The 57-year-old Kingsport native grew up on Cherry Street, he pumped gas for folks on Wilcox Drive and got his fair share of paddlings at John Sevier Middle School. In 1984, he walked into City Hall an intern from East Tennessee State University. Within a month, Fleming met another intern who would eventually become his wife.
Over the next 35 years, Fleming would hold a number of positions within the city, including planner, superintendent of public works, GIS manager, assistant city manager and finally — for the past five years — the chief executive of the Model City.
And now it’s time for the next chapter in Fleming’s life.
On Wednesday, Fleming announced his retirement effective June 21.
“I never dreamed I would go from intern to city manager over a 35-year period. It’s really been the honor of my life to do that,” Fleming said. “It’s just closing a chapter and opening a new one.”
Fleming has been Kingsport’s city manager for just over five years, being named on April 15, 2014 — the day his father passed away. This past November, his mother passed away and the family has been taking care of things that families naturally take care of.
“It occurred to me then, that all of the stuff we’ve been taking care of has been taken care of. My parents passing, we celebrated the birth of my granddaughter and your priorities change,” Fleming said of why he’s chosen to announce his retirement. “I really want to spend more time with my family and more time doing what I want to do. Plus, it’s just time for a new generation to step up and take over and they’re prepped and ready to do that.”
Kingsport is in the midst of a city election where voters will go to the polls on May 21 to elect a new mayor, fill three aldermen seats and three seats on the Board of Education. Fleming said he always planned to announce his retirement before the election.
“I don’t want anyone to think that this has anything to do with the election, the campaigns, or the issues being discussed. It doesn’t,” he said. “I’ve worked under six mayors and six city managers, been through a lot of elections, campaigns and issues and each one ebbs and flows.
“I could work for any of the folks who are running and I want the community to know that. It’s not about personalities or individuals. It’s about what’s best for me and my family at this stage of my life.”
Fleming is arguably one of Kingsport’s biggest cheerleaders and is affectionately called “Mr. Kingsport” by some. Some would argue the Dobyns-Bennett High School grad is as much a fixture of Kingsport as any landmark or notable building.
On top of meeting his future wife at the city offices, Fleming had his wedding shower at City Hall, held baby showers at City Hall and more recently celebrated the birth of his granddaughter at, of course, City Hall.
Naturally, he’s not leaving Kingsport after retirement.
“My next move will be to Oak Hill Cemetery,” he joked. “I’ve always enjoyed being positive about our community and high on Kingsport. I still am and believe it with every fiber of my being. I plan to continue to volunteer and contribute any way I possibly can to the success of our community.”
The typical city manager stays in one place about five years. As a former city manager of a neighboring city once said, “You make 20 percent of the electorate mad at you every five years.” Fleming said he never wanted to be on that cycle where you move around every five years. That’s why he never really thought about being city manager earlier in his career.
He never wanted to leave Kingsport.
“In retrospect, I should have thought about that sooner because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being city manager. It’s not what I thought it was going to be,” Fleming said. “I thought the city manager had to be the omnipotent, all-knowing person that had all the answers. In reality, the position can be just the biggest coach and cheerleader for the high-performance staff that’s all around you.”
June 21 will be Fleming’s last day on the job. It’s roughly a 60-day notice and by the last week of June, the next fiscal year budget will have been approved by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. The following week, new BMA members will be sworn in. It’s just a good, logical stopping point, Fleming said.
“I’m looking forward to just being a citizen and enjoy the fruits of our collective labor,” Fleming said. “Each one of us carries the baton on one leg of the race, and then you try and make the handoff as seamless as possible.”