2001 Congress in Philadelphia

Positive atmosphere turns somber on September 11

R. Kevin Clark
Editor, APWA Reporter

To be honest, it's hard to know exactly where to start when describing our recent Congress.

On the one hand, our annual conference began in much the same manner as many previous Congresses, according to some of my colleagues who have been with APWA a number of years. Even for me-a Congress "sophomore"-our Philadelphia event seemed to be a virtual carbon copy of last year's in Louisville; the only differences being a larger exhibit floor and the change in venue, from the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center to the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

As usual on opening Sunday, thousands of attendees poured into the Convention Center to see the biggest and best that the public works field has to offer. Millions of dollars worth of state-of-the-art equipment, vehicles, and tools spread across more than 100,000 square feet of exhibit space met attendees on the exhibit floor. And more than 200 technical, professional, and educational sessions were held with topics ranging from how to be an effective advocate for public works to community outreach strategies.

But the positive atmosphere generated by the numerous exhibits and educational sessions turned to shock and sadness when news of the September 11 terrorist attacks reached the attendees. For hours around television monitors located throughout the Convention Center, people watched the news of the attacks in stunned disbelief.

Perhaps it's not so difficult to know where to begin this Congress recap after all. With the tragedy occurring toward the end of Congress, let's begin by focusing on a humanitarian effort that occurred three days earlier, when a number of APWA members volunteered to help build several houses in North Philadelphia.

A "rewarding spirit of volunteerism"
The Habitat for Humanity Work Day, Saturday, September 8, began for APWA volunteers with a bus trip from the Convention Center to a community in North Philadelphia. We were dropped off at the offices of Habitat for Humanity of North Philadelphia, which, according to its literature, "provides safe and decent homes for low-income families while revitalizing a once thriving urban environment."

According to Ruben David, who works for the City of Philadelphia's Capital Program Office and who coordinated the APWA volunteer effort, there were about 40 APWA members who contributed their time to the workday. The volunteers were divided into teams of five and were sent-along with hammers, nails, and other tools-to a row of houses being built to help revitalize the community. Each team was headed by a construction manager who works for Habitat for Humanity.

Once our team was at our particular house-House "N"-our construction manager informed us that the task for that day was to finish the "rough-in" of the kitchen. That entailed the installation of many two-by-fours to provide support for the cabinets, closet, and particularly for the bedroom located above the kitchen.

Of course, cutting two-by-fours requires the use of a circular saw, and someone had to man the saw for the team. When no one immediately volunteered for the job, it eventually fell to yours truly. I can only tell you that for a guy who usually sits at a computer dealing with commas and semicolons, crouching over a high-powered circular saw dealing with the potential loss of fingers and thumbs was a wee bit out of my comfort zone. And no doubt about it, my first few efforts showed an extraordinary lack of talent and experience. But after a while I got the hang of it, and actually looked forward to each board I was required to cut. (However, I don't have any illusions that I'll be featured on "This Old House" anytime soon.)

Once we got into the swing of things, each team member seemed to truly enjoy his or her particular duty, and a positive attitude and feeling of camaraderie was quickly established. In truth, it is both amazing and inspiring how people who don't know each other will join together-as our entire country is presently doing-to overcome the most challenging obstacles and dilemmas. Through our teamwork, we overcame each obstacle and finished the rough-in by 3:30 that afternoon, leaving House "N" ready for the next team and assignment on the following Saturday (the houses should be complete by early 2002).

The whole point of our workday became evident during our lunch break, when the owner of one of the houses came by to thank us for all our efforts. Tearfully, she explained to us that she and her children had moved from one unsafe house and location to another, and that she was very grateful to finally be able to provide a safe, decent home for her children. It wasn't hard to become a little emotional upon hearing all she had been through and seeing the look of relief and gratitude on her face.

Another thing about that day: It has given me an entirely new appreciation for what construction workers and our public works professionals in the field do day after day. It's one thing to do difficult manual labor once in a great while, but a totally different thing to do it on a daily basis. I take my hat off to those folks for their tremendous efforts.

Ruben David, coordinator of the APWA volunteer effort, expressed his appreciation for the APWA volunteers donating their time and sweat to the Habitat for Humanity effort. "I would like to take this opportunity to thank all volunteers who participated in this very worthwhile and rewarding spirit of volunteerism," he said.

First Timers learn about Congress
On Sunday, September 9, at 8:00 a.m., the fifth annual First Timers Meeting took place in Room 201 ABC of the Convention Center. More than 150 attendees gathered to learn the most productive methods of utilizing their time at their first Congress.

