Solvang's new city manager, David Gassaway, is an outdoorsy family guy, quick with a laugh and visions of mountain biking dancing in his head. But when it comes to the business of running a city, the young executive is nothing but serious.
“The complexity of the city manager job in California is getting harder and harder. Not only are issues affecting the financial stability of a city more difficult, but the political polarization is getting more challenging,” said Gassaway, 36, who replaced City Manager Brad Vidro. Vidro retired in December after 13 years with the city.
With only 482 cities in the state, and somewhere around 430 city managers, Gassaway said, the hiring pool is small, even when extended to assistant managers and related administrative positions.
“It’s a growth market. The Baby Boomers are retiring out. The silver tsunami is upon us, so a lot of institutional knowledge is leaving. The opportunity for progressing in the city management profession is there,” Gassaway said.
New Solvang City Manager David Gassaway poses for a picture at Solvang City Hall.
Gassaway and his family come to Solvang from Indian Wells, where he served as assistant to the city manager for two years before advancing to community development director. In that position, he oversaw planning, building and code enforcement.
Raised in El Dorado Hills, Gassaway earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from UC San Diego. After graduation, he worked as operations manager for a San Diego-based event company with 17 full-time and 30 part-time employees.
“They gave me the reins to operate a major chunk of the business, logistics, staffing. It was a great opportunity to understand how you make it in the world of small business operations and ownership,” Gassaway said.
But with no foreseeable opportunities for advancement in that setting and an interest in expanding his opportunities through education, he eventually jumped ship.
“I earned my millennial card: I quit a good job in the middle of a recession, moved in with my parents and went back to grad school,” Gassaway said.
He earned his Master of Public Administration from the University of San Francisco while working as an intern for the City of Rancho Cordova. Within five years, he was assistant to the city manager.
Solvang, with its rural setting, coastal valley climate, walkable urban downtown and tourism market, drew the attention of Gassaway and his wife, Janet Gassaway, and their twin 2-year-old boys.
“The gold standard for local government in California is transient occupancy tax (hotel bed tax). That’s the only revenue source where it’s purely local — the county and state don’t get any cut of it as opposed to property tax or sales tax revenue," Gassaway said. "It really provides opportunities for a smaller community to hit above its weight class because of folks coming into town to spend their hard-earned dollars that provide facilities that a town this size couldn’t afford or have or pay for otherwise.”
He acknowledged there’s always opportunity for expansion beyond tourism, and that diversifying the economy never hurts if there’s market demand, infrastructure to support the expansion and passionate entrepreneurs in the area.
“It’s something we potentially take a look at here if that’s a direction the council wants to go,” Gassaway said.
Solvang City Manager David Gassaway talks to Jenny Brandon, human resources specialist, at Solvang City Hall.
A more immediate growth opportunity, he said, is expanding the strong weekend tourism business to fill the softer hours — before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m. and Tuesdays through Thursdays.
He said he looks forward to the Solvang City Council retreat and moving forward with staff based on council priorities set there.
“The new council, in their desire to be change agents, is wanting stuff to come at a pace that we sometimes can’t reasonably deliver upon. Having that session will help them sort out what they want to accomplish, then we can frame what we can achieve within reasonable time frames,” Gassaway said.
As a new Solvang resident with a family to raise, Gassaway said he’s invested in the community and its future. Residents can find him walking to and from work, attending Rotary Club activities, enjoying the parks with his family, and suffering anywhere a Sacramento Kings basketball game might be airing.