People of the Year 2013 | Sue Edwards

Assistant City Manager, City of Austin.

A longtime employee of the city, with the passion and energy to make things happen.

On the third floor of City Hall, Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards’s office overlooks the exterior limestone plaza, the steady stream of daytime traffic on Cesar Chavez, and the nearby blue-green swath of Lady Bird Lake. The sounds of car horns can be heard faintly through the broad windows. Sunlight dapples the tidy blond-wood desk with a few short piles of paperwork. Edwards, 72, wears an elegant black sweater, and her sandy blonde hair hangs neatly to her shoulders. During a recent encounter, a visitor quickly learns that she is a woman of contemplative pauses and well-chosen words. And underneath the composed demeanor is a veteran city employee who clearly knows how to make things happen.

A native of Roswell, New Mexico, Edwards first moved to Austin from Louisiana in January of 1970. Her first job was with the Community Action Agency that was eventually taken over by the city. During this period of time, Dan Davidson served as City Manager (he passed away in 2007). “Dan believed that if you were a good manager, you could manage anything because you had the big picture and knew the right questions to ask,” remembers Edwards. “This scared me to death.” During her first tenure with the City of Austin, Davidson advanced Edwards into multiple leadership roles: She directed five different departments—from the Community Action Department to EMS. After being promoted into the position of Assistant City Manager in 1984, she decided to resign a year later in order to spend more quality time with her daughters. “We were working eighty hours a week, and I just hadn’t spent a lot of time with them,” says Edwards.

Almost a decade later, after repeated offers, she returned to City Hall in 1994 and moved into her current role of Assistant City Manager in 2007. Her areas of oversight include aviation, economic development (which encompasses the arts, music, and film), small businesses, sustainability, watershed protection, and redevelopment. Recent projects have included a number of vital private-public partnerships, such as the redevelopment of the Mueller project, the Second Street District, and Waller Creek. “I have a real passion for making the right things happen,” adds Edwards. Waller Creek currently ranks number one amid her favorite projects. “Waller Creek is going to be that jewel that’s going to tie downtown together,” she says. “It’s going to draw people from all over the city. And it’s one of things that the City of Austin could not have done on our own without a private partner.”

Given her long history with Austin, Edwards has maintained a front-row seat to the city’s remarkable growth and transformation during the past four-plus decades. “It’s been a little hard,” she admits. “The question for me is how are we going to accommodate the growth—because it’s going to keep coming, regardless—in a way that maintains the unique personality of Austin. It’s not easy to blend the old and the new, and still have people really recognize that this is Austin. In some tiny form, we’ll make sure that anything we touch—in terms of development or redevelopment—that we’ll have something of Austin’s values still in there.”

One of Edwards’ favorite activities in the city is walking the streets or the trail that encircles Lady Bird Lake. “I love seeing the changes and watching the people,” she says. “It’s one way that I learn about Austin and watch things keep growing.”

A typical day for Edwards is chock-full of meetings, decision-making, and putting out fires. “The thing that helps me get up every day is that we get to touch a lot of people and a lot of the things that happen in Austin,” she says of her role as assistant city manager. “Hopefully, we’re doing this in a positive way.”

To retreat from the bustle of downtown, she commutes to her quiet home that borders the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in Hill Country, between FM 620 and 360. “It’s nice to be able to go out and relax in the back yard and listen to the birds,” says Edwards, who is also an avid gardener.

Back in her City Hall office, a glass snow globe with the identifiable landscape of Austin—the Frost Building, the Capitol, the UT Tower, the Pennybacker Bridge—sits alone on the circular desk in front of Edwards. When shaken, tiny black bats, music notes, and confetti-like glitter cascade down onto the miniature metropolis of buildings and structures before settling onto the base again. Edwards was given the globe as a favor upon the opening of the new City Hall, designed by architect Antoine Predock, in 2004. She laughs quietly as she turns it upside down, holding the transparent sphere steadily in her hand. “Every time I look at it, I see something new,” Edwards says with a smile.


Photography by Randal Ford


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