PITTSBORO — Michael Fiocco recalls visiting with some friends a year or two after being elected to the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners and being asked: So, what have you accomplished?
“And I think the only thing I had to say was, ‘Well, we renegotiated our trash and recycling pickup,’” he said. “So we went from 24-gallon recycle cans to a 96-gallon roll-out cart. And I was proud of that.”
It was a small achievement. But it was also early during his 12-year tenure as a member of the board. The Pittsboro of 2009 — the year Fiocco was elected, and pre-Chatham Park — was very different from the Pittsboro of today. And as of this week, the town’s governing board is different as well: Fiocco’s stretch of service as an elected official ended with the Nov. 2 election that saw newcomer James Vose and incumbent Pamela Baldwin win seats, and with Vose’s swearing-in on Monday night.
For Fiocco, who helped usher Pittsboro forward — often with small steps — even minor achievements mattered.
“I recall a day when I had to really, really badger the town council to hire an engineer,” he said. “For the longest time to town didn’t have an engineer. Well, it’s pretty important to have an engineer. And you know, that’s the small little thing that maybe was accomplished that headed us got us headed in the right direction.”
As he spends his first week as Citizen Fiocco, rather than Commissioner Fiocco, the 59-year-old reflects about the “lots of little things” the board accomplished while he served, particularly improvements to the look and feel of Pittsboro’s eclectic downtown and business district.
“I’ve got friends who live out of town,” he said. “They come through Chapel Hill, and they come through Pittsboro. And they are kind of a barometer of change for us, because we see it every day … But folks who see you periodically, they say, ‘Oh, that’s a change.’ And lots of folks who come through town say, ‘Hey, things are really changing in Pittsboro. It’s looking great.’
“So that’s always fun to hear,” he said, “and having been a part of that for the last 12 years, I take pride in the changes that are occurring and the positive ones.”
The News + Record spoke with Fiocco last week to get his perspective about his time as a commissioner and his thoughts about the board’s operation moving forward without him. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
NEWS + RECORD: Being on the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners has been a part of your life for the last dozen years. What’s it going to feel like to not be there and not be a part of the proceedings?
FIOCCO: It’ll be interesting. In those 12 years, there’s been a lot of time devoted to the work required for being on the board to process the volume of information, to try to make wise decisions. Every other weekend, essentially, for the last 12 years I’ve holed up in my office, at home, and for the weekend, to try to make sure I’m best equipped as possible to digest the information provided by staff and to do independent research.
So I imagine I’m going to have a lot more free time, and I’m looking forward to it.
I’m curious how Michael Fiocco as a citizen will follow the proceedings of the board …
Oh, I definitely plan to stay involved. One of the passions I’ve had is the Main Street Pittsboro program, and trying to make sure that downtown is as vibrant as it can be.
I live just up the street [from the center of downtown] so [wife] Jamie and I often walk downtown to do things, and we want to continue to be able to do things that interest us downtown. I’ll continue to be an advocate for downtown revitalization and growth. And I imagine I will weigh in on some other matters.
I hope that my consulting firm will be able to do more work in Pittsboro. Without being on the board, there’s the possibility that other folks will want to look to our skillset. We’ve been in business for about 30 years now in the Triangle all across the state of North Carolina. So we’ve got a pretty good portfolio of greenfield development, as well as infill development, and we’re pretty good at that.
When you look back and reflect on those 12 years as a board member, is there anything that’s most prevalent to you … are there any specific memories, board votes, accomplishments that you take a lot of pride in, or things that maybe you wish had done differently?
Well, I think the big one has got to be Chatham Park. We spent a lot of time in those 12 years working on Chatham Park. And in 2013, the Master Plan was trying to get approved. And they’d been working on it for a couple of years prior to that, and, you know, people don’t recall that.
I was first elected in 2009, and the economy was in a shambles. And it continued to be in a shambles for many years after that. And Chatham Park had come in with a Master Plan that wasn’t quite ready for primetime. But we recognized the opportunity that was presented with a Chatham Park to do something holistic, and not just piecemeal. So one of the things that I’m really proud of in being able to get their Master Plan approved was the agreement that they would do these things called “Additional Elements.”
