New Hernando administrator's development expertise offers possibilities

BROOKSVILLE — Ask the people who have worked with him what Len Sossamon is like, and they use phrases like "forward thinker,'' "brilliant listener,'' "not afraid of challenges'' and "politically savvy.''

Given that Sossamon is the top pick of the Hernando County Commission to be the next county administrator, a job with a high turnover rate in recent years in a place with more than its share of controversial issues, those qualities might come in handy.

The North Carolina developer, who spent most of his life working in the public sector, says he knows what he is getting into. At the end of his formal public interview with commissioners two weeks ago, he said, "I look forward to being your next county administrator.''

For Sossamon and the commissioners, who picked him from among three finalists, part of the sense of a good fit comes from Sossamon's history working in communities with similar challenges.

Sossamon has already had to ramp up economic development to replace lost jobs in a place where the key industry died. He has already had to build infrastructure to lure industry.

He has already had to come up with creative solutions to financial challenges and solve employee morale issues. Plus, he has already worked in the bedroom communities of big cities and understands how they are "the best of both worlds,'' as Sossamon puts it.

• • •

Sossamon's public sector work includes five years as the planning and community development director in Concord, N.C., and 13 years at city manager there. More recently, from 2004 to 2006, he served as county administrator for Newberry County, S.C.

In between, in 2000, he served a few months in the North Carolina General Assembly. He was appointed by the governor to complete the term of a state lawmaker who resigned. Sossamon narrowly lost the election several months later.

"I respect politicians. It was a tough job,'' he said, and one he said he never wants to do again. But he said the experience means he wouldn't mind at all if he ever needed to take Hernando County's perspective to Tallahassee because he has seen how the system works.

Sossamon said his first job when he arrives in Hernando is going to be getting a handle on the budget. He attended the county's recent budget workshop, which was on the same day as the public reception held for the county administrator finalists.

As of the last accounting, it appeared there could be a $9.5 million shortfall in the general fund for 2012-13.

"Hopefully I can be the fresh face, provide a new direction and give a new perspective'' on budget issues, Sossamon said.

From his brief visit to the county, he said he could tell that the county staff was focused on making the spending plan work, and he said he was looking forward to working with interim administrator Ron Pianta, budget manager George Zoettlein and chief procurement officer Russell Wetherington.

"The long-term answer,'' Sossamon said, "is we need to create jobs and we need to create a more diversified tax base.''

• • •

Sossamon's economic development history has been the focus of attention by Hernando commissioners, who for years have said similar things about the county's long-term needs.

In Newberry County, Sossamon fought for new industrial sites and recruited Caterpillar to open a plant. In Concord, where the closing of the textile mills forced 90 percent of the county's residents to commute outside the county for work, he helped create a stretch of highway that is a huge draw for tourists and a boon to the area's economy.

During his tenure, Concord annexed and ran utility lines to the Charlotte Motor Speedway, solving a problem with sewage flowing from the speedway into a nearby river. In that same area, off Interstate 85, the city also built a municipal golf course.

In addition, Sossamon helped convince an outlet mall to relocate to the area. That mall, Concord Mills Outlet Mall, is now one of North Carolina's biggest tourist attractions.

In sizing up Hernando County's assets during his recent visit for interviews with county commissioners, Sossamon said he could see real potential for economic growth here.

He said he was impressed by what he saw at the Hernando County Airport, including the industrial, air and rail parks there. That area has been the focus of much of the county's economic development in recent years.

Sossamon knows just what an impact that can have on a community because he pushed to build an airport in Concord.

But he said he also sees the Interstate 75 corridor, where Hernando has had long-term plans for future industrial development, as an area where focused development strategies are needed.

Sossamon said he was eager to talk in detail with the county's business development manager, Michael McHugh, about what methods he has tried so they can brainstorm about what works, what doesn't and what other options exist.

"I'm the type of manager who will say, 'Have you tried this? Have you tried this?' and what I will do is try something new,'' he said.

