Partnerships, communication among goals for new Bath manager

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BATH — Peter Owen knows to answer the door when opportunity knocks.

It was an occasion of chance that steered him into a job as Bath’s public works director in 1999, and then as acting city manager last summer. The city manager unanimously hired him as permanent manager Jan. 3.

After earning his degree in civil engineering from the University of Maine, Owen spent 18 years “working on everything from hydroelectric dams to pulp and paper projects, to developments,” he said in an interview Monday.

Owen eventually became a sewer and stormwater consultant for the city of Bath. When the public works director left, the city manager at the time offered Owen the position.

“It took a little bit of cajoling, and I finally decided to take that on,” the Brunswick resident said. “And that’s how I got started in public works.”

He never dreamed he’d end up helping to run the city.

“City manager was never on the radar screen,” Owen, 61, said. “Even seven months ago it wasn’t on my radar screen.”

Since he had served several times as acting manager for Bill Giroux, city manager from 2006 until last July, city officials asked Owen when Giroux departed if he’d fill the seat until a permanent replacement was found.

“I said ‘yeah, I’ll do this for a little while,'” he recalled.

Because Bath at the time did not allow nonresidents to serve as the official manager, Owen’s plan was to retire when the city’s search was complete.

But a City Charter change last November allowed the manager to live outside the city if the City Council approves, which it did last week.

“My opportunities in life seem to have come that way,” Owen reflected. “I wasn’t looking to become a public works director; I was not out actively looking for that.”

Since he’d gotten to know the city’s public works crew, as well as its infrastructure, manager and council, though, it seemed like it would be a good fit.

“Likewise for city manager,” Owen said. “Once I got in the position and started working with the different departments, working with the council, getting out and meeting the business owners … I suddenly started to feel engaged in newer things that I had never really been involved with. And that just made me think about what I could do, in the position I’m in, with this opportunity.”

Owen said he hopes to work with business leaders and the Main Street Bath organization on creating a vision for Bath’s continued commercial success, and wants the city’s government not to be an entity to fix Bath’s issues, but to serve as a partner in doing so.

“We have traffic problems and parking problems in the South End,” Owen explained. “We can’t fix that alone; we need to partner with (Bath Iron Works), and with the state, to come up with a solution.”

Both of those entities are contributing funds toward a traffic study, “and we’re going to … see if we can come up with some solutions,” he said.

Owen likewise sees the government working with Main Street Bath to “come up with a shared vision to promote the downtown.”

And above all, he sees communication as critical to a successful city. He’s brought back picnics in order to build bridges between the departments at City Hall, and he strives to achieve such connections with Bath’s businesses and schools.

“I look at my role as trying to facilitate communication with entities that could help promote these things to move forward in a successful way,” Owen said. “… I feel there’s a lot of excitement with a lot of different people in my staff, but also people outside of City Hall that are looking to get involved.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Peter Owen, Bath’s new city manager, hangs out in a hallway at City Hall with his dog, Brady (named for Tom), Jan. 8.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.