Amber Blake is no stranger to obstacles – or opportunities, as she calls them.
The interim city manager said she learned young what it means to be challenged – a good skill for someone thrust into Durango’s top administrator position without much notice. She’s now overseeing a municipal budget riddled with errors, working with a City Council often divided and answering to an engaged public.
Her responsibilities grew in a way she couldn’t have imagined when she signed a contract accepting the interim city manager position. In some ways, it was like having to learn a new discipline or a new language, largely by immersion, much like when she started ninth grade as an English speaker in a French curriculum.
Her ninth-grade trip to Europe was the second she and her family took to the French Alps – her father worked as ski patrol in Telluride and swapped jobs with ski patrol in Serre Chevalier, France. She’d taken the season-long trip once before, but she was 9 years old and had forgotten most of the French she learned in her formative years.
But Blake took classes like any other French student, en Français. She had a choice at the time: either be “completely overwhelmed” or recognize the “remarkable opportunity,” she said.
“Let’s test my capacity: Do I really have the ability to learn another language,” she said to herself at the time. “I learned the ability to realize there will be mistakes, that I have to have patience and persistence.”
Being forced to learn a new language gave Blake “a real desire for finding ways to improve communication,” she said.
Running a city is a lot like rowing crew, which Blake said she did for four years at Villanova University – it doesn’t work unless everyone is synchronized, she said.
Engaging internal and external conversations to connect the goals of city residents and municipal employees is the only way to ensure a shared vision, she said.
But good teamwork doesn’t appear out of nowhere, she said. It requires practice, structure, trust and a willingness to set aside personal objectives for a common goal. Teamwork is useless unless there’s direction, Blake said – in rowing, that comes from a coach; in government, that comes from the community.
“You have to learn to have faith in the leader,” she said. “It takes a dedicated group of teammates to reach a common goal – it’s about learning how others learned.”
Durango City Council offered Blake the interim position in October after former City Manager Ron LeBlanc settled out of his contract in September.
The transition happened faster than she had expected – LeBlanc originally said he planned to retire in early 2020, but City Council helped expedite his departure.
“Honestly, it shook our household like a massive earthquake,” Blake said.
Not long after, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation opened an inquiry into alleged misappropriation of public funds. Former Finance Director Julie Brown resigned soon after the announcement – Blake said she is “disappointed” in her former colleague by an implication that Brown didn’t do her best for the community.
Southwest Colorado is home to Blake and the focus of her work is to make the community a better place for her children to grow up. But she spent more than a decade away from Southwest Colorado, going to Pennsylvania, Washington state, Missouri and Maryland before she started working with the city of Durango in 2009 as a multimodal coordinator – a new position that she said “was written for me.”
She didn’t move for the job, however; Blake moved to raise a family, she said.
But she threw herself into work. She biked nearly every trail in Durango for research to inform a multimodal transportation plan released in 2016. She hosted meetings in nontraditional settings, like Carver Brewing Co. “The plan we write – it’ll be the community’s plan,” she said.
Her responsibilities grew with the length of her tenure with the city of Durango, expanding from a transportation focus to a more citywide purview. Her title has changed at least four times.
Blake said she’s interested in the city manager position, but she wants to wait to understand what the City Council wants in a new manager and how potential responsibilities could fit into her family life. She’s had her eyes set on the position, Blake said, but not for a few more years.
She wants to serve Durango in her best capacity, whether that means running the city or stepping into another position. But one thing is for sure – Blake said she’s not leaving. She and her husband, David, want to raise their two kids in Durango.
“It’s about bandwidth,” she said. “It’s about making sure I have time for my family – my kids built that energy.”