ROX Interview: Rick Horst, Maricopa City Manager

Interview by Bea Lueck

While money may have been Ricky Horst’s initial motivator for a career in city management, this Florida native learned the nuances of his trade by working his way around the communities of the Sunshine State. Now, as Maricopa’s new City Manager, this father of six and grandfather of 14 is ready to make his mark in a new territory. “I’m not a slow things down and take it easy type of guy and I’m not a status quo manager,” he says. “I’m a dig in and get it done type of guy and that’s the environment I want to be in.”

GC LIVING: Let’s start with your background. Your resume says Ricky Horst.

Rick Horst: I’m officially Ricky. I can think of one other, Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy, but I’m officially Ricky, and a lot of people do think it’s short for Richard. I go by Ricky or Rick, but I sign everything Ricky.

GC LIVING: Where did you grow up?

Rick Horst: I grew up in a small town in northwest Florida called Crestview. It’s a city of about 7,000 people when I was growing up, but it’s only about 12,000 people today. Very rural but adjacent to the Eglin Air Force Base. My father was in the military and he was stationed there. I lived in Louisiana and the Philippines as a part of my upbringing, as well.

GC LIVING: Do you miss Florida?

Rick Horst: I do miss the ocean, the Gulf, the seafood, friends, but beyond that, no, I don’t. (laughing)

GC LIVING: How about family. Any siblings?

Rick Horst: I have one brother, one sister. My brother is 11 months older. My sister is five years younger. She lives in Utah, and he’s back in Florida.

GC LIVING: How did you decide, when growing up, to end up in city government?

Rick Horst: Well, I didn’t decide that growing up. I started my career professionally with the Boy Scouts of America, and I worked in the Little Rock area. I had 18,000 boys I was responsible for and about 5,000 volunteers.

I did that for seven years, and at the time my parents were living in Saudi Arabia. My father had retired from the Air Force and was a consultant to the Saudi Air Force, and my mom got cancer. So she had to return home to get better care. My father had to decide whether to stay in Saudi Arabia and make sure he had the best insurance possible, or come home and have less than the best insurance possible.

So, he stayed in Saudi. She came back to Florida. I moved back to Crestview to help take care of her, and I had a degree in parks and recreation, so I applied for the local parks recreation job. I was a department of one.

Back in Crestview, Florida, is what started my career in government and trying to feed my family.

I was working on my master’s, and my professor said, “How’s it going?’ and I said, “I have all these great ideas, but no one will listen to me,” and he said, “Well, you’re probably going to have to be the boss for someone to listen to you.”

So, I decided that I wanted to get into city management, but at the same time remembered that people shouldn’t have to be the boss to be listened to, so I’ve tried to incorporate that into my work culture.

GC LIVING: Feed your family. How many people are in your family?

Rick Horst: Six children. My wife and I have been married 39 years. All six of my children are married. We have 14 grandchildren at present. Between my children, their spouses and grandchildren, we collectively speak eight languages. I do not speak anything other than English, however. We have quite a background: Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Lesotho and a few more!

I have a 13-year-old grandson. He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese including the ability to read and write. He’s been in an immersion program since kindergarten. His two sisters are also in this program.

GC LIVING: Wow.

Do your children all live locally or abroad?

Rick Horst: I have a daughter who lives in Florida. I have a son who just moved to Arizona with his family. And then the rest of my children all live in various parts of Utah.

GC LIVING: Awesome.

So, when you got into city management in parks and recreation, how did you become the Director of Public Works?

Rick Horst: Really, I needed to make more money. I was (laughs) raising six children, and I remember saying, “If I could just make $50,000 a year, I’d have it made for the rest of my life.” Of course, that didn’t prove to be true, but, it was a good goal.

GC LIVING: When did City Manager come into play?

Rick Horst: It’s about 30+ years ago now, when I had been serving as a public works director and a small city had advertised for a city manager job. I applied for it and received the job and have been a city manager ever since.

And the background in public utilities and public works and library science and parks and recreation, all of that provided a good backdrop for understanding the nuances of city management more than just the finance and economic development side of it.

GC LIVING: Tell us a little bit about the different communities. What you found you like, what you found to be challenges and how it’s grown you to where you are today.

Rick Horst: The majority of the cities were very fast-growth cities, meaning building a lot of homes and a lot of residential building going on. But cities cannot live on residential growth alone. Residential growth will drain a community’s coffers pretty quickly.

We have to find a balance. I’ve always been intrigued with a couple of things. One is: How to do things differently than they’ve been done in the past; a very entrepreneurial, innovative approach to government. And part of it had to do with, “Why are we doing it this way?” Sometimes we can do things really well, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing the right thing.

