Dawn Ashbacher is the town manager of Sykesville, Maryland. This quaint, historic railroad and river town is home to a population of 4,600 residents. The town employs some 20 people. The main street is vital after years of effort to rejuvenate it, and Sykesville is within commuting distance to the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas.
Sykesville and the Profession
“A favorite part of my job is working with our mayor and town council,” Ashbacher said. “They are a dedicated, thoughtful, and fun group of people.”
One of the engaging projects in Sykesville is the development of a large piece of property that was a former state hospital complex.
“I have to give a lot of credit to former Town Manager Matt Candland and many others who laid the groundwork for this project,” Ashbacher said. “We are in the process of finalizing the sale of the property to a group that shares our vision to restore the beautiful historic buildings, as well as to create a viable mixed-use development.”
“This project involves interesting and complex challenges helping the town, county, and state to work together, and ensuring the project complements our successful main street. The big challenge is to keep the project moving forward while also being careful that key stakeholders participate and are made to feel welcome, have as much information from the other parties as is available, and know that their concerns are being heard and addressed to the extent possible. A significant aspect is making sure enough time is allowed for the decision-making process and that information and process do not fall between the cracks.”
Ashbacher acknowledges that a professional challenge is staying “nimble,,” both personally and organizationally. “As a government, we strive to be consistent, fair, and trustworthy, but circumstances vary” Ashbacher said. “As an individual, it is easy to get comfortable doing things a certain way. However, things change. Who knows what challenges lie ahead. I am trying to develop a process for the organization and myself so that we come up with fair and effective solutions by building on what we have and by allowing ourselves to change and think creatively.”
Ashbacher started out as a high school teacher and administrator at an innovative high school in New Hampshire. She encouraged students to go out into the community to learn. In the process, Ashbacher herself found out about the job of a local government manager.
“I moved back to my home state of Iowa and ran a community mediation program. I helped resolve a conflict at a large institution by listening to each person and then reporting to the group (without including names) in a way that everyone knew they were heard. This also gave the group a better understanding of the problem,” Ashbacher said. “Eventually, I decided that being a city manager would be a good way to combine my interests in helping to draw out the best in people and in resolving difficult issues in a way that builds rather than divides community.”
Ashbacher earned her MPA at Iowa State University and was selected as an ICMA Local Government Management Fellow in 2005. She worked with Ed Daley, then city manager of Winchester, Virginia, as an assistant to the city manager. Ashbacher went on to gain additional experience as a budget analyst and assistant director of the planning commission office for Fairfax County, Virginia.
“All of those experiences prepared me well for my first town manager job, which I started in 2012 in Sykesville,” Ashbacher said. “They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it has taken a village of city managers to help me to become a town manager. That was an advantage of being an ICMA Local Government Management Fellow. I am thankful for all of the many managers who have shared advice and mentored me.”