High times for Joey Preston
Three years ago, Freedom Weekend Aloft — the largest hot air balloon festival east of the Mississippi River — moved from Greenville County, S.C., to neighboring Anderson County, S.C. The annual, four-day festival draws people to Anderson County each Memorial Day weekend bringing an average $10 million to the community.
To kick off the 1999 activities, County Administrator Joey Preston rode in one of the 100 hot air balloons that were in town for the festival. Everything was smooth sailing for Preston and his pilot as they floated quietly over the 718-square-mile county. That is, until they came in for a landing.
The balloon hit a windshear that sent it speeding downward into a pasture. “It didn’t seem like we were coming down fast until right before we hit the ground,” Preston says. “All of a sudden, I remember seeing some horses to my left and some cows to my right.”
The basket drove into the ground, flipped over and tossed the pilot, but Preston held onto the basket and was dragged about 100 yards through a cornfield until he let go. “I remember looking up, being in a daze and seeing the balloon fly off by itself without a pilot,” says Preston, who suffered only minor injuries.
As soon as he gathered his wits, Preston grabbed his cell phone to call for help and to dispatch a crew to find the wayward balloon. Before long, he was in front of local television cameras answering questions about the experience, and, once he was checked by a doctor, he was back at the festival participating in the activities. “[The crash] didn’t stop him, of course. This year, he was right back up in the hot air balloons,” says County Attorney Tom Martin. “Joey is not an observer or a quiet on-the-sidelines-type. If Freedom Weekend Aloft is here, and if its product is hot air balloons, then that’s what he’s into.”
Except for the accident, county officials considered the festival a success that attracted 200,000 people to the county’s Sports and Entertainment Center. The 350-acre center had been completed less than one month before the event largely because of Preston’s influence.
In addition to completing the center, Preston has led the county through $30 million worth of capital improvement projects in the last six years, planning road and sewer construction, and attracting new industries to the county. While many individuals and organizations have worked to bring the county such successes, nearly all of them point to Preston as the man who got them started and nudged them along. “Anderson just had a wealth of potential,” Martin says. “What Joey Preston has been able to do is unleash that potential.”
Many who have worked with Preston describe the 39-year-old as a visionary and a results-oriented, hard worker who has a gift for bringing people together to accomplish goals. “He can see the direction in which this county needs to go,” says Gracie Floyd, vice chair of the county council. “Not only can he see it, but he comes up with the way to make things happen. He is good.”
He is so good, in fact, that he is American City & County’s 2002 County Leader of the Year.
A meteoric rise
Growing up near Mount Airy, N.C., Preston was one of five children who worked on the family’s 70-acre tobacco farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. His father was a farmer, a small-business person and an engineer for R.J. Reynolds.
Preston’s earliest political influence was his grandfather, who got involved in local politics by rounding up residents to go to the polls at election time. Preston’s interest in local politics led him to study political science at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, in the early 1980s.
His public service and leadership skills grew in college, and he ultimately was elected student body president. “People would probably laugh about this now, but I used to be kind of shy,” Preston says. “Not any more. [The presidency] helped me get out of that. I don’t have a problem now speaking to a crowd.”
While Preston was attending graduate school, he began an internship in the Charlotte Operations Department that turned into a full-time job. His performance led to an offer from York County, S.C., to become the director of zoning and development standards. He took the job while he was still in school and moved to the county to be closer to Barbara Bennett, the woman he later married.
Not long after moving to York County, Preston visited Cherokee County to accompany his wife, a former South Carolina Peach Queen, in the crowning of another Peach Queen. On that visit, Preston met members of the Cherokee County Council who later offered him the newly created assistant county administrator position.
He took the job, but two days before Preston started, the administrator suffered a heart attack that kept him out of the office for several months. At age 23, Preston suddenly found himself in charge of 250 employees and working for a fairly divisive council. “[People] gave me about six months in that political environment and said I wouldn’t make it,” he says. “I absolutely loved it.”
One year later, the administrator retired, and, at 24 years old, Preston became the youngest county administrator in the history of the state. He worked in Cherokee County for eight more years, where he built a reputation for getting county council members to work together and for completing progressive projects.
