Ken Larking: An Interview With Danville’s City Manager

Can you tell us a little about your background? Where you were born, grew up, etc.

I was born in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, and moved to Calgary, Alberta, when I was around 10-years old. My family moved to New Jersey when I was around 11 and just outside Austin, Texas, two years later. We moved to Phoenix, Arizona, just before my first year in high school. During my junior year, we moved to Winston-Salem, and I’ve lived in the Southeast ever since.
My fondest memories from Kitchener include the times my brothers and I would visit our grandparents’ house and play with the huge box of Legos they kept in their den. My memories of Calgary include when the City of Calgary paved the dirt roads in our neighborhood. You can say that was the first time I acknowledged the benefits of city government in my life.

We lived in a rural part of New Jersey and became friends with kids in the area who encouraged us to play in the woods and to go fishing in nearby creeks. We used homemade fishing poles baited with breadcrumbs. (I don’t remember ever catching anything.)
While in Austin, I played kicker/third string nose tackle for the JV version of our middle school football team. I tried to quit, but, apparently, if you are a boy in Texas, you play football. The coach refused my request.

My interest in journalism started when I was in Phoenix. I joined the yearbook staff and became a photographer. When we moved to Winston-Salem, I was able to join yearbook again, but more was expected of me. I had to learn to write articles, headlines and captions, and was required to sell advertisements.

I continued to have an interest in journalism while at Appalachian State University and joined the school newspaper staff. That is when I decided I wanted to become a print journalist. After college, I eventually landed a job as a local government reporter for a small newspaper. I was responsible for covering city council meetings, county board of commissioner meetings, and school board meetings in Catawba County, North Carolina, which is where Hickory is located. Over time, I gained an appreciation for the positive impact local government has on the everyday lives of people in the communities they serve.
My passion for local government led to my returning to Appalachian State for a master’s degree in public administration and, eventually, an internship for the City of Hickory. I became Yadkinville, North Carolina’s town manager in 2003 and served that community for seven years.

While there, the Town expanded the water plant and built an off-stream reservoir and water and sewer lines to underserved residences and businesses. We also built the Town’s only park on the main highway close to downtown. Whenever I’m near Yadkinville, I stop by that park and am thrilled to see kids playing on the playground, families using the picnic shelter, and people walking on the trail.

In 2010, I joined former City of Asheville City Manager Jim Westbrook in Moore County, North Carolina. Mr. Westbrook became a mentor of mine until his tragic death in a car accident on his way home from the office in late 2012. In 2013, I was fortunate to become Deputy City Manager in Danville, which led to my eventual appointment to City Manager in April 2016.

What are some of the duties of the city manager?

In Danville, the city manager is one of three positions appointed by the City Council. In a council-manager form of government like the City of Danville, the city manager is responsible for carrying out the policy of City Council and running the day-to-day operations of the City.

The city manager may participate in debate during City Council deliberations and offer advice and recommendations on programs, policies, and budgets. Danville’s city manager, with the help of a deputy city manager, oversees 12 departments/divisions. These include police, fire, public works, public utilities, parks and recreation (and library), economic development, transportation (airport and mass transit), community development (planning, housing and building inspections), social services, and the support departments of finance, human resources and information technology.

How does a typical day in the life of the city manager play out?

There are no typical days for a city manager. My calendar includes everything from driving around the city with the public works director to visit job sites to meeting with a group of citizens to discuss how to improve the lives of our youth.
During my career in local government, I’ve been able to do a lot of interesting things. For example, I’ve been inside an elevated water tank, spent a day as a refuse collector on the back of a trash truck (you’d be amazed at what people throw away), and stood inside an empty sewer plant clarifier basin. (I tried not to touch anything!) I’ve observed (from a safe distance) police SWAT raids, and helped patch pot holes.

Of course, these are not typical days. Mostly, I spend my time working with staff to carry out the mission of the City of Danville as prescribed by the City Code, our annual budget, and the policies approved by City Council. This includes meetings to discuss progress on various projects where I help to provide direction and ensure that the appropriate resources are available.

Outside of work, what do you like to do? Hobbies?

My move to Danville almost five years ago has played a big part in what I like to do outside of work – especially when it comes to active living. I enjoy using the Riverwalk Trail and the mountain bike trails in Anglers Park, although I don’t get to do it as much as I would like. I ran my first ever 5K in Danville along the Riverwalk Trail three years ago and have been in several since then. I never saw myself as much of a runner, but have grown to love exercising along the trail and participating in these events.

In addition to running and biking, I like to take yoga classes at the YMCA, Hot Asana, and during special events at local brewpubs and at the Community Market. I also enjoy photography, home improvement projects, watching sporting events, and reading.

