Kent -- After 15 years of steering PARTA through constant growth, the transit agency's general manager -- Aurora resident John Drew -- is stepping out of the driver's seat and into retirement.
Drew began his time at the Portage Regional Transportation Authority in September 1998 under "very interesting circumstances," he said.
"I received a call from the board president, who was a friend of mine, and he said, 'I'm in real trouble,' and this guy is never in trouble," Drew said. "He said, 'I'm sure that things are pretty much in disarray, and that I guarantee you two things: No. 1, you'll have way too much work to do and No. 2, I can't afford to pay you anything.'
"So that was my introduction as I walked in the door in September of '98."
Though PARTA already had more than 20 years under its belt at the time, PARTA Marketing Director Frank Hairston said the organization was unorganized, understaffed, underfunded and facing a mountain of skepticism from politicians on every level from local to federal.
"Years ago, it was really hard because people didn't believe in PARTA," said Hairston, who prior to joining PARTA in 2002 had worked with Drew at Portage Physical Therapists in Ravenna. "If it hadn't been for Mr. Drew, PARTA would've been shut down."
In the early 2000s when PARTA worked out of two trailers with a couple of portable toilets, its reputation and fate began taking a positive turn thanks to clean audits, Drew's honesty, transparency and ability to get elected and university officials to work together and successful tax levies, Hairston and Drew said.
With a continuing sales tax in place to give PARTA footing, bus routes began extending throughout Portage County and an administration building replaced the trailers at Summit Road and Route 261 east of Kent.
THE CURRENT facility now includes a bus washing bay, bus shelter and fresh pavement, and future plans include a compressed natural gas fueling station, which will be available to anyone.
In 2004 and still facing skepticism, PARTA took control of Kent State University's Campus Bus Service, which Drew includes in his list of proudest moments at PARTA. "Everyone was waiting for us to fail. Well, we didn't," he said.
A few of Drew's additional accomplishments include batting county commissioners away from trying to take control of the transit agency and building the $26 million Kent Central Gateway parking deck and retail facility, which PARTA did without increasing its staff size or going over budget.
Drew is quick to note the teamwork, timing and $20 million TIGER stimulus grant it took to pull off the gateway project, and acknowledges the several entities and people behind them that all put their heads together.
With the grant money in hand, PARTA, Kent, KSU and private developers -- including Ron Burbick and Fairmount Properties -- used it to pump more than $100 million into redeveloping downtown Kent.
With retirement fast approaching in December, Drew said he hasn't made many plans or goals aside from a three-week family vacation in Arizona.
"I will consider that only after I've had a chance to rest," he said, adding that he's glad to go out on top and leave behind a staff he is proud of.
"Of all the jobs I've had, this job is the most satisfying and rewarding. One of the main reasons is the staff. They know what their job is and they just go out and do it."
Hairston said the staff's pride reflects back to Drew as well. "He is truly going to be missed."
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Facebook: Kyle McDonald, Record-Courier