations and a lot of just pure grants. And I'm looking forward to the challenge," Hughes said.