You could say that David Panagore was born to be in local government: his father was a redevelopment authority director in Marlboro, Massachusetts, in the 1970s, and young David’s first-ever paper, researched when he was in the seventh grade, was on urban renewal. The writing was clearly on the wall.
Which is not to say that he didn’t take a few detours. He started out at UMass majoring in engineering and theatre, but quickly realized that the latter involved working until midnight every night for free, when he could be paid to do the same thing elsewhere. “So I moved quickly to art for money,” he says, “and I worked rock n’ roll concerts, roadhouse shows, dance companies—it was an amazing time. One season we put on two Kabuki shows!” He drifted from engineering into physics before realizing that “what I really wanted was to be a physicist in the nineteenth century, not the twentieth.” He ended up in polyscience, but graduated with as many credits in philosophy and urban politics as he did in his major.
He disagrees about the detours. “I’ve had the same job my entire life,” Panagore says. “Essentially I’ve been a theatre director my whole career. Think about it. The stage crew is the DPW. The talent is the elected officials. There’s a crew to deal with emergencies. There are the backers, the financial committee. It’s really all the same thing.”
He spent a lot of time working summer stock, particularly at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, and went on to earn a masters in public finance and then a law degree. Needing an internship to get through the Sawyer School of Management, Panagore went to the city of Chelsea, then in receivership, ending up as its chief legal counsel. That led to a number of rescue missions: a redevelopment agency in San Jose, California; dealing with city bankruptcy in Springfield, Massachusetts; the parking authority in New Haven, Connecticut. “I was working in all these urban places and it was getting a little stale,” says Panagore. “They were different cities but the same issues. I was always a fixer-upper. I cared about the people and their lives; I didn’t care about the dirt.”
In 1996 he walked into Provincetown Town Hall and decided then that this was home. It took some time to actually get here, but it happened. “I wanted to be here,” he says. “I missed the cutoff for the job twice, but here I am anyway. It was meant to be.”
So he came looking for… what? “Here it’s the people, but it’s also the place,” he says. “It’s such a tremendous honor to be the steward of a place like this. There’s access to so much art and culture. At one level it’s the same sort of work, so I can put my skills to use, and at the same time I get to learn a new kind of government.”
Panagore reflects for a moment. “There were two things that I didn’t expect when I arrived, two things that surprised me,” he says. “The first is how close to the wild of nature you are, living here. At any moment something can happen. Here, it’s not even considered windy until it’s up to 40mph!” And the other thing? “Not just the seasonality, you get that with any tourist town,” he replies. “But here, the season you just went through influences your approach to the next season. The thing that just happened influences what you’re about to go through. There’s a whole symphony to it, it’s not just eight notes. The whole piece of music. The past is always here.”
When he came to Provincetown, Panagore realized that “what I hoped for was to be a better person.” And it’s happened. “What I found by being here is this place can allow you to grow. I used to do things and grow skills, but I don’t know that I really improved. “ The town has supported his journey. “Over the past year I’ve had a phenomenal opportunity, which is to go through a leadership program grappling with the intensity of this position, and believing that one of the better ways this work can be done is through public communication.”
That constant need for improvement is at the heart of Panagore’s approach. This is someone whose heroes included Bugs Bunny and Hawkeye Pierce. “The role can be stressful, because when you’re always on stage, you’re always the stage manager,” he says. “Andy Griffith never got upset. He was always chill, always a person, even though he was always the sheriff. “ He pauses. “This program has helped me learn how to be at home and not at the mercy of stuff. If you sacrifice your home life to your job, you’re also sacrificing leadership and allowing for greater stress.” These days, he balances both with dignity and aplomb.
And he sees the irony of it, too. “After the career I’ve had, it was the smallest municipality I ever worked for that was willing to find this program and support me through it. The largest ones would never have dreamed that personal growth was a worthwhile activity, a way to make someone a better leader.”
What are his goals for Provincetown? “The stuff you’d normally say, like housing goals, job goals, they’re all derived from the community, and they always will be, for good or for bad.” So his goals are more encompassing. “I have three so far,” he says. “One is the need to increase our year-round population. I don’t have to say any more about that. Two is not in what we do, but in how we do it: we need to have a vibrant civic process that’s mutually respectful. If people are given the information, they trust the information. If we share and are transparent and engaging, then we can get to answers. And, finally, we need to embrace people of all ages of life, to become a community that’s age-friendly, from young families to the elderly. We can all agree on these pieces.”
He thinks about it for a moment. “Then you can talk about specific stuff. Housing, a vibrant economy, First Light, an extended ferry schedule, Harbor Hill.” Provincetown has been the Commonwealth’s “red-haired stepchild,” says Panagore, allowing Provincetown to do things like investing public funds directly into market-rate housing and extending the residential exemption to year-round tenants. “We use every tool they’ll give us,” he says. “Harbor Hill is an example. Within a hundred days of the passage of the act we were in court with a bid. That’s unheard-of.”
It was accomplished because the community was behind it. “The truth is, you have to go slow to go fast. You have to do things by asking for everyone’s input. Is this the right first step? Is this the right second step? The history of municipalities is littered with plans that never get done. I want plans that the community owns.”