– CAO Bob Nicolay missed Medicine Hat and is excited for the future
Bob Nicolay says he’s happy to be home and ready to tackle the challenges ahead for the City of Medicine Hat.
Nicolay, who served as top administrator here in the late 1990s, was announced as the replacement for outgoing chief administrative officer Merete Heggelund in September.
He was introduced to council at its Oct. 1 meeting, which was his first day on the job. In the time since, he’s been refamiliarizing himself with the organization at city hall and the city itself.
“It’s a blend of coming home, being closer to my grandchildren in Calgary, but there’s an intellectual challenge,” Nicolay told the News in an interview this week. “Running a municipality that deals with the full myriad local government challenges, which is formidable in and of themselves, also have a puzzle related to an oil gas company, a power company and a land and properties company — That combination of challenges is stimulating.”
Nicolay left the city in the late 1990s to take a senior position with City of Calgary energy company Enmax, then worked for the Canadian Olympic Committee and several oil and renewable energy companies. In early 2017 he returned to public service as the top administrator with the City of Grande Prairie, where he became familiar with Heggelund.
When he applied as her replacement, council’s hiring committee noted his combined municipal experience and private sector oilpatch work, as a key asset.
Mayor Ted Clugston has often said it’s the most unique job in the most unique city in Canada.
“Oil and gas, power and municipal is something that doesn’t exist on most resumes,” he said this week.
And while Nicolay is taking over his old office, he says he’s approaching it with open eyes and ears.
When he left in 1999, the oil and gas operations were “enormously lucrative and had been for decades,” said Nicolay.
Now, the city is facing flagging petroleum profits, major change in the electricity production business, and challenges in the municipal budget after years of plentiful natural gas profit.
The city’s next four-year budget is due in January — though Nicolay says the grouping of senior administrators have the process well in hand, and he’s prepared to spend time getting “an appreciation of the situation.”
“I’m not exactly a newcomer; I never did lose touch with Medicine Hat ... but I don’t want to overly rely on that,” he said. “It’s a different community than when I left, and I want to be sensitive to what Hatters of today feel are important.
“I don’t want to already know the answers.”
He will say, that while aspects of the committee are constant — it’s engaged citizenry chief on the list — times have changed since he first joined the city in 1982.
In the early 1980s, Nicolay left the private-sector oilpatch in downtown Calgary as the downturn began to set in for a position in energy financing in Medicine Hat in 1982.
“The National Energy program was delivering challenges to the City of Medicine Hat, which was now dealing with oil and gas revenue taxation, excise tax and financing,” he said.
“The city had never had to file a tax return, never had to.”
He’s spent some time meeting with a few familiar faces at city hall, talking about those old times, and spent a day over the long weekend visiting a number of city parks.
“The idea of a hometown never really had relevance until I settled into Medicine Hat,” he told the News of his first period in the city.
“It was 17 years living in the same place and wasn’t something I’d ever done before ... there’s an intrinsic beauty here.”
Robert Nicolay has rejoined the City of Medicine Hat as its top administrator. He previously served as chief commissioner up to 1998 after a 17-year career with the city, and arrives back after a private-sector career and most recently the city manager in Grande Prairie.