CVT Special Edition Vol. 1










Douglas County Manager Jim Nichols settles in

by Joey Crandall

It occupies a small space on the shelf in the corner of the office.

Small, yet significant.

It’s yellow. Sprawled with signatures in thick Sharpie marker. And used. Or well-worn, maybe.

“What’s the story with the fireman’s helmet?” I ask.

And without realizing it, I’ve stumbled onto the key of Jim Nichols’ management style.

Nichols, the newly-arrived Douglas County manager, launches forth into a story equal parts experience and philosophy. In the span of five minutes, he manages to effectively answer my entire list of questions with a single tale.

But more on that in a moment.

“I think you just wrote my story for me,” I mutter.

“Actually, I do write,” he exclaims, striding quickly over to the shelf and withdrawing a pair of books.

He slaps them down on the table. “Public Works Management – Things They Never Taught In School” and “How To Be A Better Client: Consultant Selection and Management (From the Client’s Perspective).”

“I work better with deadlines,” he says. “Once I have my outline, I tend to write very fluidly. I already know what I want to say, but it’s a matter of getting it crammed in there. Taking a few days away then coming back and adding those five points I missed.

“As the consummate procrastinator, I write a little here and there and then realize I have four pages written and two weeks left to finish the book. That’s when you go into overdrive.”

Overdrive. That’s an interesting word.

Nichols, 48, covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. In a half-hour, he talks football, public policy, tradition, civil engineering, growing up in small-town Massachusetts, project management, making that first leap from the East Coast to the West, becoming a published author, flight schedules out of Midland, respecting heritage and history, baseball cards, proofreading, sustainable growth, the Red Sox and fighting fires.

He’s full of surprises, floats effortlessly between topics, is eager to get know the community and eager for the community to get to know him.

But it’s the fire helmet that sticks out.

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“This was from the City of Goodyear, (Ariz.),” Nichols said. “I was a deputy (city manager) there. It was my first time managing a fire department. When I left, all the firefighters got together and purchased the hat I used to wear and they autographed it for me.

“Part of my approach in my job is that I feel it is important to connect with all of the employees. I don’t want to be that guy who works in that office. I do my best to work in the field with employees from time to time.”

Nichols went on to explain that he worked in nearly all of the fire stations in the city during his time in Goodyear.

“I’d do an overnight shift with them, respond to calls at 2 a.m., certainly not putting out a fire, but sweeping glass out of the road if it was an accident or helping direct traffic. Whatever I could do to assist them in their jobs.

“When I left, they gave me the helmet and a plaque from the firefighters’ union. I keep them in my office now as a reminder of the importance of making those efforts. I’ve found it really helps bridge any disconnect there may be between my position and everyone else.

“It’s important that all of the employees understand I appreciate what they do. The best way to demonstrate that, and understand what they do, is by doing it with them. There is no job that is unimportant. No job that doesn’t hold value.

“Being in the field, you can share time and have open communication. I look at the field as their office. When I’m on your turf, we can chat and you can tell me about your family and hobbies and we can share conversation. I’m not a fan of just having people report to my office wondering what I might want.”

It’s a practice he plans to continue in Douglas County.

“I have worked my way up the ladder throughout my career,” Nichols said. “I have worked with good and bad bosses and in good and bad situations. I’ve been where all of the employees in this organization have been in one way or another and I try to remember what bothered me so I don’t do it to them.

“I look at my job here as making everyone else’s job easier.”

Nichols grew up in Chicopee, Massachusetts, the self-proclaimed “Crossroads of New England” before moving to Boston where he attended Northeastern University.

“The culture where I grew up was one of ‘You live here, you grow up here, you stay here and you die here,’” he said. “That’s just the way it was. I really broke the mold by leaving.”

He started out in electrical engineering at Northeastern, which had a co-op engineering program, meaning students took on structured work experience out in the real world along with their academic courses.

“It was a great way to do it because I discovered I hated the electrical jobs and was able to switch in time to finish my degree in civil engineering. That turned out to be my real niche.”

Nichols wound up working for a small consulting firm in Connecticut out of college.

“I was very happy doing that,” he said. “My goal was to maybe one day become a project manager.”

As time went on, though, he started to feel stagnant where he was.

“I was in my mid-20s and just felt like I was in a rut,” he said. “I decided to go look for something else and wound of landing a position with the City of Olympia, Washington.

