When the sky darkened beyond belief and the windows started shaking the third floor of City Hall on July 26, 2012, Brian Beasley, superintendent of buildings and grounds of the city of Elmira, was probably the only person in the meeting who knew it was a tornado. The havoc blew through the city without any warning. Brian, now in his early thirties, grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D., where tornadoes are common. His childhood home had even been hit by one, and a neighbor was killed.
In Elmira, the vortex touched down near Cottage Drive off of Route 352 and traveled through Golden Glow and the rest of the city.
“Nobody knows what tornadoes are here, but I did,” he said. “The color of the air is like a green. Everything was creaking. I was running down the stairs because my family comes first. I said I’ll be back and clean up the city. And I did.”
With the downtown urban environment clogged with downed trees and live power lines, DPW managed to clear up 15,000 tons of debris in five days with the help of an outside crew.
Over this past winter Brian’s crew just finished stump grinding the remains from the storm's devastation. His 2014 budget for all operations including highways is $4.2 million.
Brian’s devotion to his family is what brought him to Elmira from South Dakota about nine years ago. Just six months before the storm, he had been promoted from the electrical division in the city’s DPW to become superintendent of building and grounds. He has been acting director for two-and-a-half years.
“I don’t care what people call me,” he said, “but I get the job done. I not only faced a literal mess from the EF1 tornado, but people were fighting and arguing in the department. I put everyone in a room — nine supervisors and a total of 53 employees, and I said, ‘This stops now.’ There were conflicts, power struggles, meaningless titles. ‘Enough,’ I said, ‘you are all peers.’ There were titles that were stripped and not replaced. By creating a flat slate across the board, I made them respect one another rather than telling each other what to do.”
Brian has a very focused, the buck-stops-here personality. He knows how to get things done. He said that in the past two-and-a-half years since he became superintendent, there have been zero grievances. He added, “Teamwork comes in when you are building talent, not taking them to lunch.” He heads the sanitation crew, the street crew, welding, engineering, traffic, buildings and grounds, and two administrative assistants who take the calls.
“What I do, and I am known for this, is to have an open door policy. The response time I give is immediate, and that stops the problems. Morale now? It’s good. I think people are really excited about coming to work.”
He said that by putting on work clothes and assisting his crews, he began to understand the department from his employees’ point of view. Teamwork, he said, comes when you help employees build on their skill sets such as carpentry and masonry. He believes that when people are proud of the work they do, it boosts morale and job satisfaction.
From the School of Hard Knocks
Brian had a difficult upbringing. His life story is a tale not often shared.
“My mother was a nurse, and my father was a Marine, a sniper, in Vietnam. I think combat did him in. He wasn’t treated right when he came back even though he got a Purple Heart and other awards.”
Brian’s parents divorced. And while his father got custody of his three sisters, Brian and his two brothers were put into foster care in Brandon, S.D. His foster father, an older single parent, basically used the boys as free labor, performing tough tasks like washing tires for as long as 10-hour days. He had them dumpster dive for food to eat. They never celebrated holidays, including birthdays or Christmas. He said, “My sisters cry whenever we talk about it.
“I was the kid with holes in my jeans, dirty, leather oxford shoes from Kmart because they were cheap. I couldn’t even play basketball because they left black streaks on the court. Our foster father owned a tire business where he would buy reclaimed tires. As kids we would go in and load up semis full of tires and then go and distribute them around the Indian reservations to make money. My brothers and I would work until 1 or 2 a.m. scrubbing tires every night, including school nights. There were nights where we would be out working in the barn freezing, and we would take plastic bread bags to put on our hands because it was so cold. I grew up being silent because I knew nobody would understand what I was going through. I couldn’t even see the chalkboard because my vision was so poor. Geometry and algebra were really hard.”
Brian’s youth was unstructured. No adult cared where he was. Surprisingly it was on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where he had an epiphany.
“There was a church group there who said to me, ‘Brian why don’t you and your brothers spend some time here?’”
The group was sequestered behind razor wire fences because the reservation was wild at night with gun shots. Deliberate explosions of propane tanks were commonplace. During the daytime older Indians and families would prevail.
