Summit County manager Martinez reflects on 40 years in government
February 14, 2016
It's been a long, fortuitous journey for Summit County manager Gary Martinez.
For most of the last four decades, Martinez, 68, has been an instrumental government leader. And even though he announced this week he will retire in June, it's a role he remains eager to fulfill each day.
"I mean this with every bone in my body, I still enjoy doing what I do for the county," he said between bites of a bagel and sips of a latte this week. "I can honestly say I run up the stairs every morning, and I'm ready to go to work. That enthusiasm hasn't diminished."
The county government, particularly the three county commissioners Martinez calls boss, have been grateful for his daily contributions over the past nine years as the county manager.
"To have someone that knows the landscape, Summit County, so well, not only as the former town manager of Breckenridge, but through all of the nonprofits and his volunteer experience, has really been so important to us," said Commissioner Dan Gibbs. "He has so many friendships in the community from the last 40 years, and that's added credibility to Summit County government that doesn't happen overnight."
But talk to the longtime resident for just a few minutes, and it quickly becomes apparent that level of involvement in the community is the furthest from what he might have expected during his first visit to the county. He recalled a summer tour of the mountains in route to Steamboat Springs with a college buddy in the early '70s and stopping off in Breckenridge on a rainy afternoon in August.
"It was cold, it was miserable," he said bluntly of the town, with no stoplights, and Main Street not even yet paved. "I thought, 'Ya know, not a place that I'm ready to come back to any time soon.' First impression was not great. I'm glad the first impression didn't last."
The road to summit
He eventually chose to move away from his upbringing in Cleveland and college at Miami University in Ohio — where he obtained a bachelor's in psychology and master's in personnel guidance through the school of business — to join his friend in Steamboat in '76. After two years working as the director of a juvenile diversion facility in Routt County, he took a position with the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG), eventually becoming its director in an eight-year stay.
It was also during this time that Martinez met his wife, Phyllis. The two have two adult children together, Todd and Miles, and recently celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary.
In 1985, after learning the ropes of the region and taking part in various projects including on local water rights, Martinez parlayed a Council of Governments connection into a new job — Breckenridge town manager.
At just 37 years old, he took on the weighty duties of helping shape a town in transition during a notable period of growth in which tourism began to boom. Martinez is quick to credit those with whom he worked, Mayor Steve West and the forward-thinking town councils, to develop much of what Breckenridge has become today.
"I was just happy to be a part of it," he explained. "You immerse yourself in what you're doing. So you have a better insight on what is going to be important to the community in the future and maybe what is not as important … And there were probably some colossal mistakes, too, but I don't think I can remember any of those."
In those early years, he said it was all about laying the groundwork. That primarily entailed doing unglamorous work such as building out roads and improving infrastructure, including burying overhead utilities and upgrading the water lines. But it was still a far cry from the days of a town without a streetlight.
With substantial increases in revenues, the gig soon zeroed in on high-visibility projects: the recreation center and its expansion just a few years later, the golf course, open-space acquisitions, the Riverwalk Center and solidifying further water rights. During this same 15-year period as town manager, following a few years of investment and redesign, Martinez also accomplished what he feels is his crowning achievement in the county — the Blue River Reclamation project.
"It was literally a ditch," he said of its initial appearance. "It was really frankly not a good sight. But it's the one (project) I look back and think was the most important one. What a great thing that we were able to do. I'm really proud how that came out."
Change was afoot though, as his burgeoning friendships in high places created other opportunities.
In 2000, it was time for change. After decades in public service, Martinez took a job in the private sector as a managing partner with a real estate developer, East West Partners, in Eagle County. While maintaining ties to Summit County, he led a team in constructing a large-scale housing project, Eagle Ranch, for nearly eight years, learning countless lessons in this position outside of government for the first time in more than two decades.
"For me, it was perfect," he said. "It really offered some different perspectives that I probably hadn't really ever thought through all the way. Just seeing things from the other side."
In 2007, the county manager position in Summit County opened up. With the extensive Eagle project wrapping up, an old contact reached out to offer a return to the area, and Martinez dove back in headfirst.
"I'll tell you, you really appreciate a place even more after you've been gone for a while," he said. "That's probably a timeworn expression, but it's true. I was happy to come back, and I haven't second-guessed that once since I've been back."
Now approaching a decade in the position, he's continued to act as the point person on water issues, assisting with the expansion of the Old Dillon Reservoir and acquisition of other pieces of the county's current water portfolio. He has also aided in projects such as the purchase of the Lake Hill property from the U.S. Forest Service as a workforce housing site, located partner funds for the fast-approaching Highway 9 Iron Springs realignment, all on top of facing down a major staff reorganization during the economic decline that started the moment he joined the office.
"The recession was tough," he said. "At the same time, I guess you have to look at these things as not just bad times, but as, 'What can we do to make things better?' And bad times are maybe opportunities. We had to go through a very painstaking process, but I think, overall, it was very important to do it."
The laying off of a number of county employees during this time was what he called "an unfortunate low point," but the government came out stronger and rebounded quickly to return to accomplishing its goals of growth and expansion. That continues into today, even as the page turns on Martinez's career.
"Not everyone gets to go out on their own terms, especially in a high-profile position like that," said Gibbs. "It's safe to say, we want to keep Gary around as long as possible. He's been invaluable for us. He's such a positive force, and I'll greatly miss working with him on a daily basis once he's totally retired."
In retirement, Martinez plans to stay in Summit County with his wife at their home in Breckenridge, though they will likely also spend a little more time in Denver. They look forward to more travel, but also still enjoying outdoor mountain activities together like hiking and foraging for mushrooms, as well as their shared passion for wine. He also plans to get a few more rounds of golf in throughout the warm weather months.
The county commissioners plan to name Martinez's successor by mid-March and are currently going through an internal process to find the right candidate. Assistant managers Scott Vargo and Thad Noll are on the shortlist, as is finance director Marty Ferris. Until then, there's still work to do, including developments with Lake Hill, other water matters and also helping with the eventual changeover, which will likely run through 2016 despite a June 30 end date.
"There's just enough things in terms of transition and making sure this is well understood, so there's a variety of things that I can probably do fairly well," said Martinez. "But most importantly, out of the way of whomever the new county manager is. I want to be an asset, not an ass.
"When is the right time to go?" he added, wondering aloud. "I know I look like I'm 28 years old, but I'm really 68. I'm not exactly a spring chicken anymore. I'll be there pretty much through the end of the year, which gets me close to my 69th birthday. So it's a good time to go".
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