And then the last part of it is: How do we pay the bills? You know, cities are very much like we are. Cities are born, such as the city of Maricopa was born 15 years ago, and it goes through its infancy, its teenage years and its working years, and then every community eventually will retire, which means they’ve kind of hit their build out. And the question is: How do you enjoy your retirement at the same quality of life that you want … as when you were working, which is what we want as individuals, too.

Now, Maricopa, of course, has a lot of years before it reaches retirement, but decisions we make today will determine how well we enjoy our retirement in the future. This means we have to keep our debt low. This means we have to pursue opportunities that come along for partnerships for shared services, whether it be with a school district or another governmental entity or a public enterprise. It means that we have to invest wisely so we have a return on our investments and to make sure we keep our tax levels as low as we possibly can as a part of that process. Most cities hit a pinnacle and then if they’re not careful they’ll slowly start spinning downward, and it’s hard to recover from that. We have to hit the pinnacle and know how to maintain that and stay there.

Most of our revenues come from new growth. They pay impact fees, development fees, plan-review fees. What happens when you have no more new growth and you don’t have all that money? Can you still sustain your police department, your fire department, your parks and recreation, maintain your roads? And that’s the key. And for a lot of people, that’s someone else’s problem 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now, but it has to be our problem today.

GC LIVING: Well, you’ve said it right there: Maricopa’s growth. It was incorporated October 2003?

Rick Horst: Yes, correct.

GC LIVING: That’s still a very young community. It does have its own police and fire, parks and a physical city hall instead of trailers on wheels.

Rick Horst: Yes, absolutely.

GC LIVING: And a gorgeous community center. What else is needed as far as infrastructure that residents expect in a vibrant, growing community?

Rick Horst: Well, the residents expect things like retail stores and their favorite grocery stores and their favorite entertainment centers, etc. And all those things are important, and frankly, they will come.

The infrastructure we need to be talking about is roads, water and sewer. I think we sometimes forget about our electrical. We forget about the fiber. How do you recruit modern-day technology into your city if you don’t have a lot of these resources available to make those things happen? You have to find a way to make them happen.

You know, we have one road into town, 347 from the Chandler side of Phoenix, which has a lot of traffic, and we hear people talking all the time about how do we get in and out of Maricopa so they can get into work. I think my bigger question is: How do we make that where they don’t have to, where they can stay in Maricopa and have a job? It’s a catch-22. We probably have to tackle both problems at the same time.

As you know, our flood plain is an issue. And we’ve made that such a big issue people think it can’t be overcome. In my opinion, it can be overcome, and we have a game plan. We’re the people that knew how to build the Hoover Dam and put a man on the moon. Well, I think we can overcome a flood plain problem.

The key to that is working with our developers and our builders, consisting of passionate people who know how to solve problems. And, I don’t see them as problems. I see them as opportunities. People have said, “What are your failures?” My answer, generally is “I’ve never failed. Just some successes take longer than others.”

GC LIVING: Maricopa grew over 5,000 percent from 2003 to 2015. Do you think it will ever experience rocket ship growth like that again, or will it be a more manageable growth?

Rick Horst: The answer is: “No.” I don’t think we will, and the answer is even if that opportunity presented itself, we should not accept it because when you do you sometimes make errors in the process of such fast-paced growth. Some of those errors we’re living with today.

But I do think we’re going to see a new growth spurt in Maricopa. I can see us building as many as 2,000 homes in a year. We’re currently around 1,000 a year.

As you know, we’ve now adopted a new housing plan that allows for higher-density housing. One of the problems we have in Maricopa is we don’t have the circle-of-life housing stock for people. We don’t have the housing stock for those first families getting started, for those professional couples. We don’t have housing stock for when they begin to downsize, when children leave home, when they become empty nesters, when they lose a spouse and they’re by themselves. We don’t have assisted-living centers. So, I think once we get the circle-of-life housing stock, we’ll become a more holistic city, and we’ll be able to reach out and be able to do more with that. Our housing stock is also part of our infrastructure and we need to be aware of that as we go forward.

GC LIVING: There is a very set cycle of growth for communities. Rooftops are first. Retail is second. Industrial and commercial are the tail end. Maricopa’s just in the middle of retail. When do you foresee industry attraction?

Rick Horst: I think you’re going to see a major difference in the next three to five years. We’re receiving phone calls from people who are hearing that we’re now willing to look at higher-density housing.