“They resembled me because I was poor,” he said. “I was left behind like they were. I saw a view of life at that age that I will never forget. Out there it’s the American Wild West. I’d find Indians huffing paint through a piece of bread; fried out of their minds. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. Nobody cared about me.”
At around age 10, he was befriended by a slightly older Native American who allowed him entry into the Indian way of life, including wakes and religious ceremonies called pow wows fueled by fire, smoke, drugs, and alcohol. He admitted he was frightened by what he saw, including people suspended by hooks embedded in their chests, bleeding out, which is part of a sacred practice.
He remembered thinking, “Nobody knows where I am and nobody cares.”
“In the middle of all this confusion of drugs, gangs, problems, pregnancies, I met the Chief. When he came through, everybody paid respect to him.”
Brian said the Chief understood the problems of the tribe and he knew that he could not solve all of them, but if you disrespected the elders you were banished from the reservation. People who had been banished often lurked around on the other side of the fence that defined the reservation, and Brian began noticing them.
“You'd always see a few stragglers out there. I always looked for them. As a kid it seemed like the worse thing that could happen to you. They looked lost.”
What he learned was that in spite of many terrible things going on and chaos, you can’t correct everything, but you need a team. If somebody is not going to be part of the team, they need to go. The experiences on Pine Ridge helped him form a life force that is honed on honesty — or what he likes to say is at the end of the day, what’s the best thing to do?
After returning to the foster home, Brian and one of his brothers took different paths. His older brother attacked the foster father with a screwdriver and plea-bargained entry into the military rather than face jail time. Meanwhile, Brian endeavored to get himself emancipated at age 17 with the help of a sympathetic school counselor. Finally, he got glasses. Not that things got much easier. He remembered being deposited on a gravel country road in the middle of nowhere someplace in Iowa. In his duffel were a few things to wear and a sandwich. No money. He walked to a nearby farm and offered to work.
He stayed to help raise pigs — from farrow to finish — and had a place to stay.
Today, he says that that point may have been the best moment in his life because he realized he had an opportunity to change his misfortunes and that he had to make a decision to make that happen. He learned to drive, bought a pickup truck, and made friends with other young men who picked up on teaching him the ropes of being a young man. At 17, he said, he learned what was “normal.” An eventual accident while inoculating piglets forced him to think about another career path — one more in keeping with his natural talents and interests.
Brian’s curiosity about electricity proved to be another critical turning point in his life. Ever since being accidentally electro-shocked in high school, he had an abiding respect for electricity. He pursued his interest every free moment he had by calling the electrical union in Sioux Falls. He said, “I’m a young kid , and I am persistent. After three months they said, ‘OK, you can sweep the floors for guys on the project.’ When I swept, I did the best job that I could.”
After proving himself doing things like putting in outlets all day, they began to explain blueprints. After two years working with union electricians he was encouraged to go to work with an independent contractor. His new boss was a personal friend of the state governor, so Brian got to do personal work for the governor, and to travel around the United States doing work for large commercial companies. By attending night school, he managed to get a license and become foreman of a crew of 21 electricians.
“I worked on massive projects with every trade involved. Doing geothermal retrofits in high schools, substations, 60 wind turbines. When it comes to this line of work — DPW — those are the kinds of skills it requires.”
Around age 27, he said he felt he had to move away from the Plains State area that held so many painful memories. By then he had met Laura, the mother of his two children. They first met when she was a nursing assistant and he was in the emergency room with an eye injury. Brendyn, his son was born when he was 21. Their daughter, Brie, came along a few years later. The two of them decided to relocate in upstate New York where Laura’s mother resided. Laura’s continuing education resulted in a masters in nursing. She now teaches the LPN courses at BOCES in Elmira. Her working goal is to become a nurse practitioner.
