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By Phil D’Amico, director of business growth, The Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County
Gary Gilot has been the director of Public Works for the City of South Bend for the past 12 years. Before joining Mayor Luecke’s administration, Gilot worked in the same role and capacity for the City of Elkhart. Gary Gilot has taken his education background, a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering, coupled with a master’s degree in business administration, and he has become one of the best problem-solvers in the region. Gary has overseen many projects where he has taken a negative and turned it into a positive for the City of South Bend. Gary recently received a national award for his ability to use creative solutions to help make the City of South Bend a greener, more sustainable City using innovative technology solutions to save more than $100 million by avoiding the capital costs of conventional solutions.
|Gary Gilot, director of Public Works for the City of South Bend|
Q: When you look back, are you amazed at how many projects you have been a part of, or played a major role in, that have come to fruition?
A: I am proud of the great work that has taken place in our City through collaboration and a “can do” spirit throughout the team. We can really point to the many road projects that have been completed; improvements at the wellfields and the wastewater treatment plant; the real-time monitoring and control information technology that has taken place in managing water, wastewater, storm water; synchronized, energy-efficient traffic management techniques and patterns; and many of the invisible services brought each day to our citizens.
Q: Of those projects you mentioned, what has stood out to you, maybe, the most?
A: I think the technological advancements we have made in how we as a City handle combined sewer wastewater storage, conveyance and treatment, especially with the advances we have made using smart sensors to manage the wastewater collection system. With our involvement and work on this project, we have significantly increased South Bend’s capacity while significantly lowering the future capital cost to the City. We have been able to reallocate staff to more productive activities, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in this area. South Bend has more capacity than cities much larger than ours. South Bend Public Works accomplished all this with 100 fewer employees than we had 12 years ago, with no service cuts. This is an annual ratepayer benefit of $5 million in labor savings and a 33 percent increase in productivity of the remaining 300 competent and dedicated staff. So you see, it’s really about people achieving more than any trophy projects.
Q: What are some other projects that stand out to you?
A: The reconfiguration design of State Road 23 at Five Points, which will finally move to construction in 2012-2013, will be transformational as a gateway and as a master-planned economic-development complement to Eddy Street Commons. The area in and around Five Points has been discussed for years, so to have a chance to play a big part in the redesigning of that area will be very rewarding. Also the City engineer led the addition of key strategically placed roundabouts to help traffic flows and traffic patterns that have been great for the City, as well as working with the use of Bluetooth technology by traffic engineers to help traffic flows downtown and the smooth flow of traffic through the 100 busiest City traffic signals on all City key corridors. While borrowed from a Portland energy-saving, carbon footprint reduction, this commuter frustration reliever model has been an early success, with lasting benefits to accrue to the traveling public — saving up to 1 million gallons per year of wasted fuel waiting at sub-optimally timed signalized intersections.
Q: You have also been very instrumental in using green technology; what has that meant to the City?
A: I think that any green project we have done has had a positive economic effect on the City or a positive environmental benefit and aesthetic enhancement to neighborhoods and parks within the community. I look at the Muessel-Ellison Conservatory at Potawatomi Park project in South Bend. Due to budgetary constraints, the City was looking at closing the historic and beloved conservatory, because of the cost to heat the facility — an old glass house that in Northern Indiana winters costs a lot to heat. Notre Dame had the issue of what to do with all the growing research high-performance computing needs with limited data center space and cooling capacity to manage the heat byproduct that was being generated by the number of computers — 1 kilowatt of electricity to run a computer produces 1 kilowatt of heat. (Did you ever think of your computer as a heating appliance?) So we took the heat being generated from the high-performance research computers from Notre Dame’s Center for Research Computing, with help from really smart community-minded Notre Dame folks like Dr. Paul Brenner, and transferred the heat to the conservatory greenhouse. The creative collaboration benefits both Notre Dame by avoiding capital cost for the data center cooling systems and the operating cost to run those, and it benefits the City by a substantial amount of free heat to the conservatory, saving it from closure and giving hope that led to a new relationship where the Botanical Society, Historic Preservation Commission, Community Foundation, Rotary and the City stepped in to reinvigorate the facility rather than close it. This was all done with model sustainability energy savings and climate protection benefits to the planet: a team success story, you might say a “win-win-win.” Environment-friendly design and construction, brownfield redevelopment, master-planned smart-growth green space opportunities, and environment-friendly solutions have always been very high on our radar.