What’s your definition of a healthy community?

My definition of a healthy community is one that is a desirable place to live. In the early stages of our budget process last year, we had a conversation about the characteristics of a desirable community. People typically want to live in a safe community with good schools, opportunities to make a decent living, quality housing at an affordable price, things to do, places to shop, good weather, quality healthcare, and opportunities for spiritual fulfillment.
In Danville, we are fortunate to be able to check off many boxes when it comes to being a desirable community. However, like many communities, there are areas for improvement, and it’s up to us to identify those areas and make strategic investments in order to make improvements.

In Danville’s case, the City Council has rightly recognized that we need to make improvements to public education, public safety, and economic development. Earlier this year, they took the bold step to make additional investments in these areas, which we believe will make a positive difference in the coming years.

Who inspires/influences you?

I’ve had many people in my life that have inspired me and influenced who I’ve become. In general, all the creative people I am in contact with every day through work and this community inspire me.

Danville is full of truly remarkable people who are coming up with innovative ways to make our community a better place to live, work, and have fun. This includes City staff and City Council members who are always thinking about how to give Danville that “wow” factor and make people rethink what they know of their city.

Recently, the Virginia Municipal League awarded the City two Innovation Awards for programs that help our residents and promote the community. The first award was publication of the Dan River Twins children’s book by the Parks and Recreation Department. The second award was the work that River City TV is doing to inform our citizens and promote all the great things happening here.
In recent months, leadership from many of the institutions serving our area have collaborated to create a pipeline of talent in precision machining that has inspired high school students to see the possible and convinced employers from all over the world that our region is where they want to be.

We are building a culture of innovation in Danville that will lead to a brighter future that is available for all to seize, regardless of background.

Why are you so passionate about Danville?

Danville has so much potential! When I think about Danville, I think about all the people in our community who are working hard to make it a desirable place to live. When people ask me about Danville, I describe it as a train barreling down the tracks toward greatness. I invite them to get on board and be a part of what we are trying to accomplish because I know there are many people living in this community who are, in their own ways, working to help us reach our goals. It is exciting to play a part of Danville’s story as we reimagine ourselves.

Thinking back to 2017, what are you most proud of in terms of our city development?

I am most proud of the results of all the hard work leaders in our community have put in over the years to position Danville to be a desirable place to live. For example, in March we broke ground on a 133-acre graded pad in the Berry Hill Industrial Park. We believe this graded site will be a game-changer, and we were able to reach this point only after years of time and effort put forward by leaders from Danville and Pittsylvania County to create a regional partnership, purchase property, secure grants and obtain permits.

This year, we also have seen development continue in the River District, which saw Spectrum Medical and Cotton open at the former Dan River Research Building, the opening of event spaces and brewpubs, continued expansion of loft apartments and new developments along Craghead Street.

It is this kind of economic development success that led to the Financial Times recognizing Danville as one of the top micro cities for economic potential.

Thinking back to 2017, what are you most disappointed with in terms of our city development?

Unfortunately, while we’ve seen great economic success, it has not positively impacted everyone in Danville like I would hope. We continue to have higher than average poverty – especially when it comes to children in poverty. I am proud of the fact that this year, with the blessing and encouragement of City Council, the City convened both a Youth Task Force and a Gang Task Force to help serve this population. The purpose of the Youth Task Force is to bring youth-serving organizations together to discuss and implement best practices for engaging our youth in positive activities. The Gang Task Force consists of professionals in law enforcement, education and social services who work with people who are engaged in gang activity to help them find a better path. I commend City Council for recognizing that any gang reduction model should include prevention first, intervention next and suppression if necessary. After all, if we can prevent and intervene before any serious crimes occur, there are no victims and the youth continue to have opportunities for a productive future unhampered by past mistakes.

What can we do as a collective unit to make the city better?

In the coming months, there will be opportunities for the people of Danville to have a say in the future of their City. I would like to see everyone, regardless of background or economic circumstance, provide input into these processes. Whether it is neighborhood planning, a city-wide comprehensive plan, or City Council Members asking for ideas, everyone needs to let their voice be heard.

I would also like to see everyone in the City serve as a positive ambassador for our community and region. We often hear of our economic development prospects and people looking to move into the region asking locals about their thoughts on Danville. If they hear good things, they are more likely to bring their businesses and talents to Danville, which will help our economic prosperity.

At the end of 2018, what do you think people will be saying about Danville?

I have a lot of confidence in Danville’s future success, so I think people will be saying that Danville is checking off more boxes when it comes to making it a desirable place to live.