The speakers on hand to provide the necessary background information on the exhibit floor and the educational sessions included (from left to right at the table) Peter King, APWA Executive Director; Dwayne Kalynchuk, General Manager of Planning & Engineering Services, City of St. Albert, Alberta, and Director, Region IX; Jason Cosby, Director of Public Works, City of Lancaster, Texas; Richard Ridings, Vice President, HNTB Corporation, Austin, Texas, and APWA President; Larry Lux, President, Lux Advisors, Ltd., and Director-at-Large, Public Works Leadership and Management; Jennifer Barlas, Business Development Specialist, Foth & Van Dyke and Associates, Inc., Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Chair, 2001 APWA Diversity Committee; Kaye Sullivan, APWA Deputy Executive Director; Bob Albee, Director, Telecommunications Engineering, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc., Watertown, Massachusetts, and former APWA President; Barbara Little, Director of Public Works & Engineering, Village of Deerfield, Illinois; Ronald Ford, Director of Parks & Recreation, City of Aurora, Illinois; and Cynthia D'Amour, People Power Unlimited, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In her opening remarks, Jennifer Barlas, who facilitated the meeting, welcomed the First Timers and encouraged them to get the most advantage from their Congress experience. "We trust you will go away from this meeting with information that will be helpful to you in getting the most from Congress, both professionally and economically," she said.

President Ridings spoke of the benefits of walking through the exhibit floor and attending the educational sessions. "There are many educational opportunities," he said. "I encourage you to take advantage of the educational opportunities and the exhibits here at Congress, and to take that information back to your public works departments to help make your departments more efficient."

Kaye Sullivan ran through the packet of material that was given to each First Timer, and Barbara Little gave a brief run-through of the education sessions. "I'm sure that your employers and communities will be grateful for all of the information you'll be bringing back to them," Little said.

Dwayne Kalynchuk discussed the importance of touring the exhibit floor several times, and provided a bit of levity concerning one aspect of the exhibit floor-the Daily Prize Drawing (at the APWA Central booth). According to Kalynchuk, he has had some interesting experiences with daily drawings. "One time I participated in a drawing but had to leave before all the prizes were announced," he said. "Later on a friend said, 'Hey, you won a stereo, but you weren't there so they gave it to someone else.'" Needless to say, Kalynchuk now always waits until the end of the drawing before he leaves.

Also taking place that Sunday was the Emerging Public Works Leaders Forum. Seventeen mentor/coaches and seventeen emerging public works leaders-an increase of seven in each group over last year's program-joined in a full day of activities in the second annual Forum.

According to Ann Daniels, Professional Development Program Manager, Emerging Leaders came from Arizona, Utah, Minnesota, California, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Kentucky, and Ontario and averaged 21/2 years in the field of public works. Mentors joined the program from Minnesota, California, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Missouri, Kansas, Florida, Washington, Ohio, Ontario, and Oregon, and averaged 24 years in the field.

"The day was spent getting acquainted, attending the First Timers Meeting, sessions on mentoring, networking, and career development for the future, and attending the Opening General Session and participating in the opening of the exhibit floor," Daniels said.

Daniels stressed that if members or chapters did not participate this year, it is not too early to begin seeking emerging public works leaders and mentors who could benefit from next year's program. "This is a great way to build chapter leadership and support new members in the profession," she said.

Opening General Session
Anyone who's crazy about spaceships and the music of Richard Strauss would have loved the first few minutes of the Opening General Session at 10:00 on Sunday morning. With smoke emitting from the stage, and accompanied by Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (made famous by Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey), an 18-feet-in-diameter, helium-filled spaceship launched from behind the stage and hovered over the large audience. Powered by remote control, and displaying the APWA logo (of course), the spaceship was definitely a huge hit among all of the attendees.

After the spaceship made its way to the rear of the auditorium, President Judith Mueller began to address the attendees (more than a few people actually thought she disembarked from the spaceship). In her remarks, Mueller stressed the importance of thinking about the future and how we can contribute to it. "Beginning right now at this Congress, you can find new and innovative ways to make a difference in our future," she said. "I encourage you to capitalize on the opportunities that lie ahead of you in the next four days."

Mueller continued by describing the daily challenges facing those who work in the public interest. "Environmental concerns, aging infrastructure, and shrinking finances are a very small sampling of the issues that face each of us every day," she said. "Our association has worked hard to help you meet these challenges through cutting-edge education programming, public policy advocacy, and innovative projects."

