A man of vision who gave 43 years worth of progressive mindset to Cleveland Utilities, Wheeler was always — and still is — a forward thinker who believed in leaving his house in order, not as a gift to his successor in the front office but as a matter of professional mandate.
Hence, new CU President and CEO Ken Webb — who takes the helm with a new energy and innovative ideas of his own — will find fewer hiccups than would have been the case had Wheeler not worked so proactively to leave all three utility divisions (Electric, Water and Wastewater) in good shape, both physically and fiscally.
That’s not to say Webb won’t find challenge. He will. Cleveland is a growing community whose growth builds upon itself. When economic development is alive and well, as it is in Bradley County, then demand for a can-do attitude is high and the need for professional accountability is even higher.
This is why it is Webb who likely embraced a number of Wheeler’s final thoughts that were shared with this newspaper in a lengthy one-on-one interview that led to a two-page series published on our front page in late September.
Asked to speak on what he perceives as high-priority initiatives of the future for the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities, the Cleveland City Council and the Bradley County Commission, Wheeler never flinched. In no particular order of ranking, he listed five.
1. Plan, build and implement a quality wastewater collection (sewer) system in the southern portion of Bradley County. Such a project could cost tens of millions, but if this community is to continue to grow it must do so toward the south. All of Cleveland Utilities’ service territory now has sewer service, but most county areas do not. Wastewater collection for the county’s southern region not only would benefit the environment by eliminating septic systems, it would stimulate further growth.
2. Closely monitor opportunities to expand CU’s services into broadband (high-speed Internet) and communications, much like other progressive utility companies like Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board are already doing.
3. Keep a watchful eye on Cleveland Utilities’ indebtedness. Currently, CU’s debt service is about $60 million, an amount that is considered “manageable” based on total value of the Cleveland Utilities system. However, the utility is also responsible for accommodating new growth and maintaining existing facilities. In today’s world, a credible public utility is not only a provider of electricity, water and sewer collection. It is also an integral partner with those who keep a finger on the pulse of economic development.
4. Safeguard CU’s image as a community utility, one that is professional, reliable and accessible to customers and to the public. In Wheeler’s words, “The people who own Cleveland Utilities are the people in Cleveland.”
5. Maintain a progressive attitude and an ongoing commitment toward economic development and growth, and continue to align with community partners like the Chamber of Commerce, the Industrial Development Board, the Economic Development Council, the Cleveland City Council and the Bradley County Commission.
Growth is not always easy. Growth is never cheap. But communities that stop growing are already taking their first step backward.
Again, in Wheeler’s assessment, “You can’t ever grow enough ... to a point where you can say, ‘We’ve grown where we need to, and we’re not going to do it anymore. We’re happy with where we are. The minute you make that decision you’re going to start going backward. You’re either going forward or you’re going backward. You’re not standing still.”
And that is the Cleveland and Bradley County challenge ... to find ways not to stand still.
Growth means jobs.
Growth means tax revenue.
Growth means added opportunity.
Growth means increased education.
Growth means more people and expanded assets.
And to communities that offer big-city service in a hometown feel, the world will come calling.
People like Tom Wheeler have served as the gatekeeper for such a promising path for almost 4 1/2 decades. His voice is one of reason. His words are lessons learned from downhome experience.
We urge local leaders to heed his advice.
It is just one man’s vision, but its focus has been sharpened by the eyes of life.