Karen Whichard Named Davidson’s Assistant Town Manager
Having endured a five-hour board meeting the previous evening, Karen Whichard said her new job felt like drinking from a fire hose. “But,” she added, “It’s a lot of fun!” Whichard was recently hired as the town’s assistant manager, reporting to Manager Jamie Justice. Stepping into new shoes might be taxing, but it is certainly nothing new for her.
She is a Charlotte native who attended South Mecklenburg High, which was right across the street from the home she shares with her husband Mark Schrader and their three young children. Her mother and father live just ten minutes away.
Whichard comes to Davidson after eight years with the City of Charlotte, most recently in the City Manager’s Office. In that role she gained experience in a wide range of governance issues, including community safety, public works, racial equity, budgeting, media relations, intergovernmental affairs, customer service, essential operations, and community/police relations. One of her major assignments was top management of Charlotte Water as that department underwent a rebranding campaign from CMUD (Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department) to simply “Charlotte Water.”
Whichard developed her expertise in writing and interest in journalism in high school. She served as editor in chief of South Meck’s school newspaper, The Sabre, and attended UNC Chapel Hill’s summer journalism camp. She went on to enroll in UNC’s school of journalism, and covered the arts beat one summer for the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. She recalls fondly that one of her professors was the “crunchy old stereotypical cigar-smoking, retired newspaper editor” Jim Shumaker. Shumaker, who was immortalized in the “Shoe” editorial cartoon strip by Jeff MacNelly, died soon after the course concluded. She claims to have learned from him how to write concisely and for an audience.
Whichard followed many of her UNC classmates in selecting the journalism school’s public relations track of study. One requirement was to conduct an internship, which Whichard secured in the communications office of SAS in the Research Triangle.
She moved back to Charlotte after college, and “by luck and happenstance” was hired by a marketing agency whose clients included the city of Kannapolis. She was instantly attracted to the real-world issues and consequences involved in municipal governance. She said, “I have a journalism degree and thought I wanted to work for newspapers. But the minute I started working with Kannapolis, I realized that municipal government was where I wanted to be.” Later, while working for the city of Charlotte, she enrolled at UNC Charlotte to earn a master’s degree in public administration.
She became communications director of Kannapolis and was a key member of the city and community team that managed the redevelopment of the downtown from textiles to the North Carolina Research Campus. She said, “What interests me about town government is building relationships across the community. The pace is different. There’s an opportunity to get to know a larger portion of the community you serve than when you work in a large municipality.”
Her work later with Charlotte meant she had experience in both large town and small town governance. Both were valuable, she said, “In a large municipality there are a lot more resources, and you’re able to do different types of things. But on the small town level you get to work with so many different aspects of the community. You can build meaningful relationships with many different people, whereas in the large setting you might find yourself a little bit removed from the direct public.”
She said her first day on the job in Davidson felt like 20 hours due to the lengthy Board of Commissioner’s meeting on her second day, which included rezoning requests, the 2019-2020 budget, sidewalk and parks construction, tree studies, and playground requests. But it was all a learning experience. “My first impression is that there’s a lot of passion on the board and in the community around planning,” she said. “I recognize that people are drawn here and love it very much. But that invariably creates a tension in the area of public policy choices.
Now that she’s been entrusted with the job, the work begins. She and town manager Jamie Justice will spend the next couple of weeks reviewing needs and defining Whichard’s job assignments.
Details will emerge, but Whichard is certain her overarching imperative will be “Providing our core services at the highest level possible and being transparent in how we conduct our business.”
She concluded, “Davidson has been on my radar for a long time as a place I’d like to work. There are just a few in towns in North Carolina that share the same similar and exceptional characteristics. I told myself if a job here ever popped open I would seriously like to consider the opportunity. Now that I’m here, there’s a lot for me to get up to speed on!”
Bill Giduz was the son who followed his father’s footsteps into journalism. He has been involved his entire life with news and photography in schools he attended and jobs he’s held. He believes now that he’s got a few good years left to devote to The News of Davidson.