NEWPORT — After leading countless infrastructure projects during a decade with the city of Newport, Public Works Director Tim Gross presented his last report to Newport City Council last week.
During their regular meeting Oct. 5, Gross updated councilors on the status of the city’s water treatment plant after fouling issues prompted a water emergency this summer. It was a fitting bookend to his tenure. The approximately $17 million plant’s construction was the first major development on the department’s slate when Gross was hired as senior project manager in November of 2010.
He became interim and then permanent public works director and city engineer about nine months later, and since then, Gross has overseen several multimillion-dollar improvements to city services, including the Agate Beach wastewater improvement project and the construction of the aquatic center. During the Oct. 5 meeting, council effused with praise for the public works director’s capacity for creative, efficient problem solving. Mayor Dean Sawyer recalled an occasion when Gross triaged 31st Street for repairs, which his predecessor had deemed too great an expense, not only finding a solution but one that was easy on the budget.
The Midwesterner graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1995 with a degree in civil engineering, working mostly for other municipalities in the region before moving to Oregon about 10 years ago.
Of all his work with the city, Gross said he thinks the improvements to wastewater infrastructure at Agate Beach had the most impact on the community. “That project replaced three very large pump stations that had both capacity and condition issues. We had overflows across the beach because all of our outfalls go through a creek. That’s not good for our community or the tourists that are here, and it’s not good for the environment,” he told the News-Times. The new pump stations not only accounted for the prior lack of capacity but future capacity, as well. “They’re also really resilient, so our operators can maintain it with the equipment that we have. It gives us notice if there’s problems. It’s kind of a next generation of managing wastewater intelligently,” Gross said.
Reflecting on his tenure, he said one constant feature was variety. “I’ve got this saying: It’s never a dull say in Newport,” he said. He said he will most miss working with colleagues in his department. “The thing that I’m most proud of, and I think I’m going to miss the most, is my public works staff. They’ve grown and advanced in their expertise one hundredfold since I began. They’re doing things that other agencies could only dream of in terms of the infrastructure they’re managing and the effectiveness with which they do that. They’ve gone from managing a system that was pretty antiquated to managing something that’s somewhat sophisticated, and they’ve been able to adapt to that and learn new skills,” Gross said.
“And they really care about their community. These are people who are out in the middle of the night in the worst storms managing infrastructure so people don’t even really know they’re there,” he said, adding that the relative invisibility is the marker of an effective agency. “I think that’s really the best compliment for a public works organization — if you don’t know they exist, they’re probably doing their job. Ask somebody when the last time was that their power went out, they could probably tell you, but if you ask them the last time they didn’t have water, they would probably struggle because it’s just not common.”
That tendency to defer credit to others has distinguished Gross since he began his career with Newport. In response to a 2011 editorial praising the then-interim public works director for his work on the water treatment plan, additions to the sidewalk on the north side of Yaquina Bay Bridge and repairs to 31st Street (not to mention his willingness to take the sole adult role in a Newport Performing Arts Center production of “Schoolhouse Rock Live”), Gross wrote a letter recognizing by name others who had driven or contributed to those projects.
The letter closely mirrors Gross’s remarks to the News-Times. “There is a saying in public works that if people do not know that you are there, then you are doing your job right,” he wrote. “The water gets there, the sewage goes away, and your streets don’t have too many holes. Just like in ‘School House Rock Live,’ I’m just the straight man. In the play, my role is to give a couple of lines to lead into the kids’ songs. They are the stars. At the city, all I do is make sure my people have what they need to take care of the city. They are the stars.”
Oct. 5 was Gross’ last day as a Newport city employee, but he didn’t go far. This Monday, Oct. 12, was his first day with Civil West Engineering Services. The Coos Bay-based civil engineering firm’s local office is just a few blocks across Highway 101 from Newport City Hall. Taking over as acting city engineer is Chris Janigo, who was Newport’s senior project manager, and acting public works director is Clare Paul, assistant city engineer under Gross. Both report directly to City Manager Spencer Nebel in the interim while the city conducts a national search for candidates. Nebel said they would likely hire two people, one public works director and one city engineer, to fulfill the formerly dual position.
Gross has two sons, age 17 and 20, and lives just outside Newport city limits with his wife, with whom he recently celebrated a silver wedding anniversary.