Living the Dream
Brian described Sioux Falls as being flat as a moonscape with 50 mile-an-hour winds and 30-below temperatures. The gentle beauty of the Chemung Valley has made him feel at home. He became a self-employed electrical contractor aimed at large commercial accounts with a few employees for almost three years. He is wistful about the “best part,” creating the American Commercial Electric company logo and seeing it on his employees’ T-shirts. At home Laura pointed out that he was never there. During a vacation in St. Lucia where there was no cell signal, Brian came to realize that self-employment was not ideal for his family or for him. He realized he didn’t want to grow old with a lifetime of regrets. When they returned from vacation, he dissolved his S-corp.
The City of
It was while doing some electrical work for Elmira’s DPW that Brian proved his worth and quickly landed a job as an electrician. The city officials wanted an electrician who would also be assigned the maintenance of the city’s 100 traffic lights. Brian had built traffic lights, so the interview was a cake walk. He said going from a private to a municipal perspective caused him to step back for a few months and simply observe operations citywide.
“I wanted to identify problems. What were the existing contracts? What tariffs were in place? The signals were a mess. We were running all the signals in Chemung County. We were on call two or three times a week to fix a problem. I said, ‘I’ve got to have a guy to do traffic lights with me.’”
On his hiring practices he said you have to know when you have the right person. In this case he hired a former Marine with a good work ethic who was eager to learn everything Brian could teach him so that when they talk about things, they can figure out a problem together.
The “new broom” then went and collected the keys from all employees, followed by throwing out tons of hoarded “junk” from the shop areas.
“All we were doing was chasing a problem, I said. Let’s get to the solution, and get the shop up to the level it should be functioning at.”
An ambitious program of refurbishing all of the traffic lights began. Brian said that in the past 18 months he has not gotten one call about the traffic lights in the city.
“We’ve saved in overtime costs, repairs, and protected the city from liability.”
He said the traffic lights are now “time based.” He can see from his computer if they are running correctly.
What’s next? He wants a better routine maintenance schedule. Having worked in private and public sectors as an electrician, he said, “The problem with municipalities is that they get too far behind and they are in disaster mode as a result.”
The Harsh Glow
Lights have also brought Brian some unwanted notoriety for being the guy who saves about $180,000 annually by switching from traditional streets lights to LEDs in Elmira’s 6,000 street lights, including the antique replications that throw a touristy glow along downtown streets. There is a ton of revitalization in Elmira right now, and lighting is key to how well these plans work. The city is home to Mark Twain’s writing studio and burial place, a terrific baseball park, a non-profit revitalized amusement park, and an 18-hole public golf course. Plus they have Harris Hill, the original home to gilding, still called the Gliding Capital of the World. Elmira has many other attractions.
So with a tailwind of success over the improvement in the city's traffic lights, Brian sought ways to improve streetlights.
“Back in the 1990s the city purchased all lights and pole arms in the city.”
Brian began going to trade shows and investigating LED lighting.
“The energy savings, maintenance, and longevity,” he said, “is hard to ignore. As a streetlight, LED was in its infancy.”
At Light Fair he approached every vendor, going as deep as he could into the possibilities. Touring a manufacturer’s plant in Wisconsin gave him even more valuable information.
Characteristically hands on, he said he bought an LED light and took it apart. Basically the guts reveal two semi-conductor chips, which, when they jump the gap, create a photon.
“What they do with that photon is they push a lot of voltage at low amperage to brighten that photon up. You have to dissipate the heat quickly or they will burn out.”
Pole #13 at West Clinton and Euclid Avenue was established as a test site. The pole may as well have been hit by lighting for all the buzz the installation produced.
“I got a letter from the utility provider that said, remove the LED device or we will have our company remove it at the cost of replacing a new one. The city would be billed for the cost.”
However, Brian had the backing of the city’s attorney who had presented the change of venue to the city manager. Grant funding of $450,000 from AARA helped.
He was engaged in the issue because street lighting was the city’s highest energy cost.
“We had 400-watt high-pressure sodium units on our main arterials. I broke down what we needed to do into three projects for which I wrote three grants and got all three. We looked for areas of our main wattage. Our main streets going east and west had the highest wattage in downtown.”