With that, Mueller introduced William R. Gordon, Chairman and CEO of IZOIC, Incorporated. Gordon noted that the pressures of an expanding population and supporting infrastructure mean that public works professionals are faced with managing the addition of the equivalent of a city the size of Los Angeles to the U.S. every year. "This increased infrastructure is in addition to the aging, often inadequate existing network of roads, water and telecommunications systems already in place," he noted.

Gordon pointed out that as managers of this infrastructure, public works professionals must utilize new tools and technologies, and that the APWA-InfoLink project, developed in partnership with APWA, begins laying the foundation for leveraging new technologies to address these increased demands.

Following Gordon's remarks, Mueller introduced the 2001-2002 Board of Directors to the attendees, and then turned the presidential gavel over to incoming President Richard Ridings. "I will miss the people, but I have great memories," Mueller told the audience.

"It will be an honor to serve as your president," Ridings said during his introductory remarks. "To represent and guide this association that collectively and individually encompasses the profession that we proudly call public works."

Ridings discussed the areas of advocacy, education, and relationships that he intends to emphasize during his presidency. He also mentioned the pride that public works professionals take in the services they provide and the projects they develop. "Whether big or small, every project and service have a significant impact on our community," he said.

After Ridings' remarks, he introduced the keynote speaker for the Opening General Session, Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian, and political commentator, offered the audience a fascinating account of both the intended and unintended legacies left by past U.S. presidents and how these legacies have impacted the ability of succeeding presidents to assert their social and political agendas.

Strictly from my perspective, to be in the presence of such a brilliant writer was certainly a humbling experience-probably similar to how the local club champion feels while watching Tiger Woods hit balls on the driving range. And as great a writer as she undoubtedly is, her speaking skills rank just as high, as my colleague Karen Wilson, Education Program Development Manager, noted.

"Goodwin's gift for storytelling kept our full attention," Wilson said. "She recounted how the Office of the President can be used effectively as a moral authority for reinforcing the principles of American democracy. But she also explored how this message can be derailed by political, social, and personal events." Goodwin offered examples from the administrations of presidents from the latter half of the 20th Century, from Franklin D. Roosevelt through William J. Clinton. She also discussed the legacy left by Abraham Lincoln, who will be the subject of her next book.

Exhibits and educational sessions
From the Opening General Session, the attendees were led to the exhibition hall by the Hardly Ables Mummers Band. Once I walked into Halls ABC at the Convention Center, a curious thought hit me: I realized that I truly enjoyed the smell of the place, from the brand new tires on the large machinery to the carpet that the convention workers laid down. (At the risk of sounding corny, perhaps one of the best indicators of how much you're truly enjoying yourself is by the way your immediate environment smells to you. Worth a thought...)

In any case, I must not have been alone in my enthusiasm, as it was evident that members and other public works professionals were eager to see the millions of dollars worth of equipment and vehicles that filled the Convention Center. "High quality" traffic, according to one exhibitor, filled the carpeted aisles that laced between the many demonstrations and displays offered by the leading suppliers of products and services for the public works industry.

Regarding the 200-plus educational sessions, the large turnout made it abundantly clear that members also go to Congress to learn. It was obvious by the most popular choices that public works professionals are aware of the need to practice state-of-the-art management techniques; to be outspoken advocates for investment in infrastructure; and to know and use the latest computer technology. Several sessions will be highlighted in an upcoming issue of the APWA Reporter.

For those of you who missed certain sessions or were unable to attend Congress, the speakers' handouts are on our website at www.apwa.net/Meetings/Congress/2001/Handouts/.

Incidentally, P.W. Paws, APWA's nine-foot-tall mascot, made his Congress debut at Philly, where he greeted the attendees at the Opening General Session and on the exhibit floor. Paws created excitement wherever he went. It's safe to say we'll see him in Kansas City next year.

"We orchestrate our own energy"
At Monday's General Session, top business consultant Peter McLaughlin gave a presentation that in its own way was as superb as Goodwin's the day before. In an inspiring presentation, McLaughlin stressed how important our energy level is, both at work and at home. Factors contributing to our energy level include sleep, exercise and nutrition.

"If you perform in a bad mood on a given day, the people around you will perform lesser as well," McLaughlin said. "We orchestrate our own energy."

Focusing on optimism-a belief that our actions will result in success-is a very important aspect of what we do, McLaughlin indicated. Comparing optimists with pessimists, he said, "Optimists outperform pessimists, they live longer than pessimists, and generally make more money than pessimists."