And, workforce is a critical part of it. As you know now, the city of Maricopa’s daytime population is fairly minimal. A lot of people leave for jobs elsewhere, mostly in greater Phoenix. We have to grow the daytime population so we can begin to fill some of those jobs.

GC LIVING: I know a significant number of the Maricopans heading up to the Valley for employment go to Intel.

Rick Horst: Yes, true.

GC LIVING: Would that be the high-tech sectors if Maricopa could attract another Intel or Intel-like company? Is that something as a target?

Rick Horst: Well, absolutely it is. The interesting thing about economic development is we tend to target a lot of things. And we should make efforts to go after things, but the real thing about economic development is being ready for the opportunity when it presents itself.

In my last community, we were able to attract the back-offices of a lot of the large California high-tech companies. This included the people who did the payroll, the insurance, the purchasing, all those types of things; those who were looking for an area where it could be more family-oriented.

There comes a point when those people will start thinking about family and kids. They want to live in a safe environment where they can raise a family but still carry on their career choice.

GC LIVING: Maricopa doesn’t really have true shovel-ready sites today. Is that something that is in the short-term future?

Rick Horst: It is. As you probably are aware, we have a new developer who will be building a mixed-used office, retail and residential project at the Copper Sky Commercial Complex. We also have been working with the Estrella Gin property for quite some time and soon will be initiating a fresh approach to development opportunities.

However, I think sometimes it’s a little bit of a misnomer when we say we’re shovel ready because, to have a road in or have water or sewer to the property is important, but it’s probably less important than the overall attitude of what it takes to make things happen. And it requires a partnership effort and some creative out-of-the-box thinking to make these things happen.

GC LIVING: Let’s talk about the airport that is currently located east of Maricopa, and it’s now owned by the Ak-Chin Indian Community. At one point in time it was under discussion as a municipal airport for the city. Do you think it was a mistake for the forefathers not to acquire the airport?

Rick Horst: I’m not in the position of letting the forefathers know they’ve made mistakes or not, but I will tell you this, having operated three airports in my career, they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. For us it’s about partnerships. It’s about making things available. It’s not about the city controlling and operating everything. It’s about creating partnerships where we can achieve the results that are needed for the community, but that doesn’t mean we have to own or operate it at the end of the day.

GC LIVING: So tell us about the city’s relationship, the partnerships in place with the neighboring Indian communities. AK- Chin because of proximity is closer to Maricopa in many, many ways.

Rick Horst: That’s true. And they have been very gracious in a lot of the grants they have provided that have supported either the citizens of Maricopa or the city of Maricopa itself. We’re neighbors to both the Gila Indian reservation as well as Ak-Chin, and we have to be a partner and work together to the benefit of all concerned.

GC LIVING: Ak-Chin has a very synergistic relationship with Maricopa. Their children go to the Maricopa schools. They’re shopping is primarily within the city. And then the city residents go to Ak-Chin for use of the UltraStar Multi-tainment Center, the casino, the restaurants there. Do you see future endeavors between the two?

Rick Horst: Yes. You know, we need to leverage our assets, and we don’t need to try to compete with them on a particular asset because then both would struggle. But at the same time we are pursuing mixed-use product with some hotels, restaurants, but also some higher-density housing, as well as some other boutique type shops in different things, which will complement the considerable assets of the Ak-Chin Indian Community.

GC LIVING: Let’s circle back. On your resume, you have a background in both economic development and tourism.

Rick Horst: Yes, true.

GC LIVING: How are you going to bring that into play for Maricopa?

Rick Horst: For starters, I’ve invited our parks and recreation director or community service director to join the economic team because I tell them we have to start working on event tourism. There are a lot of opportunities for us, you know, we have Copper Sky and we soon will be able to fully leverage the benefit of Copper Sky because, among other amenities, the developer will be constructing a new hotel on that site.

GC LIVING: What’s your short-term goal? What, in one year, if you can say, “This is what I want to do, and I did it,” what would it be?

Rick Horst: First off, we want to make it easier to do business with Maricopa. We want to deregulate as much as possible. We want to be more user-friendly. We want to be more flexible. We want to be faster. You know, when you work with developers, investors, they have a choice where they spend their money and where they spend their time, and if we take too long in the process they’ll go somewhere else. So I think, deregulate, move faster, be more streamlined, empower employees to make decisions at the lowest level possible so we can move things forward.

GC LIVING: What’s your long-term goal?

Rick Horst: Well, obviously we want to have a community that has the ability to pay for itself, Economic development is really about creating community wealth. If we’re just doing it to increase the tax base for the city, we’re making a mistake. We have to create community well-being for everybody and set an environment where anyone can be successful if they so choose to work hard at it.