Q: It seems like problem-solving, creativity and technology are very big components of your leadership style. What do you think you brought to South Bend in the way of public works?
A: When I was recruited by Mayor Steve to South Bend after 16 years in Elkhart doing a similar role, one of my goals (or mayoral assignments given) was to take five Public Works divisions and turn them into one cohesive team, as well as make them a community-, business- and neighborhood-friendly resource. The other goal we challenged our entire staff with is becoming “can do” people. We really focused on becoming creative problem-solvers. We look at Public Works as being an asset to Economic Development, beyond stewardship of the basic building blocks of civilization infrastructure, safe water, wastewater, drainage, solid waste management and roads to move goods and services and coordination of the best infrastructure to support private gas electric and telecommunications. We can make a difference in the attractiveness of South Bend for business growth and expansion as well as business attraction. In our view that is not extra — that is our job, and frankly it is everyone’s job who lives and works here to help promote South Bend through the way we conduct ourselves and the positive “can do” creative and innovative spirit we project by what we say and do.
Q: So if you had to look at the next administration, or your eventual successor, what do you see on the horizon in Public Works that should be areas of emphasis?
A: I think it is really important that the next generation of leaders demonstrate the ability to bring out the motivation that is in each of us and to help folks adapt to use the best technology to become more efficient, especially with some of the budgetary issues that will continue to persist each year. The CSO Long Term Control Plan is the largest environmental infrastructure investment in the City’s history. Mayor Luecke got it started and will sign the 20-year Consent Decree before he leaves office. I have been intimately involved in those negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency for the last seven years. The early action projects by the Luecke administration have been on the order of $100 million and have produced great reductions of basement backups in storms. Dry weather overflows have been virtually eliminated, and annual overflow volume to the river has been reduced by 1.25 billion gallons per year. But there is still a lot to do on an old system and Mayor-elect Pete Buttigieg and the next Public Works director will have the mantle of leadership to execute during their watch. We will become a cleaner and greener and more livable City for the way we approach this. There are real movements in sensor technologies that can help efficiencies in gathering real-time data, and help us control real-time results. The quicker we respond, the less waste in a system. By eliminating waste, you take cost out of the equation. Also, remote sensing eliminates ineffective and inefficient use of human resources in the amount of people who would otherwise be assigned to boring repetitive jobs, rather than applied to their full potential in jobs that matter. Again you are eliminating steps within a process, which eliminates costs. Creating the energy office is becoming a more prominent role in reducing costs, while becoming more environment-friendly. South Bend has an energy director that is focused on both, which again cities are seeing very big economic impacts. Cities all across the nation are working toward this 24/7 technology where we receive and effectively manage a constant data stream into useful “at a glance” decision-making information; this allows instant resolution, thus providing great service to our citizens. Key performance indicators can be tracked and reported, providing the public the transparency they seek on what we in government do. I expect the Buttigieg administration will seek continuity on a lot of good programs and seek fresh ideas to make South Bend even better. We expect Public Works to be a strength as future-Mayor Buttigieg works on his clearly stated top priority of economic development. We will also support the team on enhanced public safety and programs to creatively solve the vacant- and abandoned-housing issue.
Q: So are you going to miss the excitement and daily activity of what you do?
A: I love what I do on a daily basis. I am most grateful to Mayor Steve for giving me the opportunity to serve and the support needed for some of the initiatives I brought that changed the way we do business in South Bend Public Works. The challenge in serving well, as Mayor Steve has done from my informed vantage point as witness to City history in the making, is not just in providing basic services. Rather, it is about how we create a culture of collaboration and actively encourage creatively solving problems to help our community and economy grow. That is what I have loved about my job. The thrill is when we can create those initiatives like the CSOnet (combined sewer overflow) or the greenhouse project that give value to the community, while developing key partnerships that strengthen our community.
Q: Any chance we can lock you up for a long-term contract extension?
A: Thanks Phil — you can be my agent. Seriously, it is time to retire and write the next chapter. My wife and I will remain in South Bend — we love the place and the people. It has been a lot of fun serving the public as an employee, and nobody but me set the long hours to do it the way I thought it should get done. Reduced hours in this next stage is a goal. I am sure I will still be around to help volunteer or consult on projects. I enjoy the collaborative and creative problem-solving satisfaction too much to trade that for a rocking chair. I’m sure people with great ideas will find me and I will have a hard time resisting the lure of that challenge.