Rehoboth Beach City Manager Greg Ferrese plans to step down before the end of the year.
Ferrese said he will retire Thursday, Dec. 5, after three decades on the job.
“It’s about time somebody else does it,” he said. “I love this job. I love this city. That’s what it’s all about. There are two types of people: there’s problem solvers and problem creators. I consider myself a problem solver.”
Ferrese, who turns 67 in October, said he made the decision after mulling retirement with his wife, Kathleen. He said he is ready to spend more time traveling and being around his family.
His first day on the job was Jan. 3, 1983.
“How did I survive? Good common sense, accessibility to the public, working with people and surrounded by good employees,” Ferrese said.
In 30 years, he’s worked with three mayors: John Hughes, Kimber Vought and Sam Cooper. Each of them brought their own unique quality to the position, he said.
“John would come in here; he worked for DNREC, always had a T-shirt on and shorts. Dark from the sun. He always played volleyball. He’d come in here and prop his feet on my desk. He was a good man,” Ferrese said.
“Kimber Vought, he was a retired trial lawyer out of Philadelphia. He always came in well dressed. He could read them (people) really quick."
“Then you have Sam Cooper, who was born and raised here. He knows the city thoroughly. He’s laid-back. He likes you to solve problems,” Ferrese said.
While different commissioners have come and gone, Ferrese said all of them have been intelligent and well prepared.
“They work so hard at keeping the zoning the way it is that your residential blends in with your commercial. They didn’t let it go where Ocean City did,” he said.
That commitment has led to Rehoboth being featured in numerous national publications as one of the top beach towns in America. Ferrese said he considers the Rehoboth Avenue Streetscape project the most significant accomplishment under his watch.
Ferrese came to Rehoboth from Ellwood City, Pa., a small town north of Pittsburgh near the Ohio border, where he served as borough manager. He and Kathleen decided to move out of Western Pennsylvania after the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s.
“I was coming from a depressed area,” he said. “The mills were laying off. We had a bunch of cuts and layoffs where I was. I told my wife it was no place to raise our kids; one was 5, one was 13.”
Besides a double-digit unemployment rate in the area, the tipping point for Ferrese was a 33-day strike by the local steel workers' union.
“It was a bad one. When they came back they weren’t happy campers. The crew you thought were your friends, they weren’t your friends anymore. I told my wife, ‘These towns are struggling. I’m never going to have any money to work with. It’s time to better ourselves,” he said.
When he heard then-Rehoboth City Manager Larry Turner was leaving, Ferrese applied for the position, one of 86 applicants. Ferrese made the first cut to 20 and then the second cut to five. The final five applicants were to interview with the city’s personnel committee, which consisted of Commissioner Sam Cooper, Mary Burt Lankford and Eleanor Lynam. When asked when he wanted to schedule his interview, Ferrese said he wanted to go first to leave an impression.
Ferrese brought Kathleen to town with him to the interview so the couple could check out the town. When Ferrese got the job, he said the committee told him bringing his wife was a deciding factor.
“They said, ‘Because you brought your wife, we felt you guys would uphold the image of the city.’ So I credit my wife for coming here,” Ferrese said.
It was a big change for Ferrese, a steeltown boy through and through.
“Either you went to college or you went to the mill,” he said of his upbringing. “That’s your two options." Ferrese had uncles who worked in the mills who helped him get a job.
"You put a hard day in, you make good money and after you worked there a month, you couldn't wait to go back to college," Ferrese said. "But it was a really good experience."
Ferrese worked in the mill for three years while he put himself through college at Youngstown State University, where he would meet Kathleen in the cafeteria. His goal, he said, was to become a salesman for one of the local steel companies.
“You traveled, but the salesmen who would bring the order to the plant would make good money. That’s what I wanted to do. But when I graduated from college, the steel mills were laying people off,” Ferrese said.
The oldest of four children, Ferrese’s life course was altered when his father died in 1965 of a heart attack at age 48. He became the sole supporter of the family at the same time he was starting one of his own.
“I had to continue to work at the mill and go to night school,” he said. “I was probably a sophomore. Superintendent calls me in, Mr. Clendaniel, June or July of 1968. I’m getting married in August. He calls me in and tells me he wants to move me to Gary, Indiana.”
The U.S. Steel plant he was working at was shifting operations, but the Ferreses refused to move, and Ferrese was laid off.
Then Kathleen became pregnant with their first child. By chance, Greg ran into an old college friend, Nick Navarra, who heard Ferrese’s story and put in a good word for him with the mayor of New Castle, Pa., where Navarra was working. Ferrese said Navarra wanted to pay Ferrese back for helping him in college when Navarra had a broken leg and Ferrese was the only one who would help carry his books up the stairs.
Ferrese started as a grant writer for the city of New Castle, earning $600 per month, He worked there for six years before becoming borough manager of Ellwood City in 1977.
Despite being away from Pennsylvania for three decades, Ferrese still remembers his Western Pennsylvania roots: his desk is adorned with Pittsburgh Steelers coffee mugs and memorabilia and the corner has a Youngstown State travel mug. During football season, Ferrese can often be seen wearing his Steelers tie. He said the Steelers nationwide popularity is tied to the closing of the steel mills in the late 1960s and 1970s.
The steelworkers had to had to move away, Ferrese said. But the Steelers caught on. "They were hope. You could get laid off, but you’d look forward to that Sunday game,” he said.
Colleagues weigh in
Commissioner Stan Mills said of Ferrese's retirement, "I'm sure he's looking forward to it. Greg's certainly to be applauded for his longevity in this town. He has commanded the respect of city personnel and department heads, and he certainly has the respect of the commissioners."
He said Ferrese's relationships with city employees, citizens and the business community has made him an effective city manager.
Former Commissioner Walter Brittingham was one of the seven commissioners who unanimously approved Ferrese's hiring in 1982. He said Ferrese has been a staple of the city who has kept the city's fiscal situation in good standing and who gets things done.
"We've been very fortunate to have him," Brittingham said. "I really think he's done a good job running the office."
Mayor Sam Cooper said, "I wish it weren't so. It will mean real change. Greg brings a lot to the job. He understands the politics. Generally, I think he knows how to handle people. He has a good sense of what's important and what's not."
While the process for finding a new city manager has not begun, Cooper said he wants to have an easy transition from Ferrese to his successor. He said he would like whoever is tapped as a replacement to learn from Ferrese before taking over when Ferrese retires.
"It's going to be very different," Cooper said of life without Ferrese, who he has worked with as mayor for 23 of Ferrese's 30 years.
Hughes, who served as mayor from 1981 to 1987, said, "Greg came from a depressed little town in Pennsylvania. I think he was stunned by Rehoboth's wealth and comfort. To him, it was a step up. I was impressed by his quiet confidence."
Hughes said Ferrese has always been able to surely navigate through issues, any one of which had the potential to be poisonous with the various council's Ferrese has worked with.
"He's a survivor. He's quietly and confidently run the town without any pyrotechnics. He worked hard. It's a tough job," he said.
During the interview process, Hughes said it came down to Ferrese and Dean Phillips, who ended up taking the city manager job in Bethany Beach.
"In my book, we did well," Hughes said.