There were 12 Additional Elements to the plan, and it was really the guts and fine points of the Master Plan. And honestly, I think they are a remarkable development group because I can’t think of another one that would agree to the commitment that they agreed to — which was they had to get the board to approve these 12 elements, or they were going to be limited in their development to 5% and 15% of commercial and residential, respectively. So not many people would take such a risk and trust that the town would do business forthrightly.
It was really remarkable. So I’m proud that I was part of the team that came up with the Additional Elements idea and got them to agree to it. Then, of course, it took us — what, six, seven years? — to get through them. But honestly, you know, it’s got public art. It’s got affordable housing, it’s got public infrastructure. They’ve agreed that they’re going to be donating land for public schools. And the school board has the right to accept that land or not. And they have infrastructure and water and sewer, which is required for a growth of a town. So there’s a thing that’s a big, big commitment, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.
Pittsboro is certainly a different place than it was 12 years ago, Chatham Park notwithstanding. What’s the potential for Pittsboro when you when you cast a vision forward? What do you see as the future and the characteristics of the community in the next 15 or 20 years?
Well, I think growth is a proposition for Pittsboro. And I think that will change its character. I think we’ve got a very engaged citizen citizenry now. It’s an eclectic, artistic, intelligent, engaged community. I think that will continue.
There’s a lot of big business going on around Pittsboro, I think, combined with the county’s long range plan that says, “Let’s preserve the rural character of Chatham County.” And one way to do that is to focus growth into municipalities. With the megasites, I think it’s going to be quite a dynamic area. And I think not only for Pittsboro, but for Siler City as well. So, you know, I think it has a very bright future.
One of the things that lots of folks have always talked about was that you could raise a child in Pittsboro, but then they often just left for other communities that had more opportunities for them. And there’s a lot of talk about actually Pittsboro being a place now where you can raise kids and have them come back, or stay, and have opportunities, raise families and prosper. So I think that type of growth is coming. And I think we’ve put in some mechanisms that helped that occur.
So that’s what I think the future of Pittsboro is going to be. And again, downtown is such a unique opportunity for Pittsboro because the growth of Chatham Park and other growth. People coming to the area, and they’re going to be naturally curious about downtown. Our downtown is special and you can’t replicate that.
You know Cindy Perry, and you’ve worked with her when she was mayor before. And aside from James Vose, you know the rest of the makeup the board very, very well. What do you think will characterize the new board? How different will it be from the board you served on these last 12 years?
That’s probably a tough question to answer. One of the big challenges over the last couple of years has been COVID and the fact that we’re doing all this [meeting via] Zoom. So that’s going to be a challenge that I think Cindy hasn’t seen yet. It surely is a different environment. I look forward to getting back to the days when you’ve got everybody in a room and the personalities are there and you can have the camaraderie. It’s very difficult to do on Zoom, especially when you have a large group of people. And just the way the technology works, there’s always interruptions and people trying to get their word in. So I think it’s going to be a unique challenge, or a new challenge, for Cindy. I’m sure she’s up for it.
I think James is a capable individual. I imagine he’s been through, with his small business experience, the same kinds of changes and pivots in technology.
So it’s hard to know exactly where the board will go. I think they will have the benefit of having Chatham Park behind them. From the regulatory, structural perspective, there’s a lot of work coming their way with the growth and development of Chatham Park, but so much time was spent on establishing what the rules were, and now that the rules are set, I think they can focus on a lot of other things in town — not the least of which, of course, is our water quality issues. Cindy was a leader as mayor in addressing that issue earlier on, so I think she’ll fall right back into being an effective advocate for the town. James has campaigned on that issue. So I think that’s a benefit to this new board that they’ll have that runway to address other issues in town, because Chatham Park did consume quite a bit of time.
What will the board miss, and what will Pittsboro miss, about Jim Nass not being mayor?
Through my observation of his work there [on town committees, as well as mayor], I’ve recognized what a good administrator he is — because he does keep things moving, he does put his thumb on the scale when he feels it needs to be done. I admired his ability to do that. He did that as mayor. I respect him tremendously as an administrator. I thought he did a really good job. The board will obviously not have him in that position, so it’s hard to know if board will run like he ran it.