“I’d never been further west than Pennsylvania. It was on the other side of the world as far as I was concerned.”

While in Olympia, Nichols worked under what he called an “incredible mentor” in the director of public works.

“He inspired me to No. 1 seek out some level of leadership and try to influence an organization positively,” Nichols said. “I wound up going down the path of public service you might say by accident. But once I was there, I was influenced by a very positive role model and it kept me going down that path.”

That path eventually led him through Goodyear and to Las Vegas.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Blosser/ Douglas County Community Relations

Photo courtesy of Melissa Blosser/ Douglas County Community Relations

“There was just an incredible opportunity to work in a world-renowned city and I couldn’t pass it up,” Nichols said. “During that period, my mom relocated from Massachusetts to Las Vegas and she loved it there.”

Nichols eventually moved on to Midland, Texas, but his mother stayed in Nevada.

“I was, and still am, her closest living relative proximity-wise,” he said. “It had always been in my mind to get back closer to her. I’d been trying for about a year, looking for potential opportunities.”

There was a close call with Carson City earlier in the year for the city manager’s job. Then Douglas County.

“The idea of being closer to my mom was what brought me back here,” he said. “But Douglas County is an incredible destination. I’d be foolish not to want to be here.

“Midland was a two-plus hour flight twice a day to Las Vegas. We’re a one-hour, all-throughout-the-day flight to Las Vegas. She is fine on her own, don’t get me wrong, but the convenience of being able to visit and to stay in close contact, the option is there.”

The immediate task, though, is getting to know the community, Nichols said.

“It’s kind of an easy one to pick out, as the outsider,” he said. “My first issue is getting to know the people who I work with and out in the community. As important, if not more important, is helping them get to know me.

“I don’t sit here and wait for people to come see me. I am going to work very hard to become a known commodity. I told the commissioners during the interviews that this is a 24/7 job. I need to be active in the evenings and on the weekends. I need to be a part of this area. I’m not here to collect a paycheck.

“I have a tremendous team of employees from top to bottom in this organization who have the same goal of making this area better, and my job is to not screw that up.”

As far as bringing his unique tool set to Douglas County, Nichols said he approaches things more with a single lens filtering many different angles.

“Ultimately, I have five individuals I report to in the county commission,” he said. “I need to mirror their vision. I’ll listen and assimilate what others see for the county and hopefully, with the assistance of a lot of great people, help make that happen.

“Just having talked with the commissioners, we’re looking for continued, appropriate, well-timed and well-placed growth. There is a time and a place and an opportunity where growth makes sense. It can’t be willy nilly because part of this county’s charm and appeal is based on the natural appeal. We can’t let folks run rough-shod over that and hurt the essence of what makes us special.

“But we also can’t sit back and say ‘no growth.’ That just isn’t reality. It’ll be a matter of making things fit like a good puzzle, protecting the natural environment, fitting growth where it should fit and meeting the citizens’ needs. That’s where I see my role coming into play.”

Nichols, an avid New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox fan, said he’s looking forward to getting to enjoy the area’s natural assets himself.

“I haven’t had any down time yet,” he said. “Someday, when it happens, I’m looking forward to getting into the mountains.

“I’m not a skier, yet, but I’ve been told by many people that I’d better learn. I have a gorgeous bike that is missing being ridden. I haven’t had a chance to get out and ride it regularly in a few years, so I’m really looking forward to that. I love hiking, I’m sure there are going to be trips to the lake.

“Part of the appeal of this area is the natural beauty, and I’m really looking forward to experiencing it. Overall, I just want to get out and be a part of things and learn how things work around here”

Nichols is also a trading card collector, dating back to his childhood, though his collection shrunk substantially with his move back to Nevada.

“I sold over 300,000 cards before leaving Midland,” he said. “I kept a trunk of my most prized valuables. I had a whole room dedicated to my card collection. It had developed since I was 10 years old. I just couldn’t keep doing it. There were cards I’d never even seen before. I figure if you can’t appreciate what you have, then you probably have too much of it.”

He said he kept between 5,000 and 10,000 cards, including his prized Ted Williams rookie card, circa 1939.

Upon moving into his new office, Nichols discovered a letter in his desk from previous Douglas County manager Steve Mokrohisky. Mokrohisky accepted a job in Oregon last spring.

“He said I was very lucky,” Nichols said. “He told me to enjoy it, that I have a great team and a great board. He said to appreciate them all.

“And I intend to.”