ZEPHRYHILLS — Steve Spina first landed at City Hall in 1978, fresh-faced and three years out of college, armed with a notebook and the ideals of a budding journalist. He wrote about the government he would one day lead.
Spina worked as a reporter for the Zephyrhills News and later became editor of the hometown weekly. But in his ninth year there, he wanted a new challenge.
Through reporting, he had learned the ins and outs of the city and rubbed elbows with its key players. City government fascinated him. Then-City Manager Nick Nichols took a liking to Spina, recognized his potential and in 1987 offered him a job heading the planning department.
Spina seized it and never looked back.
"I liked being in the trenches more than just observing it and reporting it," he said recently in his modest office. The walls had been stripped of personal mementos. Boxes were packed and stacked.
Spina, 57, is retiring as Zephyrhills' longest-serving city manager after 15 years at the helm. Wednesday will be his last day running the daily operations of Pasco County's second most populated city. At 5 p.m. Monday, the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce will host a farewell and welcome event at City Hall for Spina and the new city manager, Jim Drumm. Spina's final council meeting will be that same evening at 6.
"I think I'm ready to hand over the keys," he said.
Back when Spina first started working for the city, it was never a secret that Nichols was grooming him to one day step into his shoes.
That day came sooner than anyone expected in January 1996 when Nichols, 61, died suddenly after suffering a heart attack during one of his routine running workouts.
Nichols had mentored Spina both professionally and personally and had influenced the young man to get in better physical condition. They ran together. Spina gave up smoking. Nichols' death was a shock.
"He was a big part of my life," Spina said.
As Nichols surely would have wanted, Spina was named acting city manager. The "acting" was dropped in April 1996.
He has proved to be a much different city manager than his predecessor. Nichols had a behind-the-desk style while Spina is a get-up-and-go kind of manager who likes to see projects in their different phases for himself.
"He's very accessible and some city managers are not," said City Clerk Linda Boan, who also started working for the city in 1987, adding that staff and the public alike seem to appreciate that trait. "Everybody respects Steve."
Spina has been a huge proponent of redevelopment, but he also is passionate about preserving the city's history by preserving buildings.
One of his first accomplishments as a planner was securing a historic preservation grant to move and restore the city's old train depot and turn it into a museum and meeting place. It was among the first of many grants he helped the city obtain. He counts it as one of his crowning achievements.
"The depot is my favorite building (in the city)," he said, smiling. "It's just got a lot of character. It could've been a pile of bricks."
During those early years as a planner, he also was instrumental in bringing a YMCA to the city. It has expanded over the years and is considered a boon to the city. Spina also focused on growing the city's tax base by ushering in commercial developments into the city's north side.
Along the way, there were "hiccups" as Spina calls them — some high-profile.
The streetscaping project that included new streetlights, sidewalks, paving and landscaping that beautified downtown initially brought him much criticism.
People weren't happy with the streets and sidewalks being ripped up and rebuilt, and many said it took too long to complete and hurt businesses.
Part of that project included a roundabout at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Seventh Street in the city's central business district. Spina thought it would look better with brick rather than the council-approved asphalt. He didn't think it was a big deal to move money for a sidewalk on Eighth Street to do the bricked star design at the intersection. He was wrong.
To test the idea of the consultant-recommended roundabout, public works employees created a makeshift one with sandbags.
"It looked like a World War II bunker," Spina said.
Council members also thought it didn't improve traffic and abandoned the idea.
During the 2000 spring election, some City Council candidates campaigned on an anti-Spina platform.
Longtime Mayor Jim Bailey was running to get a spot back as a voting council member, rather than the mostly ceremonial mayoral position. Spina and Bailey had at one time been on the same side but their relationship deteriorated in part because Spina at the time was in favor of freezing some salaries and reorganizing some city departments — both of which Bailey opposed. But a 3-2 majority on the issues remained on council and Spina prevailed.
"I hit a rough patch around 2000-2001, and I was worried about having a short career here," he said.
But as it turned out, those bumps were nothing compared to what would start at the end of 2003 when an issue of race drew national attention.
In October, the council voted to rename Sixth Avenue to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Similar efforts in other cities had met with resistance, but this one was surprisingly easy — until council member Cathi Compton tried to rescind the name change, saying the council had acted before taking the pulse of the community.
She failed, but the following April joined with a new council member who had campaigned on a platform she would get the street name changed back. They managed a 3-2 vote to reverse naming the street for the slain civil rights leader.
Reporters from the national press corps, including the New York Times, descended on the small city.
"My sister called and said, 'You were on Jay Leno,' " Spina said.
"It exposed issues in the community I was not aware of," he said, adding that it forced city leaders and residents to address the issue and a community alliance committee was created to discuss such topics. "It turned out more positive than negative by the time we were done with it."
It also gave Spina a dissertation topic. When he came to the city all those years ago, he had a bachelor's degree. He decided once he became an administrator he needed the credentials to go along with it and he started furthering his education. In April, he graduated from the University of Florida with a doctorate in political science.
"It's nice to hear Dr. Spina," he said.
The degree is essentially what led him to retire from public administration. But he doesn't want to get away from government, he wants to teach it to others. He is currently seeking employment at a college or university, preferably locally. Still, he hopes he left a lasting impression on the city.
"I just think if people think I left it better than I found it, then I will be in good shape," he said. "I'm happy with what we've done."
Mayor Cliff McDuffie met Spina in 1997 when he became executive director of the Zephyrhills chamber.
"I have said it continuously over all these years that I think he is one of the finest city managers in the state," McDuffie said. "I'm very much appreciative of all Steve has done. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill there."
Even when he's gone, Spina will be ready to take a call from the new city manager — or anyone else from City Hall. He plans on staying in the city with his wife of 30 years, Judy, so he might be spotted at one of his favorite haunts like Flaco's Cafe, directly across from the city's hub.
But there's one place he won't be seen from now on.
"I promise you, I won't be at a council meeting," Spina said. "The thing is I've been going to council meetings since 1978. I reported on them, too. I haven't had a break."