Clarksville Mayor Joe Pitts talks growth, managing expectations

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

After he was sworn in as mayor of Clarksville in January of this year, Joe Pitts began his new job by holding meet-and-greet breakfast sessions with each city department and took on an aggressive schedule encouraging intergovernmental relations, administrative and budget-planning initiatives, and strengthening government transparency and communication with citizens.
A Clarksville native, Pitts graduated from the city’s Northwest High School in 1976, followed by earning a bachelor’s degree from Austin Peay State University in 1980. He went on to complete post-graduate work at the Institute for Organizational Management at the University of Georgia and the Emerging Political Leaders program at the University of Virginia.
Pitts served as chief of staff under Clarksville Mayor Don Trotter in 2002 and 2003. He was then elected to six, two-year terms in the Tennessee House of Representatives’ District 67, which he served from 2007 until earlier this year when he ran for mayor of Clarksville.
During his tenure as a state lawmaker, Pitts was lauded for his involvement in education through awards such as being the Tennessee Education Association’s 2014 Friend of Education and the 2013 Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents Legislative Leadership Award.
He is actively involved in the Clarksville chapter of the NAACP and won the branch’s Jerry G. Jerkins Community Service Award in 2019. He was also selected as the Public Official of the Year by the Tennessee Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers in 2009.
Professionaly, Pitts served for more than 13 years as vice president of Clarksville’s Planters Bank, a regional community bank based in Tennessee and southern Kentucky.
He has been married to minister Cynthia “Cyndi” Haley Pitts. The pair have five sons and nine grandchildren – with twin boys on the way.

TT&C: As a Clarksville native, what was it like growing up in the community? Who were your biggest influences?
Joe Pitts: My father had an eighth-grade education because he had to drop out of school. His father had a stroke and out of the seven kids, he had to leave school and go fend for himself. He then joined the Army and served in the Korean War. My mother had a high-school education and worked hard to support us. She provided the opportunity for me to go to college and get a great education. I had a lot influences from my parents and a lot of great teachers all the way through school who provided encouragement in my life. They helped me along the way and made me a better person because of the challenges they placed before me.

TT&C: Why was Clarksville a city where you wanted to stay as an adult and raise a family?
JP: It’s the people. For me, what makes Clarksville different is the people. It’s not just family but the people who make up our community. We get people from all over the world and every place imaginable. You get different perspectives and different opinions on things, which is really our strength. It’s not just cultural diversity; it’s diversity of thought, of opinion, and perspective that really makes us stronger.

TT&C: What first prompted your interest in politics?
JP: I had always been interested in politics and political campaigns, growing up in the ‘60s like I did. My parents grew up in the Depression area so President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sort of an idol in our household. He was president for almost four terms during their younger years, so I got to hear a lot about what he did for the country. My parents weren’t politically active, but they were politically astute. They paid attention to politics and elected officials. They instilled in my sister and me an interest in voting and being engaged in our community.
I sort of took it from there and thought one day I might run for public office. It took me a few years to get there. I worked with Mayor Don Trotter back in 2002 and 2003, functioning as his chief of staff even though he didn’t call it that. I worked for him for a couple of years. I learned a lot about city government, how to relate to people, talk with employees, and how to pay attention to issues that were important.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to run for the State House of Representatives. I was blessed to win that seat with a lot of help, especially from my wife who was right beside me, walking with me every step of the way. I served there 12 years and then the Lord opened the door for the mayor’s job, and here I am.

TT&C: What made you to decide to run for mayor, especially since you already held a seat in the Legislature?
JP: It wasn’t a one-step decision. We made the decision right after the election of 2016 even though we didn’t announce it to the end of the legislative session in 2017 that we were retiring from the House.
By ‘we’ I mean my wife and I because we are a team. We wanted time to pray and ask what our next step should be. It was almost a year after that they we got the clearance and received the call to run for mayor. We didn’t retire from the House with the intention to run for anything. We just thought we would retire from the House and see what other doors would open.
It is an honor to serve in this role. I am the 21st mayor the city has had. It is a challenge and the pace can be frantic. It can be the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

TT&C: What are some of the differences you have found between being a mayor and state lawmaker? What parts of the job are similar?
JP: I came in with the mindset when I ran for the House of Representatives that I would be the best at customer service or constituent service. I wanted people to be able to say that when I got phone calls or emails I responded in a timely fashion. I went in with that mindset to this job. We need to be the best at customer service.
The difference is in the House you are one of 99 votes. You aren’t an executive in charge of everything. As mayor, you are chief executive officer of the city, and everything that gets done runs across my desk. That can be a huge difference.