“He came into the job without a lot of experience,” says Bob Strother, executive director of the South Carolina Appalachian Council of Governments. “Joey was a very progressive thinker, and he was able to establish a real rapport with members of his council.”
The flight plan
Those qualities made him attractive to the Anderson County Council, which offered him the administrator’s job in 1996. Nevertheless, Preston was wary. “The council had a reputation for being hard on [administrators],” he says. The council fired the previous administrator because he had tried to initiate too many progressive programs and projects, and previous administrators who had tried to do the same had been demoted, Preston says.
Knowing that reputation, Preston outlined his contract requirements to include provisions that would protect him from council member changes and would give him liberty to enact aggressive projects in the county. “When they offered me the job, I asked several times, ‘Are you sure you want me? Are you positive?’” Preston notes. “They said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘All right. This is what it’s going to take: You’re going to have to stay out of my business. Let me be the administrator, and the county council members are going to have to be policy makers.’”
The council agreed to that directive. “He was able to establish the difference between his role as county administrator and the council’s role as a policy body,” Strother says. “In a lot of local governments around the country, council members may try to get involved in implementing projects, programs and interacting directly with county staff. That’s really the administrator’s responsibility.”
A lighter load
Anderson County began changing almost immediately after Preston’s arrival. An election infused new life in the council, and Preston reorganized county departments. He recruited new people to lead departments, rewrote job descriptions and recommended new salary schedules and benefits to make positions more competitive with those in neighboring communities.
In the last four years, the average county employee salary has increased 17 percent, and the turnover rate for county departments (excluding the Sheriff’s Department) has dropped from 33 percent to 19 percent. The turnover rate in the Sheriff’s Department has decreased from 17 percent to 8 percent in the last four years.
“When I got to the county, we were pretty much a training ground for other cities and counties in the area,” says Jeff Ricketson, planning director, who started working for the county in 1997. “[Preston] worked with me to upgrade our inspector positions and put an emphasis on training. That virtually eliminated the turnover in the Building Department, and it led to better relations with the building community.”
To help fund new benefits for county employees, Preston evaluated the county’s finances and trimmed out unnecessary spending. He hired two full-time, certified public accountants for the finance division and hired one full-time accountant for each additional division. As a result of Preston’s efforts to organize finances, the county has received the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting from the Chicago-based Government Finance Officers Association every year since 1996.
“He’s cleaned up our finances and found a lot of extra funding that was basically fluff in budgets,” says Holt Hopkins, transportation division director.
Full speed ahead
After evaluating the county’s finances, Preston began setting schedules for the construction of new county facilities. The Sports and Entertainment Center was his main priority because plans for it had been languishing for about 10 years. The county council wanted a $4.5 million park consisting of a 15,000- to 18,000-seat amphitheater; tennis courts; and soccer, softball and baseball fields, and the council wanted Preston to get it built.
Preston worked with Anderson city staff, county departments, private businesses and community organizations to forge cooperation to complete the center. Many residents believed Preston was attempting to do the impossible. “I grew up in Anderson, and the political whim sometimes has not been favorable for any kind of changes,” Hopkins says. “I [did not think the residents were] going to allow something like this to be built. Well, it got built, and it got built well. That totally amazed me as an employee.”
Once the center was completed in 1998, Preston began partnering with city, county and community organizations on other building projects. The most recently completed project — a $1 million, 30-bay, brick farmer’s market building — opened in downtown Anderson in April. A $13.5 million main library opened in 2000, and a 12,000-square-foot county museum is scheduled to open early next year in the building vacated by the former main library.
Preston saw the building projects as physical ways to improve the community thereby boosting morale among residents and employees. “I truly believe that, when you drive into a community, you can judge the community by it’s infrastructure — not just street lights, sidewalks, water, sewer and roads,” Preston says. “I’m talking about libraries, museums, courthouses and how easy it is for the public to get into them to conduct business.”
To connect the new amenities with older ones and to help make them accessible to residents, the county began a free bus service in January. The buses connect downtown Anderson to four area universities: Anderson College, Clemson University, Southern Wesleyan University and Tri-County Technical College.
