GENEVA — Moving from town to town was something Matt Horn was used to growing up.
His father worked as a cop, and his family “lived in a lot of different places” in his home state of Virginia as his dad worked his way up the law enforcement leadership ladder.
Horn’s professional life also took him to different spots on the map. He worked various jobs in the public and private sector, most of them connected to government service.
Then he came to Geneva ... and that nomadic existence came to a halt after he was appointed Geneva city manager nearly 10 years ago.
“It’s the longest I’ve ever worked anywhere, the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere,” Horn said in an interview with members of the Finger Lakes Times staff last week, four days before he turned in his keys to City Hall and embarked on his next venture.
The move comes after running the government in a city of about 13,000 people, a community that has morphed from often-derided into one of the Finger Lakes region’s biggest success stories. He said it was “a weird feeling” to know that he would be leaving a job that had become so much of his — and the city’s — identity.
Horn recalled that in the beginning some people looked at him as a job-hopper who would depart the city for the next best thing at his earliest convenience. He proved those critics wrong.
“It didn’t turn out that way, and I’m glad it didn’t,” he said. “Geneva is my hometown.”
Horn, who is joining a company that provides outsourcing services for governments, said the city is in a good position for continued growth.
As for City Hall, Horn has no worries because of the administrative team he leaves behind.
“This team has really jelled,” said Horn. “I’ve got really high hopes that we’re going to stay on this trajectory.”
Three members of that team — Sage Gerling, Doris Myers and Adam Blowers — will absorb Horn’s duties while City Council searches for a permanent replacement. Gerling, director of neighborhood initiatives, gets the title of interim, but it’s truly a three-pronged power-sharing arrangement with Blowers, the city’s comptroller, and Myers, who is city clerk.
While Horn now calls Geneva his hometown, there was a time that such an idea would have been farfetched.
Horn recalled that his ex-wife’s family had a vacation spot in Ovid, Seneca County, and that he had “stumbled on Geneva.” Still, the city didn’t exactly make a big impression at that point.
“I thought of Geneva as the place where Arby’s was,” he said with a laugh.
Turning right into downtown Geneva from Routes 5&20 on those trips from Ovid never crossed his mind, he said.
And then the job at City Hall opened up.
Horn applied but didn’t think he had a lock on the job. Horn said he’d never served as a city manager but had been a department head in a previous government gig.
“City Council took a real gamble on me,” he said. “I’d like to think I left Geneva in a better place than when I got here.”
So much has transpired under Horn’s tenure.
Millions of dollars — much of it from grants he helped secure — were invested in the city’s multi-phase lakefront redevelopment initiative, whose next phase includes the expansion of the city’s marina. Horn also built on efforts to attract entrepreneurs, including enhancing business-incubator space at the former American Can building (the Geneva Enterprise Center), as well as the co-working site Port 100. Much of the emphasis has been on growing the food and beverage industry, which many consider a natural given the city is in the cradle of the state’s largest agricultural region.
Of course, the crowning achievement of Horn’s tenure is the city’s winning application in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, which is bringing $10 million in state money to Geneva for a host of projects, where local matches — public and private — are expected to more than triple that investment.
But Horn departs with what he called unfinished business, including shaving the city’s 24 percent poverty rate.
When the city embarked on its comprehensive plan some three years ago, the city’s downtown was enjoying a renaissance. Geneva was in the perfect position to take advantage of the Finger Lakes region’s booming wine tourism industry, which brought thousands of tourists into the town looking for a meal — and more. The result was an influx of trendy restaurants moving into downtown, as well as retail growth in the central business district. Storefront occupancy was the best it had been in decades. The growth resulted in hundreds of new jobs in the downtown area.
But studies conducted as part of the comprehensive plan development indicated that all that progress downtown had made virtually no dent in the city’s poverty rate, said Horn. In fact, it had actually grown worse.
“When the data came out (the needle) moved the wrong way,” he said.
But people are not percentages, Horn emphasized.
He said that 24 percent number constitutes 3,000 people, or 700 Geneva families struggling to get by. Horn said the “next manager will have that as a central piece” of their administration’s efforts.
He agrees that a proposed Resiliency Center, which the city had hoped would receive DRI funding, has the potential to reduce those poverty numbers by working with individuals to find ways to better their lives by connecting them to education, training and employment opportunities.
Horn acknowledges the Geneva Foundry contamination controversy as another place where he has regrets.
“I wish it had been handled differently,” he said.
The city has been criticized, harshly at times, for not communicating earlier that neighborhoods near the foundry site on Jackson Street suffered lead and/or arsenic contamination from air emissions at the former foundry.
Horn and others maintained that it was up to state Department of Environmental Conservation officials to take the lead on that.
Still, he agrees that “we could have gotten this information on the street better.”
Horn noted that the cleanup project is well underway, with about 20 properties remediated in 2017 and the number projected to more than double in 2018. There are 220 properties identified in the current boundary zone, although Horn said homes beyond the current site designation are also showing high levels of toxins in the soil.
“It pains me at the end of my tenure that this is hanging out there,” he said, adding that the city has “put a ton of resources” into assisting affected property owners, as has the state.
The criticism over the foundry issue and other issues took a toll on him and his family.
“I ended my love affair with Facebook,” he said, referring to the social media chatter, where he said he endured lots of jabs. “It would wear on anybody.”