Q&A: Mount Pleasant's new city manager discusses experience and values
As City Manager Nancy Ridley prepares to retire, her successor Aaron Desentz looks forward to his future with Mount Pleasant.
Desentz transitioned from the city manager role in Eaton Rapids to Mount Pleasant. His employment began on Oct. 18 and he officially took over for Ridley on Nov. 1.
“Mount Pleasant is a city full of unique characteristics,” Desentz said. “It was a career-advancing opportunity I couldn’t pass up on.”
Central Michigan Life spoke with Desentz on his origins in city government and goals for the future in Mount Pleasant.
CM Life: How did you get involved in city government?
I originally got a four-year degree at Eastern (Michigan University) in criminology because I was 19 and thought becoming a cop would be exactly like Miami Vice. Naturally, I graduated in 2009 in the middle of the recession when no one was hiring police officers. I was looking for a graduate program and went back to Eastern for a masters in public administration.
During graduate school I interned in several places, including Washtenaw County under the county administrator and in the City of Dexter in their finance department. I also interned for the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System in their Emergency Management Department. Throughout all these internships I discovered a passion for city government. Helping communities in need spoke to my interests and skills. Six months after graduation I got my first job as city manager with the Village of Shelby and worked there for two years. I moved on to the City of Leslie where I worked for three years until the Eaton Rapids position opened up.
What has been your greatest achievement in your time as a city manager?
Nothing has been as eye-opening as the Eaton Rapids Riverwalk Project. Our downtown is an island flanked on both sides by the Grand River. A riverwalk system was developed several years ago on the west side of the island that connects the parks, kayaking center and downtown amenities. However, the east side was in disrepair. We worked to fix the pedestrian bridge and sea walls on the east side, as well as replace various park equipment and introduce the riverwalk.
It was a huge $3 million project that was two decades in the making. Complications with funding prioritization almost led to us losing a $3 million public infrastructure grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s (MEDC) Community Block Grant Program. We already had $100,000 in the project and I didn’t want it to all go to waste. We got in contact with dozens of representatives, senators, city managers and higher-ups at MEDC to fight for the grant. Despite many obstacles, our grant was honored and we got to finish the project after an 18-month-long process. The riverwalk opened on Oct. 6.
Why did you decide to transition from Eaton Rapids to Mount Pleasant?
Eaton Rapids was a significant jump-up in size compared to the previous communities I’d managed. I’ve been with Eaton Rapids for nearly four years and I had a great time working with the staff, council and community, but Mount Pleasant was an opportunity I couldn’t ignore. It has a lot of unique opportunities: a much larger population, a D1 university and tribal-government relations. Eaton Rapids is around 5,200 people whereas Mount Pleasant is 26,000. From a job prospects perspective it’s a step up for me and an increase in responsibility.
How will your prior experience support you as Mount Pleasant’s new city manager?
I’m new to a city as big as Mount Pleasant, but the basis of a city manager position is universal no matter what size a city is. The scope changes but the structure is the same. Many of the duties I had in Eaton Rapids are reflected here in Mount Pleasant. For example, the Mission Street Redevelopment is similar to a highway redevelopment we worked on in downtown Eaton Rapids, focusing on central boulevards, trees, increasing pedestrian traffic and sidewalks.
A brand new aspect here is the university, but I’ve had lots of experience with the University of Michigan when I worked in Ann Arbor. I also have experience dealing with new issues and immediate crises. When I first joined Eaton Rapids in 2018 there was serious flooding in the downtown to be dealt with. Again in 2018, a local magnesium-parts manufacturing plant had an explosion at their factory. That company is the biggest employer in town and also the biggest utility payer, creating a major economic problem to solve. The business they do for Eaton Rapids is close to $5.5 million per year. And of course when COVID-19 started we had to adapt like everyone else. It was important to balance what’s best for the organization while also keeping the public safe and healthy.
What are your core beliefs as a city manager?
I’m a person who is very much attuned to finances. Money really dictates the difference that city government can have on the community. Strategy of where the city is going and the long term goals we want to achieve is also vital. Organization is important in how we’re structured and how we interact with each other to accomplish our goals. I think if you’re successful in these three key areas it’s a recipe for a good city manager. I try to do the most good for the most people. Treating everyone with respect and open communication is the key to success.
What are your goals as Mount Pleasant’s city manager?
Goal #1 is to meet and get to know everybody. I need to learn about the different personalities here and see how everyone functions together. In the beginning of this role I just want to be a listening tool and absorb as much wisdom as I can. I want to get my footing until I officially identify the changes or improvements I’d like to see in the community. Nancy’s already started getting me caught up on the master plan and important information to know. I'm excited to get started and join the community.