Mayor’s greatest role is in changing attitudes

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 12, 2004

A couple of weeks ago, during a conversation with one of the candidates, I made a promise to expound on an opinion about the responsibilities of our next mayor.

In essence, I offered an observation that the mayor of Demopolis does not have the power to four-lane a highway or open a 1,000-employee industry. Rather, the most important task facing our mayor is to take care of what we already have.

Over the past two weeks — both through boredom and personal experience — I’ve had the opportunity to think a bit more on that opinion.

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If you look around Demopolis today, what’s the single most important feature of this city? Is it a shopping center? A wood-product industry? A walking trail?

Demopolis has no greater possession than the people who shop, work and walk here. And Demopolis has no greater need than a leader who believes in changing the attitude of the people in this city.

I understand that’s a strong comment to make on such a fine weekend morning. I also know there are plenty of people who have been born in Demopolis three or four times who won’t understand the root of such an observation, but please allow me to indulge you for a few moments.

Almost a year ago, I moved out of my first residence here in Demopolis. During the course of loading a few boxes, my apartment’s owner asked if a potential tenant could come take a look around.

That afternoon, I left the office and opened the apartment for a young man, his fianc/e and his father. We talked for a while, and I found out this guy was moving to Demopolis to take a job at one of our larger industries.

A few weeks later, we ran into each other and he said he had purchased a home.

It’s been almost a year since I last saw him, and I’d bet most of my life’s savings that he still lives in Demopolis. I’d also surmise that he can count, on half of one hand, the number of close friends he has in this city.

You see, that guy wasn’t born in Demopolis. He doesn’t have the family friends or the old high-school gang to visit on Saturday nights. He’s a person who took a job here, hoping to build a new life in our city.

For every one of those sorts of stories, there are a hundred more.

A transient to our city moved here and started visiting a church. Not counting the fellowship hymn, it took almost two months of visits before a church member actually introduced himself to the new Demopolis citizen.

Another person moved into a new house in a Demopolis neighborhood about 10 months ago. The two families across the street still have not said a word to the once-new neighbor.

From personal experience, I can tell you that it’s extremely difficult for an “outsider” to feel comfortable in Demopolis. I’m lucky because I’m in the newspaper business and my job requires that I meet the citizens of this town. But when I’m not in a work setting, holding a pen and a notepad, it’s a rare occurrence when someone shows much hospitality.

I’ve walked into a local restaurant and felt like I’ve trespassed on someone’s property. I’ve played golf with a group of strangers and felt like the lone stranger. I’ve attended one of our annual civic functions and left 10 minutes later because I couldn’t find a conversation.

Maybe it’s too late for such a statement, but please don’t consider this a search for pity. The newspaper business takes you many places, and I’ve been a resident of six different towns over the past eight years. Understanding the role of an outsider is not difficult, and figuring out a way to go it alone is nothing new. For all the transients who set up camp in Demopolis, though, I’m one of the few who has the opportunity to publicly say something about it.

So if this is a continuation of one person’s opinion about the responsibilities of the next Demopolis mayor, here’s my suggestion:

No civic-minded person wants Demopolis to fizzle away; the great majority of citizens want to see this city grow. (Even the outsiders want that.) In order to do so, the mayor of Demopolis must work hard to unlock the cliques of this city and welcome new residents to town.

When outsiders or transients or intruders move to Demopolis, don’t make them feel like outsiders, transients and intruders. Don’t just stare at them when they walk into a restaurant; go over and shake hands with them. Don’t wait two months to invite the new family to Sunday lunch after church; invite them on the second visit. Don’t stare at them when they’re out in the yard cutting grass; go offer them a welcome.

That may sound petty to the locals, but you’ll have to trust the opinion of at least one outsider.