“I own the arm,” said Brian. “Taxpayers paid for the arm and the light is ours.” DPW now maintains a citywide fleet of LEDs on all street lighting.
“It was a tussle,” said Brian of the ongoing legalities that went on for two years. Has Elmira inspired other municipalities to turn on LED street lights? “Absolutely,” he said.
His stance got him invited to the Light Consortium in Ithaca last year.
“Our savings with LEDs are significant. They also improved operations so there are fewer service calls.”
When it came to planning he helped formalize a system where the entire street of lights kicks on at one time. Even the 600 historic ornamental lights use automation.
“This was probably in some ways the plateau of my career. For a kid who started out on a gravel road and learned electrical, here I was out there with the crew installing lighting that got the attention of the Department of Energy representative who did a walk through in Elmira to view the new lighting system. We were awarded recognition from the STAR program for innovation. We used our own men. I helped train them in working around power lines and conductors.”
Installation took about four months. They even installed LED lighting in the Municipal Parking Garage downtown, which the city maintains completely automatically now. Brian replaced staff there with automation.
No Grant Proposal
If he has a regret it’s that city roads do not get the funding that is needed. Roads are not as grant-worthy as downtown tony lighting devices. Main arterials in Elmira are in good shape, but the side streets are not. Surprisingly the driveway into the DPW facility is probably among the worst roads and heavily trafficked. Potholes historically have been patched, which has left the side streets with even more bumps, taking the place of the former potholes. To align that situation a little bit, Brian said they recently invested in the equipment needed to properly patch the road and leave a smoother surface.
Brian said they spend about a million dollars a year to keep up on paving 133 miles of highway. CHIPS funding is $730,000. He said one way to prevent waste is to be in constant contact with utilities, the water board, and cable providers so that newly paved streets are not dug up unnecessarily. They spend about $100,000 annually on straight rock salt, which they may treat with magnesium chloride when conditions warrant it.
“One big change I put into play was creating a second and third plow shift for winter. The small dusters were blowing the budget. By having 24/7 coverage, we changed the response time on how we deal with storms in the city. Our primary targets are the most trafficked roads with the highest speeds because they probably present the most dangerous conditions during a storm.”
One way Brian saves money is with volunteer labor — prisoners and college students. He was bereft when the state budget failed to re-fund a program called Shock Monterey that brought talented prison labor to support DPW tasks where the detainees learned how to lay bricks, pour concrete and do commercial painting (the rapper 50 Cent was once a member of Shock Monterey.)
“We developed an unbelievable relationship with them. There are so many different ways that the program helped the city out. They really did make a difference in the community, so it’s hard that, after two years, we lost their help.
“Another relationship we have built that enhances Elmira is with BOCES. Thanks to internships, students have been exposed to how things work with large equipment, fleet maintenance, and welding.”
One of their many valued services for Brian and his team is routine maintenance on all municipal vehicles — hundreds of them for law enforcement vehicles, fire department trucks, and others.
Brian said the city has saved about $200,000 on projects using some heavy machinery provided by BOCES and their collegiate crew. He said one very big, visible difference is in city parks, which number 21 and total 230 acres. Just one example was using students to help address a debris pile that had been cited by the DEC for remediation. The students earned college credit for reclaiming the site.
A Gem in
Elmira is exceptional in that a nonprofit community group is actively and successfully rebuilding one special place called Eldridge Park. The park has 15-acres with a small lake for boat rides and once delighted visitors around the turn of the century with amusement rides and cotton candy. The original park, privately owned by Dr. Edwin Eldridge, became a beckoning garden spot with a larger lake, marble statuary, flower gardens, fountains, driving and walking paths, and a labyrinth. Upon his death the city purchased the land, and it became a popular amusement park, which gradually fell into disuse. The amusement park was “torn apart” in the famous 1972 Chemung River Flood.
Today, a new sidewalk amidst the midway, a miniature golf course, and other amenities were helped by the DPW.
“The carousel is back [the fastest in the nation at 18 miles-per-hour and built in the late 1890s] and the flying saucers.”