The bus system grew out of a council member’s idea to help low- to moderate-income residents get to higher educational facilities in the area. “A lot of my [constituents] needed to have some sort of transportation to reach the technical school that was about 12 to 13 miles away,” Floyd says. “It seems like a short distance, but when you have no car it’s a long distance. Mr. Preston took my idea, worked on it and showed us how to reach the goal that we wanted. We have blazed another new trail in Anderson County.”
Preston and Floyd traveled to Washington, D.C., to secure a $1.5 million federal transportation grant to pay for a transit system that would include the bus service. Preston brokered a deal with existing bus systems in Anderson and Clemson to provide the bus service to area colleges. The service gives residents access to educational and employment opportunities at the schools, and students gain access to employment and recreational opportunities in the city.
In addition to funding the bus service, Anderson County is using the federal grant to study Preston’s idea of starting a light rail system in the area. Ridership on the buses will be included as part of the study.
“Our ultimate goal is that there will be a high-speed rail corridor through South Carolina,” says Michael Cunningham, assistant county administrator. “That would let someone get on the light rail in Anderson, go to Clemson and ride the high-speed rail all up and down the East Coast.”
Preston also has led the county in implementing aggressive road and sewer plans to help attract new industries to the county. In December, the county finished building a $12.5 million, six-mile road for Greenville, S.C.-based Michelin North America, which built a $100 million plant in a part of the county that has struggled to grow its tax base.
Michelin is not the only company moving to the county. In 1999, Anderson led the state in manufacturing investment, attracting $953.1 million.
Because new companies have moved in and have boosted the county’s tax base, Anderson has been able to complete its capital projects without asking residents for more money. The county has increased taxes once in six years, and that was a 92 percent voter-approved tax to fund a countywide Emergency Medical System.
Above the fray
While most of the county council members and employees agree that Preston has helped the county change for the better, he has some critics. Chief among them are members of the Anderson County Taxpayers Association.
The Taxpayers Association wanted the county to cut its $91 million budget, which increased spending by 14 percent this year but did not raise taxes. The group suggested $3.3 million in cuts, including eliminating several county departments (such as the Planning Department and the Public Information Office); cutting employee pay raises; reducing budgets for travel, lodging and training; reducing funding for non-profit groups; and preventing sheriff’s deputies from driving their vehicles home.
Ultimately, however, the council unanimously approved the budget prepared by Preston without adopting the group’s suggestions. The budget includes $8 million in general obligation bonds for the county museum, the construction of a branch library in Belton, upgrades to recycling centers and a new wing at the Anderson County Detention Center.
(Intent on ousting Preston, several members of the Taxpayers Association ran for seats on the county council during a primary election last month. Incumbents readily defeated all of the association members.)
Preston’s supporters say the critics are simply reluctant to see changes in the county. “These are the people that would like to see the county where it used to be,” Floyd says. “Years ago, we lost an airport that should have been here because of people like that who did not want to see change come. When Joey came aboard, he was strong enough to withstand all the negativism and all the criticism. A lesser man would have said, ‘I don’t have to put up with this.’ But he stays because he knows there’s something out there greater than these people. He has a job to do here, and we have work to do.”
His willingness to work hard and to withstand criticism has earned him the respect of his employees. “Among his staff, the support is 100 percent,” Martin says. “It is not because he is an easy person to work for. He is driven, and he expects as much from his staff as he puts in himself. He is loyal to his [staff], and they know that. As a result, they are willing to go above and beyond what is expected of them.”
By implementing sweeping changes within the government organization, Preston has raised the profile of the county so that it is regarded as one of the most stable political environments in the state, Strother says. “If a prospective industry is looking to find a place to locate, relocate or build a new plant, one of the most critical things they look for is stability in local government,” he notes. “The stability that Joey has helped bring to Anderson County government has been a real significant factor in enhancing its industrial and economic base.”
In turn, the new county facilities, new infrastructure and new industries have boosted the morale of county employees and residents. “He’s made people feel good about themselves and feel proud of Anderson,” Ricketson says. “That was not always the case. Joey’s changed all that. He’s really shown the people in the community that we can do good things.”