Spinning at the top levels

La Plata County gets lots of new leaders at once

Chris Cable, who moved to Durango from Anchorage, Alaska, took over the helm of Durango Discovery Museum as its executive director last summer. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Chris Cable, who moved to Durango from Anchorage, Alaska, took over the helm of Durango Discovery Museum as its executive director last summer.

In the Ayn Rand novel, Atlas Shrugged, the mass disappearance of creative and business leaders is underscored with a question about their organizer, as in “Who is John Galt?”

Sometimes, life imitates art. Within the last year there have been more than 20 changes in leadership for local organizations as prominent as Mercy Regional Medical Center, Durango School District 9-R, a municipal judge and the local branch of Bank of Colorado, just to name a few.

The change is constant, too: Durango-La Plata County Airport and United Way of Southwest Colorado are shopping for new executives.

With so many changes, locals probably are asking themselves: “Who is Damian Peduto? Who is Briggen Wrinkle? Who is Peggy Zemach?”

To answer the questions, Peduto is the county’s new planning director, Wrinkle is the new executive director of the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado, and Zemach is the new executive director of Durango Arts Center.

The bigger question, of course, is why so many changes at once? Could there be a unified field theory of taking this job and shoving it?

In the novel, Galt gathers his societal dropouts in a remote mountain town that is reportedly based on Ouray so they can to make a last stand for individualism.

It’s doubtful, however, whether La Plata County’s former leaders are collectively hiding out in Ouray to make a particular political statement.

Many people familiar with the changes did not think there was a grand conspiracy theory.

“I don’t think there’s something in the water,” said Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce.

Rather, many people familiar with the turnover pointed to such factors as job stress, the relatively miserly wages and benefits offered at nonprofits, the natural tenure of an executive position lasting only five to seven years and the need for organizations to get fresh perspective and energy at the top.

“I think change is good, but it just so happened that it was so quick. In one year, so many people changed. I don’t think it was something in our community, like ‘Let’s all quit,’” said Susan Lander, who took over as interim director of the Durango Area Tourism Office last summer and who has formerly led Music in the Mountains and the Women’s Resource Center, too.

Rather than disappearing, leaders here tend to reinvent themselves at new organizations.

Tim Walsworth, for example, is leaving United Way of Southwest Colorado to take over the Business Improvement District. Lon Erwin, the former director of the Community Foundation, took over Habitat for Humanity of La Plata County.

Organizations trading leaders demonstrates the interdependency of the community, officials said.

“I have always wanted to do a day in Durango without nonprofits. The hospital would close. There would be no school, no mental health, no music, no art,” Lander said. “So many people think (nonprofits) get their money from the state. They don’t understand we have to support each other.”

Chris Cable, however, would be an example of a cheechako, which is Alaskan/Chinook slang for a newcomer, as in somebody “ignorant of the terrain, weather, culture and necessary driving skills in the winter,”

Cable took over as executive director of the Discovery Museum after formerly leading science centers in Anchorage and Spokane. Cable’s professional experience illustrates another reason for changes in leadership.

When an organization’s mission changes, the leaders often change, too. Lander, for example, likes to build up new organizations, but is not so interested in maintaining the status quo.

Cable came to Durango to build up interest in the Discovery Museum, which opened in early 2011. He wants to broaden the appeal to all age groups, especially the “21- to 35-year-old age group, which is the market the science center has struggled (with),” Cable said.

The museum is getting a regular liquor license so it can regularly host trivia nights for adults who might like a glass of beer or wine, too.

Cable wants to transform the old smokestack of its building, which is a former power station, into a “tower of power,” showcasing the promise of renewable energy with wind turbines and solar panels.

As much as he wants the tower to inspire, he wants people to become their own leaders, too.

“We are in the business of creating thinkers,” Cable said.

jhaug@durangoherald.com

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