What advice would you give to James Vose about sitting in that seat as he begins his term next week?
I would say: be prepared to make decisions.
Government moves extremely slowly. And in order to accomplish things, I think you’ve got to make decisions as timely as you can because just the natural mechanisms will produce things on a slower time-frame than probably the private industry is used to doing. So it’s important to be prepared and to honestly do the people’s business of making those decisions.
Everybody is interested in government; they’re just not interested in participating. They’re interested in the results. And they put you as an elected official in that position to do the work on their behalf. They’ve got to get their kids to dance class, they’ve got to get to soccer practice, they’ve got to do all these things. And what they want to do is put people in positions that they entrust to make good decisions. Not to honor that obligation is not doing people’s work.
You’ve had about a month to reflect on the race and the loss of your seat. How much do you think about not winning the seat? And have you thought maybe about anything you could have done differently? Is there a reason that more people voted for James, and is that on your mind at all?
No, it really isn’t. You know, 12 years is a long time to serve.
My wife and I have both done a lot of volunteer work. And in 2009, we opened up the bookstore [Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill] in 2009. And I got elected in 2009. Jamie started in as a volunteer for the Southern Independent Booksellers Association and then became a board member and ended up serving president of the American Booksellers Association. And in June of this year, she finished her volunteer work.
And so here we are, looking at me, saying, “Am I going to do another four years?” I was on the fence, really, and some folks encouraged me to do it, and I decided I was going to do it: I’ve got another four years in me, and there were some things undone that I wanted to still accomplish. And so, in that regard, having been on the fence, I’m OK with not serving. I would have continued to do the work if I had been elected. And as I said earlier, I will continue to be an advocate for things that I believe in downtown and in the community, which is smart growth.
So I will still be here, I’ll still be participating. But I obviously will not have a vote in those matters. But I can still bring my knowledge or perspective to the table for consideration. And honestly, that’s all I ever did as a commissioner as well — to bring my perspective for consideration. And if folks believed in what I had to say, and then they would vote with me, and there were plenty of times when they voted not with me. So I’m looking forward, as I said, to really honestly spending more time with my family and my businesses. I’ve got two small businesses and Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. I’ve probably not done as much as I should in those endeavors, being pulled away by my volunteer work, which included not only being commissioner, but as liaison to so many other organizations. So, yes, I’ll have a lot more time for private business and family.
When I spoke with James, one of the things he said is, “I hope we see Michael Fiocco again.” Can you say anything about the possibility of you seeking office on the board at some point in the future?
Well, the conversation has come up with some folks who are suggesting that I’m only taking two-year hiatus. [Laughs.] And I tell them, “We can talk about that later.” Honestly, at this point, I’m focusing on this transition. And I think the next couple of years will tell. I am committed to Pittsboro. If I think I can contribute, then I will find ways to get involved. Whether that’s in an elected position, it’s too early to say.
You mentioned some things left undone. Do you want to expand on that a little bit? Maybe share a few things that you would like to have seen through if you had one more term?
I think the biggest one is what we refer to as generational infrastructure. You know, here we are at the mouth of Jordan Lake on the Haw River. And we’ve got really limited water and sewer capacity. And there are a lot of folks who — you know, agencies and whatnot — who think we are in such a sensitive area that there should be limitations on the sewer, at least discharge.
That’s why I think [a water agreement with] Sanford is such an intriguing and interesting perspective because it solves an environmental issue as much as it does a growth issue. When you can combine those two, I think you’re doing smart growth.
So it would be finding ways to provide for the infrastructure growth — which I think is important, because if you’re not growing, then I think there are big problems that you will experience.
All along with Chatham Park, lots of communities would say, “We wish we had the headache that Chatham Park is bringing to you,” because they had far different headaches, right? And we had this great opportunity, and opportunities rarely knock when you’re perfectly ready for it. So I think about generational infrastructure growth. I think one of my comments during one of our budget meetings was I’d like to see infrastructure for the next 100 years solved in our time, so that people didn’t have to worry about that kind of thing — because we’re at a pivotal point where we will solve that problem … So that’s the kind of thinking that I would like to contribute to. As a voting member, I would have had more ability to do that. But I can still share my ideas with the board.
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