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Difference Makers — A look back with past City Administrator Denny Henderson

The ‘tides of change’ were rolling into Nevada back in the early 1990s, and riding on one of those waves was Nevada’s first-ever city administrator.
The City of Nevada had voted for a change in its structure of government. The Mayor and City Council representatives would no longer have authority over City staff. The day-to-day business of the City would be managed by an administrator, and city employees would now answer to a man named Dennis “Denny” Henderson.
“It was a challenge for the elected officials to learn the new chain of command,” recalled Henderson, who served as Nevada’s city administrator from January of 1992 to January of 1996 – before moving on to a 22-year tenure as the city manager in Clive, Iowa. Now retired, Denny, and his wife, Marcia, have sold their home in Clive and have moved into a townhome in nearby Urbandale, where they are busy sorting through all the things they’ve accumulated as homeowners. They are also enjoying lots of activities with their family, which includes three grandsons and one granddaughter.
Henderson, who visited by phone last week, was asked to think back to his years in Nevada when one of his primary duties was to work with the very new NEDC.
“Really, I look at my whole four years in Nevada as a time of trying to build consensus between elected officials and others in the community, like the NEDC,” Henderson said. “You’ll never have total unity (in a community) – that’s a pipe dream – but consensus is when you get to something where people can say, ‘This is good… This is O.K.’ The goal being that they’re all moving in the same direction.”
Henderson said he knew the challenge before him prior to accepting the job in Nevada. The village administrator in Dwight, Ill., at the time, his wife’s family was from the Ames/Gilbert area, and he knew both Steve Schainker (long-time city manager in Ames) and Bob Kindred (former assistant city manager in Ames, now retired) well. He’d done some intern work for Schainker.
“I’d checked with others about the political situation in Nevada at the time, and it didn’t sound like it was the best,” Henderson said. Nevada was in a time of transition and change. At the heart of the City, there were those who wanted to see the community make major moves forward and those who liked and were comfortable with the community as it was.
The problem with keeping the community “as is,” Henderson explained, was what you could lose. Other communities would start taking the economic development that could come to Nevada. “If Nevada was going to grow its tax base, it had to start moving forward from where it was at, or it might have started losing opportunities. Nevada had to become a viable community with a great future ahead of it.”
Henderson came to town for the interview process and remembers he toured the community first with Jerry LoRang, who was the city attorney at the time. “Following the tour, I was just getting the general feel of things, and I called Marcia and said, ‘I don’t think this is going to be a fit for us.’”
But, he was there to interview, so he told himself, “I’m going to go into the interview and just approach it from the viewpoint – ‘This is what this community needs to do to become a thriving community in the future.’” He figured, why not at least tell them exactly what he thought.
His hard-nosed views won them over. “They wanted to hire me.”
After careful consideration, which included weighing the benefit of living closer to his wife’s family and his own family, who were also in Iowa, Henderson accepted the job. He knew there was a lot of work to do, including getting very busy with the NEDC.
“The NEDC hadn’t been in existence for very long.” Its members, Henderson said, were “still feeling their way about ‘Where are we going to go with this? What do we want to achieve?’
“It’s good to say, ‘We want to expand the tax base for everybody, but what does that mean? What does it look like? What’s your target and what are your goals?”
Housing was a big issue, Henderson recalled. “Nevada leaders wanted to be more than just a bedroom community for the City of Ames.”
Henderson came to Nevada when Donnelley’s was still here. He recalled talks about Burke and how they were in a growth mode, so there were discussions about how the City would balance Burke’s growth and keep it in line with the needs of the greater community? “We needed to help Burke continue to grow, without their growth being a negative with our sewer plant,” he said.
Henderson remembers working with leaders in the community, like Mike Neff, Gary Clem, Bill Tufford, Jim Fischer, Harold Fawcett, Annette Forbes, Raymond Kassel, Rich Parker, Jim Frevert, and others as they got things rolling for Nevada.
“Of course, the chamber of commerce had been struggling… so we brought in LaVon Schiltz (former director of the chamber and NEDC), and she was a tremendous asset for the chamber and NEDC. She really spent time on things and really made things click.”
Another person to who Henderson said he must pay tribute is the late Jim Christy, who became Mayor in Nevada during the 1990s. “Jim was loved by everybody and really was able to bring consensus to the community,” Henderson said. Jim was involved with others in getting Leadership Nevada started to bring about a new generation of leaders for the community… leaders who could have a vision for the future.
Four short, but groundbreaking years
Henderson’s time in Nevada was about turning a corner for the community. He recalled the significant projects he was involved in as being the Indian Ridge Housing Development on the west side of town and the initial stages of the West Industrial Park. He was also, of course, part of putting a new structure in place for Nevada’s City government, as it changed to having an administrator and partnered heavily with the NEDC.
“The groundwork had to be laid, and it had to be my role during those four years to look to the future and move things forward,” he said.
Henderson eventually left Nevada to go to the City of Clive, where he enjoyed a 22-year career before retiring three years ago. Going to Clive was “definitely the right move” for him, he noted, but coming to Nevada was also a good move in his career.
Henderson had owned his own business and had worked for Winnebago Industries in both production and marketing, before entering the city administration field. Dwight, Ill., was his first city administration job, and Nevada became his second post. “I was blessed to have a diversified experience and background,” he said. And Nevada provided a challenge that helped him hone his administrative skills. “Every day was different. You had to be able to work with it and grow with it at the same time.”
Henderson said he and his wife came back to Nevada more often in his early years at Clive. They were in a card club with several other Nevada couples and drove up to enjoy that club for a while. They don’t get back to Nevada as much now, but Denny said he was in town about a year ago.
When he comes to Nevada now, he said the Fawcett Family Aquatic Center and SCORE park on the east side of town really get his attention. “It’s a beautiful area when you first drive into town,” he said. He loves all the business growth on the east side of Nevada, as well, and he loves the “new” City Hall/Public Safety Facility, which he said was desperately needed but didn’t happen until after he had left Nevada.
Henderson took the experiences gained in Nevada with him, and found Clive to be a city of major growth during the 22 years he was there. “Some years we were building over 200 houses a year. Things were going on all the time.” He also liked that he got to work with other Des Moines metro leaders on projects that benefited the entire metro area.
When he thinks about Nevada and what its residents should be proud of, he commented, “Nevada is a special place. It’s got that small-town feel… It’s a nice community with a lot of great history. It really was a nice move for us (in 1992). The girls (his daughters Amanda and Alissa) both graduated from Nevada High School and got a great education there. The school was second to none.” Both of his daughters now live and work in the Des Moines Metro area.
Nevada continues to grow and change, and Henderson knows how important administrative leadership is for that process. “(The City Administrator) has got the big picture of the community to oversee. Things like policies and procedures, empowering board and commissions, keeping up with them and keeping them all up to date on things going on… it’s all part of the continued process of consensus building.”
–Written by Marlys Barker, City of Nevada
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