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Leading the way: Career in city management brings Canizares back to Nac

Story by Dr. Shirley Luna '85, '06 & '14
Photo by Robin Johnson '99 & '19

When Mario Canizares walked the SFA commencement stage in 1995, he had a small U-Haul trailer packed and connected to his Chevy Blazer, and he was ready to drive back to the DFW area and begin his career. He wasn't sure he would ever return to Nacogdoches, but he was positive about the career he wanted to pursue.

"As a 20 year old, I knew I wanted to work in city management," Canizares said.

Canizares' confidence was based on his interactions with Dr. Richard Herzog, an SFA faculty member who encouraged him to consider a career in public administration and introduced him to the Lufkin city manager in neighboring Angelina County.

Canizares went on to work for several Texas cities, including Denton, Coppell, Addison, Hurst and Carrollton. He earned a master's degree in public administration from the University of North Texas and became involved in professional organizations that include the International City/County Management Association and the Texas City Management Association. And, in the midst of a pandemic, he returned to Nacogdoches as city manager in August 2020.

"Coming back to Nacogdoches has been so rewarding," Canizares said. "I was excited and humbled that the city council had the confidence to appoint me as city manager. Everyone I have met has been friendly and extremely supportive. I am proud of what has been accomplished in our community and on campus during the past 25 years. It has blown me away."

In addition to his academic coursework, Canizares said his participation in the Student Activities Association served as valuable career preparation.

"Having a leadership position during my junior and senior years allowed me to work with fellow students and faculty members to coordinate bringing concerts and other entertainment options to campus," he explained. "The opportunities taught me the collaborative nature of working with other employees and volunteers to meet expectations and execute a successful event."

Canizares said the challenges cities face are enormous, with high service-delivery demands and minimal and declining resources. But the day-to-day stresses of the job prepared him well for his first months in Nacogdoches, when in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, he led the city through hurricane preparation in August and two of the largest winter-weather events in recorded history.

"Regardless of how much you plan, each day is never the same," he said. "We have emergency plans in place to deal with inclement weather, and with Hurricane Laura and the snowfalls and winter storms."

However, Canizares said COVID-19 was a different story.

"Through the devastation of the pandemic, we've learned that good and effective leadership is vital in making it through tough times," he said. "Local governments have finite resources, so working across jurisdictional boundaries is imperative when budgets are squeezed and resources evaporate. The role of the city manager is to be flexible in approach, clear hurdles, advocate for resources, create avenues for communication and get out of the way so that the subject matter experts can do their jobs. Along the way, the manager should be encouraging and motivating to an exhausted staff, because all of this work is in addition to everyone's normal duties. I can't imagine myself in any other career."

Once again Canizares is using the skills he learned at SFA to ensure that the city, the university, the Nacogdoches Independent School District and Nacogdoches County bring collaboration to a new level to accomplish goals that may previously have seemed out of reach.

"The leaders of each of these entities are meeting regularly and have formed great friendships," he said. "We have set a positive tone and will work together to better our community. I have no doubt that, as a group, we can accomplish so much more than we could on our own."

One of those goals in 2021 is to bring back, within the safe parameters of health guidelines, many of the special events and festivals for which Nacogdoches is known.

"I know many people are ready to get out and travel again, so I encourage alumni to come and see what is going on in Nacogdoches and the exciting changes that are happening on the SFA campus. That charm and hospitality of our community has never been more appealing."