Landenberg Life Q & A: Christopher Himes, New Garden Township Manager09/22/2023 12:49PM ● By Richard Gaw
When Christopher Himes began his position as the new Manager for New Garden Township on Jan. 23 of this year, he not only was stepping into the overall steerage for a municipality of nearly 13,000 residents, he was uprooting his family from Manassas Park, Va., where he previously served as assistant city manager.
Recently, Landenberg Life caught up with Christopher to learn more about his career, his military service, and get a status report on some of the major initiatives underway for the township.
Landenberg Life: Just to let the readers of Landenberg Life know, this interview was originally scheduled for the spring-summer edition, but you told me at the time that you felt it was important to get your feet wet first – to better absorb the many policies, procedures, people and projects that make up township government. By virtue of your role at public meetings, your feet are not only wet, your boots are in the ground of the township. After six months on the job, describe your impressions about the township and its role in the lives of the residents it serves.
Himes: My initial impression of New Garden was that it is very active for being classified as a semi-rural exurb of the metro-Philadelphia region. With the sizable amount of industry and our population, there is a consistent hum of activity, which means something is always happening in the township.
As for the role, the primary purpose is to meet the needs and expectations of the community by enhancing the quality of life for residents and businesses. This is accomplished by providing excellent public services that range from Public Safety, Community Development, Parks and Recreation and Public Works, in addition to the more unique offerings that set the township apart, such as the municipal Airport at New Garden Flying Field. It’s also important for the community to understand the critical function of administration that ensures our township has strong financial management, legal compliance, reporting transparency and communication.
Prior to joining the township, you served as assistant city manager for Manassas Park, Va. What intrigued you about the possibility of becoming the New Garden Township Manager? Where did you see the benefits and the challenges?
The immediate reason I was interested was that I was very familiar with the area, having previously lived in Wilmington, right after leaving Active-Duty service with the Navy, and thought this would be a great place to live long-term should an opportunity arise. After learning more about New Garden, some of its unique assets and service offerings, meeting the Board, and getting a better understanding of the values of the community, I knew this was the right opportunity for me at this time in my career. As for
the challenges, that’s what makes the job interesting and fun, so for me the benefits of serving New Garden far outweigh the challenges.
You are a graduate of Virginia Tech and the University of Southern California, but you also served as an officer in the U.S. Navy for ten years, primarily as a helicopter pilot, where you amassed over 2,000 flight hours. What led you to pursue the military?
I joke that pursuing naval aviation was me simply joining the family business, but it’s true. My grandfather served a brief stint as a naval aviator in the early ‘50s, flying the PB4Y-2 Privateer patrol aircraft before his career in public education. My dad was a naval aviator as well and flew the S-3 Viking for the majority of his 27-year naval career, so when it came time to find a career path, naval aviation was in my blood and I loved every minute.
I have to ask: Is there any operational style overlap between serving in the military and helping to run a township?
While flying was the fun part of the job, the most important function for any military officer is leading and serving others, which translates directly to public service and local government management. At its core, great managers figure out how to best create an organization with a culture of high-level performance that rises to the community's expectations.
To accomplish that, you have to lead. While serving in the military, I witnessed a lot of exemplary leadership styles, workshopped my own, made tons of mistakes and eventually figured out what works for me, which boils down to communication, collaboration, empathy and a good sense of humor.
You have stepped with full force into a township for which it can be argued is more saturated with long-term projects than at any other time in its history. Let’s talk about a few of those projects, beginning with the township’s purchase of 105 acres at Loch Nairn for the purpose of converting it to open space and nature trails. What is the latest update on the township’s plans?
The township just finished its second public workshop with the help of our partners at Natural Lands and will continue scoping the final concept of the park that will be presented to the Board of Supervisors later this fall. Based on the progressing plans, the former golf course will primarily function as a network of walking trails, leveraging the existing cart path with some additional public parking. The project also provides an opportunity to restore the course to its natural state that meets the township’s larger goals of protecting natural resources, improving water quality, and educating the public on the importance of doing so.
In 2018, the township spent $1.5 million to purchase 137-acre Saint Anthony’s in the Hills, which has since been re-named New Garden Hills. While the complexity of fulfilling the wish lists of local residents at the park rests on the township’s ability to eventually get the funding to do so, there have already been strides made. Phase I of the plan is set to be available to the public this fall. What can the readers of Landenberg Life look forward to enjoying when Phase I opens?
New Garden Hills Phase 1 represents about 40 acres of the park and is primarily about passive walking trails and protecting natural resources. The roughly 1.5-mile round-trip trail offers a bit more undulation through a heavier forested area that eventually opens into a flatter watershed, where a few restoration projects are already underway designed to improve water quality and address stormwater issues. In preparation for the opening later this year, staff have been addressing trailhead parking, signage, and safety to ensure a great experience for anyone interested in visiting the park.
The Route 41 corridor slices through the township and is its main transportation artery. Over the past several years, it has been the subject of possible – and planned – large-scale mixed-use development. While there are some in the township who vehemently oppose any/all development ideas like White Clay Point, most will accept some form of smart-growth development along Route 41 as long as it does not irreversibly re-define the township. How is the government of New Garden Township positioned to create a smart-growth principle that accepts new development but does so with an ear pressed to the concerns of its residents?
New growth and development opportunities aren't immune to NIMBY-ism. However, the township spent considerable time and energy preparing its 2018 Comprehensive Plan that included community inputs on how and where future smart-growth initiatives are achievable. Such initiatives include economic resilience, improved transportation and increased housing opportunities.
When a development project comes forward, the role of the township is to ensure the developer understands these goals and addresses as many smart-growth initiatives as possible, as well as communicate at large what is happening, how the project aligns with the Comprehensive Plan, and be able to address the impacts, the positives and the negatives, provide a forum for the community to address any concerns and ultimately let the process define the outcome.
In your estimation, what contributes to a great municipality, and of those components, where do you feel New Garden Township is strongest?
A great municipality consists of a Venn diagram of excellent public safety, schools and economic opportunity. It may vary within the margins, but typically those are the primary elements that make communities thrive. I believe New Garden has an equal amount of all three, including the many agricultural, commercial, and industrial employers based in the township and the strong reputations of the Southern Chester County Regional Police, Avondale Fire Company and the Kennett Consolidated School District.
What is your favorite spot in Landenberg?
This one was easy. New Garden Township Park, primarily because my son loves the playground area and investigating the creek beds. We’ve logged a ton of hours in the park since moving here.
If you could throw a dinner party and invite anyone – living or not and famous or not – who would you like to see sitting around that table?
In answering this question, I asked myself, ‘What is the goal of a dinner party?’ and for me, it’s that I want to laugh. I want to have big, infectious belly laughs. My two favorite comedians of all time -- in terms of their ability to hold a room and also provide that introspective, social commentary at the same time – have always been George Carlin and Robin Williams. I feel as if they would not only provide laughter but bring a learning moment to it.
I would also like to have family involved, so that would include my wife and my grandpa on my father’s side, who unfortunately passed away during my college years. He had that booming and infectious belly laugh and always knew what to say. His interests and his experiences across the board were something I always admired and valued, and he always found the easiest way to make a joke.
What item can always be found in the Himes’ family refrigerator?
Juice, bacon and coffee.