Toby Cotter is the city manager for Bullhead City, Arizona, which has 40,000 permanent residents and an extra 25,000 winter visitors. In addition, more than two million people visit Bullhead City and its sister city, Laughlin, Nevada. The two communities are separated by the Colorado River. Bullhead City is the retail hub of Mohave County and the southern part of Clark County, Nevada. The city is also a mecca for summer water enthusiasts who visit the Colorado River and Lake Mohave.
An economy driven by retail and tourism industries creates a dynamic city, but offers management challenges. Hired in January 2010, in the middle of an economic downturn, the city council asked Cotter to work with recreation staff to create more special events to increase tourism. As a result, the city has greatly expanded its sports tourism over the past four years. Working with the local American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), the city now hosts several large youth soccer tournaments, the largest of which is held each year during President’s Day weekend and with more than 120 soccer teams. An annual spring softball tournament organized by the city’s Recreation Department hosts more than 80 teams, including teams from Canada and Hawaii. The city works with the high school each March to host nearly 50 of the best softball teams in the Southwest. The winner of the tournament is typically ranked number one in the nation in girl’s high school softball.
Bullhead City also hosts many special events throughout the year. The largest is the River Regatta, managed and directed by the city, with an annual budget of approximately $900,000, which is offset by paid admission, sponsorships, and vendors. The River Regatta had just 583 participants in 2007, which increased to just under 30,000 in 2013. The economic impact of the event is $14.1 million, according to a private research firm.
“Special events are a natural for Bullhead City because of the pleasant weather year-round,” Cotter said. “However, there are challenges faced by city staff, as they maintain their daily activities and also have to step out of their usual role to hand out t-shirts or collect tickets at an event.”
ICMA’s Life, Well Run campaign stresses the need for a good quarterback, and Cotter has been just that as Bullhead City has weathered its economic challenges. The city continues to maintain its required $6.2 general fund reserve. Even though the city cut 80 positions in the economic downturn, the workforce has remained stable with 300 employees since 2012. “We all talk about our employees wearing more hats these days, and that will continue for many years to come,” Cotter said. “The continued focus on the bottom line and shifting duties comes at a price. We need to make sure we are giving our employees a chance to change those hats by providing the opportunity for growth and promotions. If we supply our employees with the necessary tools, such as I-pads or smartphones, it is easier for them to accomplish their many daily tasks.”
Involvement with ICMA
Cotter was inspired by his mentors to take his ICMA membership further and serve in various leadership roles. He is currently the chair of the Knowledge Network Advisory Board, and has also served on the Conference Evaluation Committee and the Governmental Affairs and Policy Committee. “Serving on a board or committee is a small way to assist the organization. Each ICMA member should serve on a committee, board or other volunteer task force.” Moreover, Cotter encourages all members to participate in the Knowledge Network, which is a sounding board, an unparalleled source of information, and a resource that will be further strengthened through additional participation.
The Knowledge Network was used extensively when Bullhead City was considering converting a school into a community center. Cotter was able to access information, insight, and case studies that provided thought-provoking perspectives to consider before moving forward. Ultimately, the city took over the former school. Cotter’s blog, "A Partnership for Community Wellness," is available on the Knowledge Network.
Cotter is also an ICMA Credentialed Manager, something he encourages all managers to consider. “The program recognizes managers who demonstrate a high level of education and knowledge of the profession, but also ensures that managers stay focused on lifelong learning, reading, networking, and professional development. We are all so busy and we tend to forget about our own professional development. The CM program keeps us attentive to the fact that we all need to continue learning. We can learn so much from each other, but that fact easily gets lost in the daily grind of council meetings, e-mails, texts, staff meetings, telephone calls, and the like. The CM program keeps a little reminder in the back of your mind that you need to keep developing and growing as a professional.”
After graduating from high school in Montello, Wisconsin, Cotter attended Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, where he received a bachelor’s degree in political science. He went on to receive a master’s degree in public affairs journalism from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He received an MPA degree from California State University Dominquez Hills while working for Bullhead City, Arizona, as its public information officer. Three city managers in Bullhead City helped mentor him: James Thompson, now city manager in Casa Grande, Arizona; Robert Schaumleffel, now retired; and Dan Dible, now city manager in Gallup, New Mexico. These three individuals provided a great foundation and learning environment for Cotter, by including him in high level meetings and showing the pros and cons of the profession. Dible promoted Cotter to the acting economic development director and then to the assistant to the city manager position. In 2003 Cotter left Bullhead City, one of the hottest cities in America, to become the village administrator in Richfield, Wisconsin. “One of America’s coldest cities,” Cotter joked. “Emergency management does not include snowplowing in Bullhead City.” He returned as Bullhead City’s manager in 2010.