TWIN FALLS — “I have kind of a Cinderella story.”
Renee Carraway-Johnson’s skinny jeans, black leather vest and boots might not look like the garb of the fairy-tale princess, but don’t let that deceive you. Over the past three decades, she’s worked herself up from a part-time secretary to the head of the city’s planning and zoning department. Any new development in Twin Falls since the early 2000s has come across her desk first.
That’s quite a success story, especially for someone without a college degree in planning. But next month, Carraway-Johnson is leaving behind her career of 27 years as she retires from the city.
“I am going to miss the city very, very much,” she said during an interview Tuesday with the Times-News. “I think I’m at the end of what I can do.”
Carraway-Johnson, 64, has watched new technology change her department’s role with mapping — but says she personally avoids it as much as possible. She feels she could learn how to figure it out, but she doesn’t want to.
“I just want it to work,” she said, laughing.
Carraway-Johnson’s last day on the job will be April 20, and the city has started the search for her replacement. City Manager Travis Rothweiler said he’s appreciated Carraway-Johnson’s ability to balance developer’s needs with those of the community at large.
“She’s really seen significant change take place,” he said. “She’s really helped modify our zoning practices. She is very patient. She is certainly going to be missed.”
Not by choice
Carraway-Johnson was 16 when she came to Twin Falls from California’s Bay Area. To this day, her father claims she didn’t talk to him for years after the move.
“My parents dragged me up here screaming and fighting,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why are they taking me to Iowa?’”
Despite her early resentment of the area, in 1985 she was looking for work in Twin Falls when she got a job as a part-time secretary for the city manager. Months later, Carraway-Johnson took a full-time position as the secretary for the Twin Falls city engineer.
In 1988, she left the area for Spanish Fork, Utah, on a brief adventure that didn’t work out. When she returned in the early ‘90s, she started working with planning and zoning. From there, she eventually worked her way to up take LaMar Orton’s director position in 2005 — under a new title of “Zoning and Development Manager.”
Today, Carraway-Johnson leads a department of five people.
“The planning and zoning department technically is the first stop for somebody who wants to develop something,” she said. “We are the keepers of the land use of the city.”
Following her retirement, she expects she will either volunteer or work another kind of job. But even if she has to leave her home that’s outside of Twin Falls’ city limits, she probably won’t leave the area.
“I’ve made sure there were plenty of retirement homes here for me to choose from,” she said.
It started with Walmart
As Carraway-Johnson reflects on her career with the planning and zoning department, the development of northwest Twin Falls is what she’s most proud of. And a lot of that change took place along Pole Line Road.
“I touched every plan, every developer,” she said.
For her, it really started with Walmart. The company tried twice in the early 2000s to come to Twin Falls, but either the location or the boxy design of the building was a no-go for the city. Finally, a development agreement along Cheney Drive West and Washington Street North made both sides happy with the end result.
The growth didn’t stop there.
“Between 2003 and 2006, the city annexed 2,500 acres,” Carraway-Johnson said. “All of that property was being developed, and it was me and LaMar — that’s it.”
And later, after the new hospital was built at the outskirts of the city, the city grew outward to meet it.
“We all knew that would happen,” she said.
The substantial growth of Twin Falls, however, doesn’t surprise her.
“We have always been a diamond in the rough,” Carraway-Johnson said. “If you don’t grow, you stagnate.”
Her straightforward attitude on the job is a reflection of her own spunky personality — something she’s let shine through more with her years of experience.
“I believe in what’s right and wrong. I believe in this community. And I will fight for both.”