Ozark City Administrator Steve Childers has been hired by the city of Springfield to head its Department of Planning and Development starting next year.
Childers will oversee a 25-member team and serve as principal adviser to City Manager Jason Gage, according to a news release from the city. The planning director also engages with community stakeholders and directs implementation of Forward SGF, the city’s 20-year comprehensive plan adopted in 2022.
Childers served as Ozark’s first planning director before rising to the city administrator position in 2007. He earned a master’s degree in planning from Missouri State University.
“My background is in planning and development, and I’ve always liked that aspect of the job,” he said. “I like doing things the right way, working with developers and design professionals to ensure a project is something a community can be proud of.”
Gage said Childers’ breadth of experience was the key factor in his hiring.
“He understands the technical aspects of planning, the topic of growth and has expansive administrative knowledge,” Gage said via email. “With all of the initiatives the city is working on that involve our planning function, his combination of experience is perfect for the position.”
Gage said Childers is already known to many people in the city, and that will help him to build relationships with staff, organizational leadership and the community.
“We want him to quickly become familiar with our planning and zoning function operations, approaches and challenges,” Gage said. “He will also need to dive into our most impactful initiatives.”
Among these initiatives, Gage said, are a zoning code update, housing study, downtown parking study, Lake Springfield development, neighborhood revitalization plans, the Grant Avenue Parkway and Renew Jordan Creek projects, and current zoning and development applications.
Childers’ initial contract includes a salary of $175,000, according to city officials. He replaces Susan Istenes, who quit the role suddenly in May. Assistant Director Brendan Griesemer has been acting director since that time.
Childers’ hire is the result of a national search, through which the city received 26 applications, according to officials. He is set to start his new role Jan. 2.
Childers said development is all about seeking balance between the economic marketplace and the sustainability of the community.
“What is the community good versus the economic good?” he said. “Economic development is good for the community. You have to find that sweet spot between what the developer wants and what the project requires to be successful.”
Building professional relationships is also vital, he said.
“One of the things I pride myself in is my ability to build strong business relationships that are based on trust, based on respect – based on the fact that I understand what your objective is,” he said.
He added that in his work with developers, he has learned that they value clear communication.
“I always heard developers say, ‘Give me a set of rules and let me play by them, but don’t change the rules in the middle of the game,’” he said. “Communication begins at the very start of the process.”
He added that flexibility is important.
“I don’t think that being hard-nosed is the way to go,” he said.
Asked to name some of his accomplishments during his 25-year career, the last 16 of which were as city administrator, Childers cited his role in many of Ozark’s signature projects, like the transformation of Ozark’s downtown square, as well as roadway improvements, bridge projects including the Riverside Inn bridge and the Old Mill bridge, and the Ozark Mill, a public-private partnership. He also celebrates the preservation of park land in Garrison Springs, a property saved by finding state and federal grants.
“A rising tide raises all ships,” he said. “If you can work together and bring local, state and federal dollars together to a project, as well as private, the public benefits in a much broader way.”
Mary Kromrey, executive director of Ozark Greenways Inc., has worked with Childers on the Chadwick Flyer Trail project to connect Springfield and Ozark. The city of Ozark this spring received a $1.2 million grant in American Rescue Plan Act funds from the Missouri Department of Economic Development to help pave the way for the multimillion-dollar Highway 65 overpass that is a key connector for a greenway trail.
“He was an early adopter of the Chadwick Flyer Trail vision, and his support and energy towards this project were greatly appreciated,” she said. “The synergy created by him, his board of aldermen, residents and Public Works Director Jeremy Parsons moved this trail plan from the shelf to implementation.”
She added that Ozark Greenways also partners with the city of Springfield, and the organization is eager to collaborate with Childers in his new role.
Kristen Haseltine, president and CEO of Show Me Christian County, said Childers has been a force for good in Ozark.
“Steve had a positive impact on strategic growth and development in Ozark, and he’ll do the same in Springfield,” she said. “He’s willing to listen, adapt and look for creative solutions, all while championing and supporting great ideas.”
‘I am available’
Childers said he welcomes people to visit his office.
“I would like everyone to know that I am available,” he said. “I don’t want you to come to the city of Springfield or the Department of Planning and Development and feel like you’re up against a wall or you’re not being heard or feel like our goals are not aligned. We may all have different things we have to do because that is the job that we have, but if we can agree on what the end result needs to be, we’ll forge a path to get there.”
He added that every project – small, medium or large – has challenges, and they are all unique.
“We try to take the uniqueness of every project and fit it into a square box of rules, one size fits all,” he said. “We live in a gray world, yet we have to operate under a set of black-and-white rules.”
Many problems can be overcome by sitting down and talking about them, Childers said.
He acknowledged that development can be a fraught subject for both developers and community members. In Ozark, he said, a challenge has been those longtime residents who say they want new restaurants and stores but who also say they don’t want Ozark to change at all.
“A planner has got to have vision,” he said. “I hope that I can understand the big picture and the desires and goals set forth in Forward SGF. I look forward to being the guy that gets to be somewhat involved in that.”
Gage said Childers’ background will be helpful with complex projects.
“We believe Steve can make a significant difference in the review and application of our development processes,” he said. “This is one area his background as a planner and city administrator will be very helpful to us. We know that Steve will bring with him some great ideas worth consideration and look forward to that.”
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