His presentation was loaded with humor. For example, when he asks sales people what their energy level is, their answer is usually 12. When asking engineers the same question, the answer he receives is 3.47598.

Ultimately, he emphasized, it is important to take responsibility for our attitude, especially for those involved in leadership roles. "Your energy gets transferred into your work group," he said.

A day of shock, sadness
Tuesday morning, September 11 began as "business as usual" at Congress as people continued to tour the exhibit floor and attend the educational sessions. But the positive atmosphere at the Convention Center turned to shock and sadness when news of the terrorist attacks reached the attendees.

As I was heading to an educational session shortly before 9:00 a.m., I noticed a group of people standing near a television monitor in the hallway by the classrooms. Someone said that a large plane had hit one of the twin towers at the World Trade Center.

My mind immediately raced back to 1980, when I was living in New York City for a brief time. One day that year, during extremely poor weather conditions, a large commercial airliner drifted off course and was headed directly for the World Trade Center. A savvy air traffic controller caught the error, talked to the pilots and averted the near-tragedy. I remember the headline in the New York Post the following day, specifically referring to the air traffic controller: "The Man Who Saved New York." Watching the television at the Convention Center, I thought that the same type of accident that had been narrowly averted 21 years before finally occurred just minutes earlier.

However, it became all too clear that it wasn't an accident minutes later, when a second plane slammed into the south tower. The news of the attacks at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon left many of us at Congress speechless, as indeed millions around the world were at that moment. Emotions throughout the day at the Convention Center ranged from shock and sadness to anger and uncertainty.

A number of public works professionals who live in the New York City and Washington, D.C. areas left the Convention Center and returned to those areas to help with the rescue effort. However, as thousands of attendees who traveled to Philadelphia by air were unable to leave the city, the Board of Directors made the decision to move forward with the meeting agenda. President Ridings communicated with conference delegates regularly, and a "call center" was set up for delegates to use in communicating with their communities, employers and family members.

People got home from Philadelphia however they could, whether by train, bus, rental car or taxi. Most of us were just grateful for the opportunity to get home, no matter what means of transport. The APWA headquarters staff was very appreciative of the opportunity to take a bus back to Kansas City with the Kansas City Metro Chapter. The D.C. staff took the train back to Washington.

From the humanitarianism of Habitat for Humanity to the death and destruction caused by acts of terrorism. Sometimes this world doesn't make sense.

Closing General Session
Regularly-scheduled speaker for Wednesday's Closing General Session, David Macaulay, was unable to get to Philadelphia due to the suspension of air travel. In his absence, Dan Burden, Executive Director of Walkable Communities, Inc., graciously stepped forward to offer a message of vision and hope for the future of America's communities. Burden's presentation challenged public works and community officials to follow the examples of APWA members and leaders in communities like Kirkland and Bellevue, WA who have "remade" their towns based on a philosophy of "place-making" rather than as car moving and storage venues.

Showing slides from these two communities, plus larger cities like Toronto and Ft. Lauderdale, Burden demonstrated that these concepts are already being used across North America and can be adapted to create more livable communities everywhere. In the wake of the tragic events from the day before, APWA's Congress audience appreciated Burden's passion and optimism for revisioned America.

The banquet
Wednesday evening was the final conference event when more than 650 attendees gathered at the Philadelphia Marriott's Grand Ballroom. Incoming President Ridings, former APWA presidents, and the new APWA Board of Directors were introduced to the attendees.

In President Ridings' speech to the gathering, he mentioned how proud he is to be associated with public works professionals. "We are fortunate to be able to continue the APWA tradition of service to the public," he said. "Our own American Public Works Association and its value to you and your community are what we make it. Each of you can lend a hand as we increase in wisdom and in stature."

Everything's up-to-date in Kansas City
Of course, Congress is in Kansas City in 2002. The 2002 Congress Local Management Team was at the Philadelphia Convention Center, telling everyone about the great things in store for them next year. And you know something? They're right! Make plans now to attend the 2002 Best Show in Public Works-it's going to be terrific.

Besides, you'll get the opportunity to see where APWA's headquarters staff works-we're not far at all from the Congress site. Not to mention the fact that Kansas City has the most mouth-watering barbeque in the world. We've got KC Masterpiece Barbeque & Grill, Gates Bar-B-Q, Arthur Bryant's Barbeque and...well, the list goes on and on. All of them are close to the Congress site and hotels. How do we know our barbeque is the best in the world? Because everyone tells us it is!