Congress Highlights

Or: Impressions of an Awed First-Timer

R. Kevin Clark
Editor, APWA Reporter

It wasn’t until I returned to Kansas City on September 14 that I realized just how impressive APWA’s recent Congress was. While I was in Louisville, walking the halls and the exhibition floor of the vast Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center, it was naturally important to take care of daily responsibilities, and thus I was limited in time to truly enjoy the grandeur of the event. But upon further reflection, I have found my first Congress to be an overwhelmingly inspiring experience, making me eager to attend the next one in 2001. I can only imagine how public works officials must feel the first time they attend one.

Indeed, the 2000 International Public Works Congress and Exposition was a tremendous success, easily living up to its billing, The Best Show in Public Works. The event, held September 10-13 in Louisville, Kentucky, was attended by more than 6,200 professionals in both public and private sectors from the United States, Canada, Mexico, England, Australia, Japan, China and Slovakia. These 6,200-plus attendees poured into Louisville to participate and glean as much as possible from the more than 200 experts sharing their knowledge in a multitude of sessions, as well as the nearly 400 exhibitors showcasing the largest display of public works equipment and services in North America. And, as the saying goes, a good time was had by all. (Perhaps none more so than by yours truly-after all, how often does an APWA Reporter editor get to “play God”? More about that later…)

First-Timers’ Meeting

For this first-timer, my Congress experience began very appropriately with the First-Timers’ Meeting at 8:00 a.m., Sunday, September 10. In front of a full house, a number of speakers were on hand to help ensure that the first-time attendees’ experience with an APWA Congress would be a good one.

In her remarks at the meeting, APWA President Judith Mueller said that many first-timers would meet new people through Congress and would form lasting professional relationships for many years. “You will begin today to build relationships that will last for decades,” she said.

Dwayne Kalynchuk, Director of Region IX, spoke of the benefits of walking through the exhibit floor and visiting with the exhibitors and vendors. Steve Masters, Chair of APWA’s Diversity Committee, stressed the value of attending the numerous education sessions occurring throughout the week.

Peter King, Executive Director; Kaye Sullivan, Deputy Executive Director; and Jennifer Barlas, recipient of the Young Leader Award, were also on hand to welcome first-timers and provide suggestions on how to enjoy the Congress experience.

One terrific way for the new attendees to meet people and begin building relationships was provided by Karen Susman, national speaker and corporate trainer. Susman asked each person in the audience to find someone he or she didn’t know and share a favorite childhood memory, which the other person did in turn. It was a great way to break the ice and begin the networking experience.

Opening General Session

The Opening General Session started off with the Louisville Boys Choir giving a rousing rendition of, “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing.” For this jazz lover, that was just the ticket to get Congress off to a great start.

In his opening remarks, outgoing President Jerry Fay thanked the members, chapters, and staff for the “most satisfying year of my professional career.” He also encouraged Congress participants to truly get involved in the education sessions as well as in the exhibition hall. “Your experiences this week will recharge your batteries and prepare you for the challenges of the 21st Century,” he said.

Following his remarks, Fay turned the presidential gavel over to incoming President Judith Mueller. “It is an honor to serve as APWA President,” Mueller said during her introductory remarks. “I am looking forward to what will likely be the greatest challenge of my career.”

After Mueller’s remarks, she introduced the keynote speaker for the Opening Session, Ray Suarez, senior correspondent on The NewsHour. In his thought-provoking presentation, Suarez addressed the impact that proactive and forward-thinking public works professionals can have on our nation’s future neighborhoods. After his speech, I overheard several public works professionals discussing how enjoyable it was to listen to “somebody who literally understands what we in public works do and was able to relate it to planning and the urban cities that we all deal with every day.”

