By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
After six days on the job, brand-new Madison City Manager Tim Bennett spoke with the Rotary Club members at their Feb. 24 meeting, to tell them a little about himself and why the City of Madison holds such a special place in his heart…and what he hopes to bring to Madison in return.
Born in New Orleans, Bennett’s family moved to Graceville, near Marianna in Jackson County, in the mid-1950s. Somewhat smaller than Madison, Graceville was a little Florida Panhandle town “known for peanuts, preachers and good fried shrimp,” said Bennett.
His father, a Baptist preacher, preached in Baptist churches up and down Highway 90 in the days before I-10 became a fact of life. Bennett and his wife were high school sweethearts, but they went their separate ways after graduation, only to find each other again 25 years later.
“We were married within the month,” said Bennett. “Because I wasn’t going to wait another 25 years.”
Bennett attended Chipola Junior College and Florida State University; in his early 20s, he covered high school sports, first for the Tallahassee Democrat, and then for the Pensacola News Journal, traveling up and down the panhandle to dozens of little communities. “I grew to know and love the Panhandle of Florida,” he said. “That was why it was so important that I come back.”
Then one day, while transcribing a tape from an interview, he realized he wanted to do something different – so he joined the Marines.
He described a scene where he walked into the USMC recruiting office, a bearded figure in a blue paisley shirt, much to the surprise of the recruiting officer, who asked him, “What the heck do you want?”
“Except he didn’t say ‘heck.’” Bennett told the audience.
He wanted to be a marine, he told the surprised officer. He saw their ad in Reader’s Digest and liked it.
Furthermore, he wanted the hardest job they could give him – that of infantryman, where he served for the next four years, in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.
For the following 16 years after that, he was transferred into the public affairs office, becoming the Marine Corps liaison with dozens of local communities. At one point during those 16 years, he was responsible for providing American radio and television fare for U.S. military families stationed in Japan.
After 20 years in the Marines, he transitioned back into civilian life, and began to work directly with local communities, in varying capacities. He worked for a year putting welfare clients into jobs. He worked as a public information officer for Beaufort County, S.C., and then as the Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce for Hilton Island.
In the nearby town of Bluffton, he worked first as an assistant town manager, and then as the deputy town manager. While he was there, he saw that town, historically tagged with the adage “One Square Mile,” suddenly take off in late ‘90s, rapidly growing to 55 square miles within the next few years. “It was a challenge just keeping up with the infrastructure,” he said.
His next position was in Allendale County, S.C., a small, rural, poverty-stricken area with a 25 percent unemployment rate and an extremely high rate of teen pregnancies. In such an environment, it took an outlook that was not just positive, but “aggressively positive…at every level. We got things done.”
The guiding philosophy was “we may be a small, poor county, but we don’t take a back seat to anybody.”
As the new City Manager for Madison, he brings to his new position that same outlook. The County and City of Madison have a lot in common with Allendale County, being small, poor and primarily agricultural, with a high teen pregnancy rate and a significant percentage of families living below the poverty line. The City of Madison has small businesses that struggle in tough economic times, and the city’s budget is tight, as is the county’s.
These are the kind of challenges Bennett is familiar with.
In his first six days as City Manager, Bennett has met with all the department heads to establish a rapport and start building dialogue. He has also had meetings with all the City Commissioners except one. He has attended county commission meetings and chamber of commerce meetings to get a sense of things, and would like to meet with the prison warden, the president of NFCC, the CEO of the hospital and several other officials.
His first few days will be “Look, listen, feel…get a sense of what is going on.” He will be working with many departments and city services, but does not want to change anything unless such changes are warranted.
Acknowledging the challenges ahead, he thanked the City Commissioners and the citizens of Madison for the opportunity to come back and serve in an area he loves.
The City of Madison may be small and poor, he told everyone, but it will not take a back seat to anybody.