• • •

Employee morale has been lagging in Hernando in recent years, and Sossamon pointed to two instances — one in Newberry County and one in Concord — where he was able to change the mind-set of unhappy employees.

In Concord, the city arranged to disband a semi-autonomous utility board and had to absorb dozens of workers into the city's ranks. Sossamon said he met with the workers and explained to them how much their service was needed, laying to rest any hard feelings.

In Newberry County, he pushed for a new employment structure that classified employees and did away with a system that gave raises to certain favored workers, he said.

Sossamon describes himself as "a people person'' and "passionate,'' but he also said he knows Hernando County's reputation for negativity, which drove off several of the most recent administrators.

He said his approach is to listen to the input offered by the community. Sometimes, he said, that's just what residents need, to have someone listen to them. Often, he said, those talks have prompted him to think of ways to fine-tune the way the county does its business.

Sossamon said he is perceived at times as a workaholic. One of his references also suggested that one of his drawbacks was that "his pleasant, polite personality was occasionally perceived as being weak.''

Another reference, who spoke in glowing terms of Sossamon, noted that only one person might not share that feeling: the sheriff of Newberry County, James Lee Foster.

Foster told the Tampa Bay Times that Sossamon was affable and reasonable, but there had been one issue when Sossamon's tone rankled him.

Before Sossamon arrived in Newberry County, the county council had approved construction of a new sheriff's office building.

By the time Sossamon arrived, Foster and his staff had moved in and found serious flaws in the structure. Water intrusion problems had caused mold and mildew issues.

Sossamon suggested multiple studies, which dragged out a resolution, Foster said.

"I felt like he did not take our problem seriously enough initially. It was just a disagreement,'' Foster said.

He added that Sossamon had been "sometimes flippant'' in his answers when the two discussed a solution.

The issue was complicated by the fact that, after the building was finished, the voters of Newberry County elected the contractor to the council, making him one of Sossamon's and Foster's bosses.

Sossamon acknowledged the disagreement with Foster.

"He thought I was jerking his chain'' on relocating the sheriff's operations, Sossamon said.

Sossamon said that having the contractor on the council caused numerous problems, including when the county attorney had to sue him.

Sossamon chuckled: "Yeah, I've been in the pan. I've been in the fire.''

• • •

Sossamon has also found himself in a bind due to the private business he has conducted since he left the public sector.

In April 2010, Cabernet Holdings, a business in which he was a principal owner, filed for Chapter 11 reorganization after a buyer for a hotel the company developed backed out of the deal. Sossamon and his partner ended up with a $1.78 million judgment against them in Davidson County Superior Court, but the debt has since been settled, he said.

Hernando commissioners were aware of the bankruptcy filing at the time they were introduced to the finalists because the search firm hired to background applicants, Colin Baenziger & Associates, had provided commissioners with news clips.

Commissioner Jim Adkins said last week that the problem didn't concern him because Sossamon had run into the trouble that resulted from the economic downturn and he took care of what he owed.

The next step in the hiring process in Hernando is for County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes, the county attorney and Sossamon to settle on a contract.

Those negotiations had not yet begun by midday Friday.

Sossamon said he was eager to get those details worked out so he could make plans to begin his work in Hernando County

"I look forward to it,'' he said. "It's going to be exciting. It's going to be difficult, but someone's got to do it. I'm just glad that they picked me.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Len Sossamon

Sossamon, 61, has worked in real estate development and solar energy solutions for businesses for the last several years. He served as the administrator in Newberry County, S.C., from 2004 through 2006. During his tenure, he structured acquisition of two new industrial parks for the county, recruited Caterpillar to open a plant and renovated the county's historic courthouse. Before that, he was city manager of Concord, N.C., for 13 years, and that city's planning and community development director for five years. He earned both his bachelor's degree in political science and his master's in urban geography from the University of North Carolina.

New Hernando administrator's development expertise offers possibilities 04/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 14, 2012 1:48pm]

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