Over the past three decades, Bob Kennedy has seen Fort Wayne transform from a place where infrastructure was an afterthought to a community that's investing tens of millions of dollars into streets and roads every year.
But, after 10 years as director of Public Works, Kennedy is moving on.
He's not going far – Kennedy is the new chief operating officer for New Haven-based Brookwood Cabinet Co. The company was bought by local real estate agent Lynn Reecer after the death of owner Gene Ruse.
“I've been with the city 33 years and it's a tough change, but at 53 (years old) it's time to start another career,” Kennedy said. “It's just a new opportunity, a new challenge. I'm the type of person where whatever I'm doing, I'll learn it like the back of my hand before I'm done, so it's fun to start something new.”
City Engineer Shan Gunawardena will take over as interim director until a permanent replacement is selected. Kennedy will remain on-call to help with the transition through the end of the month.
Kennedy's time as a city employee began in April 1985, when he started working with the street department as a laborer, then a truck driver and equipment operator, while attending IPFW for a business degree.
Kennedy said he experienced about everything there was to do at the street department, including collecting leaves and running snowplow routes. The state of Public Works was different back then, he said.
“When I started back in '85, we just didn't have good equipment. We used to put street signs in the floorboards of the trucks, they were that bad. Rusted out,” Kennedy said, chuckling. “They were rough.”
In 1996, Kennedy took over the department's accounting and purchasing. He became street commissioner in 2000. One of the first things Kennedy said he did as commissioner was work with Mayor Graham Richard's administration to buy 12 new single-axle trucks.
After that, Kennedy became associate director of Public Works and City Utilities in 2002 and took over the director's job in 2007. Kennedy isn't the only member of his family to enter public service; his mother, Sandy Kennedy, was the city's longest-serving city clerk from 1983 until her resignation in October 2015.
Dealing with potholes became a focal point for the street department. Kennedy said the department used the Six Sigma Project to streamline that process.
“We used to put 2,000 tons of cold mix out a year. We worked Saturdays and Sundays. I mean, we worked all the time filling potholes. They were bad in the late '90s, early 2000s,” Kennedy said. “When I came up in 2002, we did streamline the whole process to where it used to take two or three days, now it's within a couple hours the potholes are filled.”
Of all his city jobs, the director's job was his favorite, although he said he still holds special affection for his roots in the street department.
Among his accomplishments as director – and there are many, including building the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge, overhauling the system the city uses to fill potholes and revamping the city's flood protection protocols – Kennedy said he's particularly proud of his work to increase infrastructure funding.
Street and road funding had almost been an afterthought until recent years, Kennedy said.
“The way it's always been since the '80s and '90s, we've always gotten what was left over – public safety was always first. That's the way it's always been until recently,” Kennedy said. “Now we're looking at $30 million for 2018 going into roads and it's a dedicated funding stream. That's a huge accomplishment for any city to have that kind of money to put into roads.”
That investment has increased from $5 million in 2011, Councilman Geoff Paddock, D-5th said, noting that much of that yearly investment is funneled into neighborhood projects. Paddock described Kennedy as a dedicated public servant and applauded his responsiveness for small issues as well as large projects.
“(Kennedy) kept his eye not only on big projects, but was very good at keeping his eye on the neighborhoods,” Paddock said.
While Kennedy is proud of helping get funding increased for street projects, members of the Fort Wayne City Council hold him in high regard for how he's spent that money.
“As you can see with what we've done infrastructure-wise over the past four years, we've put over $100,000 into the community,” Council President Tom Didier said. “(Kennedy) and Shan had to basically plan all that out. We've done a lot of improvements that would not have been done if there wasn't the foresight Bob has.”
Didier also said he was always impressed by Kennedy's responsiveness to questions or concerns. Whoever takes over, Didier said, has large shoes to fill.
Mayor Tom Henry agreed, saying in a statement last month that he admires Kennedy's commitment to customer service, as well as his passion for “ensuring we have a safe and efficient transportation system.”
Kennedy's foresight and responsiveness are reasons Reecer approached him to work at Brookwood.
“We not only want that 70-year-old great (Brookwood) name to survive, but we want it to thrive and keep it going for another 70 years or more,” Reecer told The Journal Gazette last month. “We're going to expand services beyond cabinetry and I think Bob's going to be really terrific at doing that.”
Although he's on to something new, some old habits might be difficult to shake. Kennedy said he's especially going to miss watching the street crews work during the first snowfall of the year and he doesn't think he'll ever lose his eye for road quality.
“I'll never stop looking at roads when I go places and curbs and everything else,” he said with a laugh.
“I'll always do that, but I'll be an expert in this too, I think.”
Positions: Director of public works, 2007-17; associate director of public works/City Utilities, 2002-07; street commissioner, 2000-02; street department accounting and purchasing, 1996-2000; street department, 1985-96
Education: IPFW, business
Also: Kennedy's mother was the longest-serving Fort Wayne city clerk, serving from 1983 until October 2015