And if you prefer an 18-hole, Donald Ross-designed adult golf course to miniature golf and its windmills, Brian’s department also is in charge of the Mark Twain Country Club. In early spring, Brian and his crew were tearing the clubhouse kitchen apart. While the greens were in top-notch condition, Brian found ways to open the space between food concessions, dining areas, and the greens. He said he was asked to review the operation and make recommendations. He changed the kitchen format, the menu, and the interaction with tournaments, and is adding social media to the refurbished golf club’s Web site.
Every item that is purchased for any DPW project comes to Brian’s desk and his attention for details. He admits it’s a ton of paperwork, but no purchase, however trivial, can be approved without his signature.
Another Historic Goldmine for Elmira
Like so many other attractions in Elmira, it boasts many historic firsts. The city-owned stadium — Dunn Field — was built in 1939, and on Nov. 21, 1902, Dunn Field was the site of the first-ever professional football night game. Besides being the home field of the Elmira Pioneers PGCBL (Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League) baseball team, a variety of events have taken place here, even the Beach Boys in 1984. Some great baseball players had their home games on this fabled field in their minor league years including Wade Boggs, Curt Schilling, and Jim Palmer. Babe Ruth played here and former player and MLB manager Don Zimmer was married on home plate in 1951.
Dunn Field is another in the DPW roster of responsibilities.
Beginning in 2012, the city began to bring the old beauty back to the well-used structure. They put in new bathrooms, new seating and even a beer garden just behind third base. Plus Brian insisted that the stadium be used for youth sports, including Little League. He reasons that if structures like Dunn Field are to have a bright future, they must meet the needs of kids who are playing tetherball today.
“Two years ago we had a new owner coming on board, so I said, we have to do this together. There has to be teamwork. We had gone from famous baseball to the collegiate league; attendance was down to under 1,000 a game. I looked at the field itself [a special mixture of brick dust and infield dirt], and it was a mess. The sprinkler system didn’t work. The bathrooms weren't functioning. I saw major liabilities. It didn’t look like anybody had taken care of Dunn Field for at least 15 years.”
Brian felt so committed to the restoration that he painted the whole back end of the stadium a bright red on his own time and retiled the ladies room. Then he began field maintenance and refurbishing — returning to old reel mowers so that they can cut the grass into those attention-getting patterns you see at major league parks. Various posted memorabilia and the use of old-timey signage give a nod to the building's positive historic roots without looking like Disneyland.
The 2012 tornado blew the back fence down; insurance reimbursement saved the city the expense of a new one.
With all the improvements, the market buzz, and a new outreach to youth and Elmira College, the park now plays to a full schedule, and the attendance has shot up to 3,000 per game. With a seating capacity of about 4,000, Dunn Field ranks second or third in the nation for stadiums of its size.
“We want to keep the spirit alive down here. With grants in place we can do even more.”
Bridges Over Chemung’s Waters
The city’s budget for its four bridges that are on the DPW roster is $300,000. Lake Bridge, one of the four, was recently flagged and into failure. Brian said they shut it down; the costs of repair are astronomical. They had consultants come in and analyze the situation rather than have politics debate what to do.
“The group said we only need two bridges.” So Lake will either be demolished or turned into a walking path.
For a relatively young man, Brian has a back story that is as disturbing as his future prospects are for happiness. In July 2014, he and Laura will marry. In attendance will be his biological father, with whom he now has a relationship, and at two of his three sisters. Family members will be visiting upstate New York for the first time.
Meanwhile, Brian has a long list of projects — from badly needed inner city parks, bike trails, a robust baseball stadium, a rebuilt amusement park, a designer golf course, 133 miles of streets, hundreds of energy-saving LED lights along streets and public facilities, an indoor parking garage, a historic cemetery, and much more to share with them.
It’s more than the projects and the satisfaction they bring to him and his family. In Elmira he has found a place to belong. One of his favorite family outings is apple picking with friends. True to his imaginative nature, he had hidden an engagement ring for Laura in an apple and then urged her repeatedly to pick that one. “First she says the apple is too small to pick,” he said. “I almost gave up and told her what I had done!”