JCDA to seek new executive director, opts not to give permanent post to longtime interim leader

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The Johnson City Development Authority (JCDA) will seek a new executive director after opting not to name interim director Dianna Cantler to the permanent role Friday.

The eight-member board voted 7-1 not to make Cantler executive director. She has been in the interim role for about two years.

“We now have, I think, a very high-risk, high-reward agenda and it’s caused us to really think about what kind of person can drive that agenda,” board member Jodi Jones said during discussion about the topic.

JCDA board member Jodi Jones speaks during Friday’s meeting.

Board members praised elements of Cantler’s leadership but consistently pointed to the increased complexity of the role — particularly since the 2019 purchase of the John Sevier Center (JSC) — as a reason to make sure JCDA has “the right persons in the right seats,” as member Aaron Murphy said.

“We need to make a decision about how we’re going to function as we go forward,” JCDA Chairman Hank Carr said in forwarding a motion from the human resources committee that essentially called for an up or down vote on whether to continue the Cantler era.

A yes vote would have given Carr the go-ahead to negotiate a salary package with Cantler.

“If you’re not prepared to lift the interim status then that message to me is we need to begin the search for an executive director position for long-term,” Carr said.

The decision means the JCDA’s HR committee — Carr, Jones, Shannon Castillo and Robert Williams — will review the organization’s staffing and funding and reassess the structure. That committee had provided the full board with a lengthy report based on a recent annual performance review.

Jones called the transition of the last few years “incredibly challenging for all of us” and lauded Cantler’s leadership.

“I have been inspired by Dianna all this time as a leader for the board during that transition,” she said. “It’s been hard for us, we know it’s been incredibly challenging for her.

“I think we all as you saw in the report really acknowledge and appreciate her energy and passion for the work that she does across all the domains that she does that work.”

Dianna Cantler has led the JCDA for more than half a decade.

By November, Carr said, the committee will “make decisions and recommendations … on the structure of the organization, its staff, and begin a search for a permanent executive director.”

In a statement after the meeting, Cantler reflected on her tenure and suggested her involvement with downtown wasn’t going to be over when her role changes.

“For the past seven years, I have facilitated the TIF program for the JCDA, worked with property owners, supported new businesses, and looked for ways to bring people downtown to drive economic development,” Cantler wrote.

“I will continue to support the organization in the interim as they look for a new Executive Director to move the JCDA forward in a new direction.

“It is my hope that we can find a way to continue downtown development through the partnership organization, Connect Downtown Johnson City, as they provide the oversight as the Main Street accredited program for Johnson City.”

JCDA board member Seth Thomas, who serves on the Connect Downtown Johnson City board, was the only member who voted in favor of making Cantler the permanent director.

JCDA board member Aaron Murphy, right, speaks during Friday’s meeting as fellow board member Joe Wise looks on.

In their written report, the HR committee members seemed in accord that Cantler lacked some important necessary attributes for the job, though they lauded her marketing/event planning skills and work ethic.

“As I think about strengths, I must first acknowledge the Executive Director’s skills in marketing and promotion,” one commenter wrote. “They have done an excellent job of promoting downtown Johnson City, which was a core component of the job going back many years.”

The increasing complexity of tax increment financing (TIF) projects — particularly of the effort to get new housing built for residents of the JSC and transition the former hotel to its “highest and best use” — needed a different hand at the tiller, members noted in written comments.

One comment said the JSC project has become even more difficult than it initially was.

“This shift has created a pressure for leadership on the Board that far exceeds the initial needs,” the comment reads. “In my opinion, the new environment, challenges and demands facing the JCDA require a leader with communication skills, political savvy and development knowledge beyond what the ED (Cantler) has been able to demonstrate, even with guidance and structure provided.”

The review came after more than half a year of job coaching that also involved the four HR Committee members. It used a 1 to 5 scale with 1 representing “did not meet expectations” and 2 “performed below expectations,” with 4 being “above expectations” and 5 “exceeded expectations.”

The committee found continued strength in marketing/event planning, work ethic and energy. She scored a combined 3.75 on a 1-5 scale for “strong work ethic and capacity” and “passionate and energetic,” and 4 on “marketing and event planning.”

But Cantler fell short in some areas that JCDA leaders consider key as the organization evolves.

Those included organization and communication (1.25), strategic leadership (1.5), TIF and business experience (2) and professional networking connections (2.25).

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