The Exposition

From the Opening General Session, the attendees were led to the exhibition hall by an Exposition Opening Parade featuring the Louisville Pipe Band. As for the exhibition hall… well, it truly had to be seen to be believed. Row upon row of street sweepers, spreaders, chippers, grinders, etc. could be seen in an exhibition hall so large that Tiger Woods couldn’t hit a golf ball from one side to the other. Coming down a bit from the big-ticket items, there were also scores of smaller exhibits, ranging from nontoxic sprays that remove graffiti from surfaces, to software for helping manage construction contracts, to “smart” key readers that enhance fuel management.

Clearly, it was evident that APWA members and other professionals were eager to see the millions of dollars worth of equipment and vehicles that filled the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center. The 391 exhibits, occupying 87,500 net square feet of space, drew crowds daily offering up-close looks and hands-on inspections of gigantic pieces of earth-pushing, snow-removing, and road-building equipment.

The Education Sessions

The technical, personal and professional sessions were held with topics ranging from motivating and managing citizen volunteers, to keeping public playgrounds safe and accessible, to communicating in risk and emergency situations. Although there remained an emphasis on technical sessions, there were also numerous personal and professional development sessions with topics such as Presentation Skills: Connect or Die, Emotional Intelligence-The Competitive Edge, and Laughter: The Key to a Healthy Workplace.

The December/January issue of the APWA Reporter will highlight several of the education sessions.

As a point of interest, for those of you that missed certain sessions or were unable to attend Congress, beginning this year we have put the speakers’ handouts on APWA’s web site for anyone to access. To view the handouts, go to

Closing General Session

The featured speaker at the Closing General Session was Tori Murden, the first woman-and the first American-to complete a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by rowboat. To hear her story of battling 125-foot waves, sharks, and an array of other impediments to her quest was nothing short of amazing. And for those who missed her speech, it’s worth noting that, in addition to her obvious dogged determination, she has quite a sense of humor, too. A couple of her stories are worth mentioning:

  • During her first attempt at crossing the Atlantic in 1998, which was unsuccessful, her radio communications were knocked out early on by a large wave of saltwater. Thus, she feels that one of the benefits of being on the ocean for 78 days that summer was that she was probably the only American who had never heard the name, “Monica Lewinsky.”
  • At one point during her successful journey in 1999, as she was listening to a Barbra Streisand CD, she smelled an extremely foul fishy odor. When she turned around she saw a huge whale just inches from her rowboat, close enough that she could smell its breath. The whale eventually drifted away from her boat, but from that time on, she has always associated Barbra Streisand with whale breath.

Other Congress Activities…

Congress, of course, was more than just information, education, and innovation, although these reasons would be enough to warrant attendance by every public works official. APWA awards and honors play an important part in Congress ceremonies. On Monday, September 11, the Awards Ceremony was held, recognizing outstanding individuals, groups, and chapters who represent excellence in the public works profession.

The social aspect and opportunities to network were not ignored. The “Get Acquainted Party” held in KFEC’s West Hall on Sunday kicked off the events, and included video horse racing and plenty of “APWA money” with which to place bets. Chapter dinners held everywhere from elegant hotels to a yacht-the Star of Louisville-were the order of the evening Tuesday night. Finally, Wednesday evening was the grand finale when hundreds of attendees gathered at the plush Cascade Ballroom in the Kentucky International Convention Center for the Grand Banquet.

(Incidentally, the Banquet was where I got to “play God,” as I referred to earlier. Frankly, there’s no feeling quite like walking into a huge room filled with hundreds of people, looking forward to a nice, relaxing evening, only to find out that you’ve been asked to be the “Voice of God” and introduce the new President, President-Elect, and Past President to all of the partyers. Needless to say, the pressure was on! So, to Dana, Brenda, and Diana: thank you very much-I think!)

All in all, the 2000 Congress and Exposition was an exhilarating event. Of course, many of you who have attended this or past Congresses can certainly attest to that feeling of exhilaration. If you were not among those who attended this year, plan now to attend Congress in Philadelphia, September 9-12, 2001.