By Margie Plunkett
Twenty-two years ago, before Delray Beach’s vibrant downtown emerged, the city was suffering from a civic inferiority complex. It “had Boca envy. We felt like we should be like them,” remembers City Manager David Harden. “Now, we see the reverse.”
The turnaround in the city and the way residents view Delray Beach are some of the biggest changes here since Harden arrived in 1990 — and the city manager counts them among his greatest accomplishments in office. “To see that reversed in many ways gives me a great deal of satisfaction,” he said.
“It involved a lot of people,” he said. “We’ve had good political leadership throughout that period and a lot of organizations — the DDA, Chamber of Commerce, Old School Square, all the different groups — working together.”
Harden is preparing to retire in January after more than two decades leading Delray Beach’s staff. His long stint has also seen progress in the developing western portion of the city, a number of historic preservation projects come to fruition and city awards including All-American City and Florida Trend’s The Best Run Town in Florida designation.
It hasn’t always been easy in a position that’s naturally scrutinized and often at the mercy of politics. Yet he has managed much more than to have merely survived.
Harden attributes his career longevity to advice he received at the very start from Pete Knowles, who then had been city manager in Sanford for 20 years. That advice: “Be sure you always give all the commissioners the same information. Don’t socialize with commissioners. And don’t get emotionally involved with issues.”
The second greatest accomplishment for the city and Harden, he said, has been seen in minority neighborhoods. “Many people felt hopeless about their neighborhoods” when Harden first came to Delray. “Now, there is a lot of positive feeling and optimism about what can be done.”
Delray Beach additionally has benefited from Harden’s personal and professional passion for historic preservation.
In 1994 he floated a historic house — built in 1926 — down the Intracoastal from its original lot near the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach to Swinton Avenue in Delray Beach. He still lives in the home with his wife, Andrea.
Harden was honored in November for his part in preserving structures and areas of Delray Beach with the first David T. Harden Preservation Award.
The Delray Beach Preservation Trust cited numerous projects, including creation of the West Settler District, growth and expansion of the Delray Beach Historical Society, restoration of Sandoway House Nature Center, the 1924 Franklin House on Northwest Fifth Avenue and the Spady Museum, and ensuring that new hurricane-resistant windows at Old School Square retained the building’s historic character.
The trust also noted Harden’s advocacy of protections for the city’s five historic districts: Del Ida Park, Marina District, Nassau Street, West Settlers and Old School Square Historic Arts District.
Like most public careers, Harden’s has had its contentious spells. In recent years, commissioners gave Harden a vote of no confidence for the handling of a resident’s complaints about Waste Management’s billing practices concerning garbage pickup.
The issue was ultimately reviewed by Harden’s staff and the financial review board and resolved to the commission’s satisfaction, according to the city manager. What does Harden say of the vote against him? “It goes with the territory.”
“One city planner I knew who was more cynical than I am, said, ‘If you’re in public life, your friends come and go. And your enemies accumulate,’ ” Harden said.
Looking back further, Harden recalls about 2006 that the commission wasn’t happy with him over bond projects. Commissioners didn’t feel as if they had been adequately informed about the projects involved. “We probably had two commissioners who thought I should be fired,” Harden said.
“We were supposed to build a community center at Congress and Lake Ida. It still hasn’t been built,” Harden said. “All the money available was used for other projects (by commissioners’ choice).
“Each time a project went over budget, they were informed, but they said they didn’t realize the accumulated impact of the projects that went beyond,” Harden recalled.
Harden survived, thanks in part to a Delray Beach requirement that city commissioners need a 4-1 majority to oust its manager. A recent commission debate on whether to make it easier to fire a city manager was as much a tribute to Harden as it was consideration of a change to Delray Beach’s charter.
“I know for a fact that the continuity and consistency of vision here, pretty much passed on by Dave Harden, is a great deal of the reason why we’ve been able to change the other five people (commissioners) that sit up here and keep the course, keep the vision,” Mayor Woodie McDuffie said after an October public hearing. “The knowledge is here, the leadership here.”
Public comment also echoed that sentiment. “We have great leadership and a fabulous city manager,” said resident Christina Morrison. “I can’t help think that 22 years of strong leadership put (Delray Beach) in this position. Thank you again, Mr. Harden, for all you do for us.”
Two former mayors spoke at that hearing. “I, too, wish to thank Mr. Harden for his dedication and his hard work,” said Jay Halperin. “Tom (Lynch) and I are here — we hired him.”
Among the most critical issues that the still-unknown new Delray Beach city manager will face are financial challenges that have persisted through development of the last five budgets — and while things are improving, they aren’t solved yet.
Most recently, Harden said, “we had a budget gap that was plugged in ways that can’t be repeated in the future.” The new manager will have to find ways to balance the budget that don’t impede the city — while at the same time finding ways to sustain the city’s high level of performance and to continue to improve, he said.
Harden has advice for the next city manager.
“They need to be sure we’re cultivating future commissioners, people involved enough in the city to know how it works and what’s going on,” he said.
His successor should also be involved in maintaining a clear vision of the city. The city’s goals have been “remarkably consistent in its years of strategic planning,” Harden added, noting that it’s getting ready to start the Visions 2020 planning process.
There is another concern, the city manager said. “There’s so much pressure to not raise the millage (tax rate) — to reduce the millage. You have to be very careful that you don’t get deferred millage and the city starts to deteriorate,” Harden said.
When Hardens steps away, he said he will most miss working with the staff to find ways to improve. The city manager recalled the words of a recent speaker he’d heard: “Modern leadership isn’t command and control, but creating an atmosphere in which innovation can flourish. That’s what I’m trying to do,” Harden said. “That part I’ll miss.”
He will be glad, on the other hand, to get away from the workload and have flexibility in his schedule, the city manager added.
In retirement, his time will be spent on volunteer projects with his church and the Boy Scouts. Harden is an elder of the Suncoast Community Church and serves as chairman of the Osceola District, Boy Scouts of America, where in the past he has received the highest honors an adult scouting volunteer can win.
Consulting work could occupy some of his time as well, and he may take up a suggestion that he write a book on downtown revitalization, a topic experienced both in Winter Park and Delray Beach.
“There’s plenty to do,” Harden said.
Born in Fort Pierce, Harden grew up in Okeechobee, and he earned a bachelor’s degree from Emory University in 1964 and a master of city planning from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1968.
Before coming to Delray Beach, he served in the U.S. Navy. In 1977, he became city manager of Winter Park, where he stayed until moving to Delray Beach.
Delray Beach will remain his home. He and Andrea have three sons. Their oldest son, Jeremy, 37, and three grandchildren live in Boynton Beach. Son Chad, 36, is in Tennessee, and Aaron, 32, is in Seattle.
“My wife says if we ever move, we have to keep a place in Florida,” Harden said.