TT&C: What do you think are the most important characteristics for a leader to have?
JP: First of all, you have to have compassion for people. You have to be a good listener. You have to have a desire to help people and support people. I have to make sure all of our city employees – all 1,370 or so – have all the support and encouragement they need. During the first month, my wife Cyndi and I did meet-and-greets with every department where we met all the employees, fed them food, and sat around, talked to, and got to know them.
That’s what I think leadership is about: showing the people you work with that you care about them, you want to enable them to succeed, and you want to enable them to be innovative. Sometimes that means they need to take risks, and sometimes that means they need to fail.

TT&C: Clarksville was recently named one of the 250 fastest-growing cities in the country. Has Clarksville changed much since you were younger?
JP: We have a lot going on, all at the same time, but it’s all good. The area where I was born wasn’t even in the city limits but now it is in the heart of the city limits, so that tells you a little bit about how the boundary of our city has grown in the past 60 years. We have literally grown a city around a city with suburbs now completely encircled by the city.
We have done a pretty good job of trying to maintain and manage that growth, meet the needs of a growing city. Plus being a border city, we have to be mindful of Fort Campbell being our neighbor.
When I was a kid, Clarksville was Fort Campbell driven. It still is somewhat today, but we have diversified our job base. Our manufacturing base is diversifying at a rapid pace and so has the service sector, both government and non-government. When I was a kid, we had a very large agriculture and agribusiness industry with both small and large family farms. We have less so now because of the growth, need for housing, commercial development, schools, and all those things that go along with being a growing city. We have transitioned as a growing city.

TT&C: Clarksville is a city with many facets. It’s a military town, a college town, a town with a lot of history, and a town looking to the future with projects like the new Google installation. How does the city bring all of these identities and backgrounds together to work for common goals?
JP: You have to listen to what people are telling you. Their priorities may be as simple as the streetlight in front of their house or that their street needs to be paved, issues with traffic, or building sidewalks so their children can walk to school.
Then there are larger issues like parents who want their children to be able to stay in Clarksville and earn a good living. You have to put the wheels in motion so that the jobs are there, and 21st Century jobs, not just the same thing that’s always been done. You have to cast that vision and hope that people catch that vision and want to follow it along.
Clarksville is a diverse city. We are proudly patriotic. We are decidedly Southern. You can walk downtown and hear someone say ‘bless your heart.’ There is still that Southern charm to us. Because of our diverse population, we are not the typical Southern city like a Savannah or Charleston. But we are Southern – make no mistake.

TT&C: Your wife Cyndi has taken a very active role as First Lady of Clarksville. How does she help serve the community?
JP: My wife, the First Lady, has started a Women of Clarksville series of events where she invites women to come together on a monthly basis to discuss a variety of topics ranging from menopause to diabetes among women as well as mental and spiritual health. It is gratifying to see 150 to 200 women to come together monthly to discuss issues that are unique to them.
It really came out of her desire to go into the different communities in our city – the Asian-American community, Hispanic-American Community, the African-American community, the Indian-Americans – to try to give them a voice, find out what is important to them and get them engaged in our community. We don’t want them to feel like we are only paying lip service to diversity in our community.

TT&C: What are some of the big projects Clarksville is undertaking or that you would like to see Clarksville undertake?
JP: We have to address our traffic. Every city that is growing like we are and virtually every city in Middle Tennessee is experiencing traffic issues. We have a very aggressive Traffic 2020 Plan coming together. We are going to be building some roads. We appreciate our partnerships with TDOT and Montgomery County. The General Assembly is doing a heck of a job for us, making sure we get our share of transportation money. We have got to address traffic, and we are seeing some results. We have to meet the growing demands of the city as far as parks and recreation and quality of life.
One of my goals coming in is leadership development among our city employees. I want to reach out into the ranks of our city employees and do some leadership development training. I want our brand-new, first-year city employees to say they want to make a career as a city employee and move up to management ranks. I want these employees to have the tools and training the need. We have already started putting those together and executing some of those programs. We have what I call a ‘Leadership Next’ program we have implemented. We are bringing in a cohort of city employees and putting them through leadership training. We’ve had great results and feedback so far.

TT&C: What are some of the city’s biggest challenges? How do you plan on tackling those?
JP: I think our biggest challenge is managing expectations in people. Everyone has a different idea of what should be done. You have to take all of that in and see what resources you need to make that happen. We don’t have all the time we need, and we don’t have all the money we need. If time and money weren’t a factor, everyone would be happy. They aren’t barriers as much as they are obstacles.
We also have to be more efficient, and we have to tell our story. We have to let people know what we are doing with their money because it is their money. They are investing it in us, so they deserve to know what we are doing with it. They want to know we are spending their tax money on things important to them.

TT&C: What do you enjoy the most about being mayor?
JP: I enjoy getting out and seeing folks, being around people in the community. It’s my hometown, and I just love this city. People are so kind, but they are also very pointed about saying ‘here is what we need.’ I take it very seriously; I don’t take it personally, but I take it seriously.