By Eric Mann
After 20 years of ownership, Fairhope Mayor-elect Karin Wilson was able to turn a small bookstore she purchased from her soon-to-be 90-year-old grandmother into a thriving community hub which now includes a coffee shop, bar and lounge.
Having defeated four-term incumbent Tim Kant for mayor Aug. 23, Wilson will look to take a step back from Page & Palette in downtown Fairhope, while hoping her foray into city leadership can be just as successful. She said she has arranged to allow employees at the store to take over her role there.
“We already have people in place that are going to be doing these things and I’m training them now,” she said. “I have 23 employees and my husband [Kiefer] who has been working side by side with me for 20 years. I mean, we’re in a place where we can do it. There’s going to be some transition, but it’s already happening.”
Wilson, who entered the mayoral race a little more than a month before the election, said her identical twin sister, Kelley Lyons, was less than pleased when her sibling decided to campaign. In fact, Lyons threatened to move out of state at the thought.
“My biggest challenge was she did not want me to run, and when I say that I mean she did not want me to run, I mean kicking and screaming,” Wilson said. “Not because she knew she wasn’t going to talk me out of it, but she was thinking ‘I guess I’ll move to North Carolina then.’”
While Wilson described herself as outspoken about local politics, she said Kelley and her husband, Mike, are decidedly not.
“I think they’re at peace with it now [and] see a lot of opportunity and good, but … they don’t ever want to get involved,” Wilson said. “I’ve always been outspoken and all of that and they’re just always the ones in the back going ‘Karin please. I look like you.’’
Despite her sister’s initial objections, Wilson ran a month-long campaign and beat Mayor Tim Kant Aug. 23 with roughly 53 percent of the vote, despite a poll earlier that week showing Kant leading the race.
“It was one of those things I knew would be close,” Wilson said. “I was happy about that just because it was right where we wanted to be. I don’t want to be winning because I want everybody to make sure they go out and vote … ”
Wilson’s victory marks the first time a woman was elected mayor of Fairhope, a note she acknowledged, but quickly dismissed.
“I think more importantly about this election is not that I’m female, it’s about finally there’s somebody out there that really wants to listen in a way that’s really bringing it into the 21st century,” she said. “I mean, I think that, to me, and the people who came out to vote made a difference. Me being female had nothing to do with it.”
Development was one of the biggest issues in the election for one of the fastest-growing cities in Alabama. Fairhope has seen its population increase 22 percent from April 2010 to April 2015, according to the U.S. Census website. The population increased from 15,338 to 18,730 during that five-year stretch.
Wilson said she favors growth, but wants wants to manage it with a comprehensive plan.
“The absolute issue in this election has been going on a long time, we have this wonderful city and every year we get more and more popular and there is nothing to plan how to protect it, except coming up with a comprehensive plan that has no value,” she said. “You know, if you can’t put that into action and enforce it, then it’s nothing.”
Gary Gover, a 19-year resident who serves on the Environmental Advisory Board and ran an unsuccessful campaign this year against City Councilman Kevin Boone, said he believes voters were partially motivated by the previous administration and council’s reluctance to follow the city’s comprehensive plan.
“We’ve had these comprehensive plans as long as I’ve been here — the first was produced by South Alabama Regional Planning Commission — but the city has not acted on these plans, even until today,” he said. “These plans are put into place by the planning commission, but they are not signed off on by the City Council or mayor, and they have kind of been sitting on the shelf neglected. My ambition has been getting moving on it, otherwise members of the community don’t have a role to play on how the town develops — it would be in the hands of developers and builders and so on.”
To improve upon a decades-old comprehensive plan, Wilson said it would be important to get communities within Fairhope to collaborate on an idea. Her plan would see community leaders and others lead independent discussions to get as many residents as possible engaged in the process. That way, she said, more residents would have a voice than if the planning session was simply held at a town hall meeting.
“Town hall meetings are dead and they’ve been dead a long time,” she said. “They’re the most ineffective way to accomplish anything. We have to get out there and talk to people, if we have to divide the city into sections and say ‘what do you envision?’ And bring it all together with one big plan, that’s our job.”
Council President Jack Burrell said he also favors growth, but would like to see more controls. For example, he said 2 percent to 3 percent growth would be favorable to what Fairhope is currently seeing.
“Three percent is a lot of growth,” he said. “You don’t want to stop it completely because you don’t want to paralyze the city.”
Wilson agrees, saying the city would look for the right kind of development in the future. As a business owner, she said she understands that the city is successful because of its character.
“The reason I’m able to be successful in this business is because of the town we’re in and the fact that you cannot do a business like this anywhere,” she said. “I think one of the great reasons Fairhope is special and has great character is independent businesses and when you start bringing in things that are just like every other town — which is what they’ve been doing — then we will definitely lose everything that’s special.”
Another issue related to the city’s rapid growth is highlighted by a lack of adequate parking downtown. As a business owner, Wilson acknowledged the issues a parking shortage can have on commerce. One possible solution, she said, could be a second parking garage.
“In general, I don’t think we’ve ever kept up with the parking needs and I don’t think it’s painting more stripes on the streets,” she said. “We need to actually address the issue and fix the issue.”
Additionally, she mentioned possibly adding a trolley service that could transport people from other areas to downtown.
Another big issue in this year’s election was the proposed development of apartments throughout the city and the surrounding area, especially near Fly Creek. A controversial development near the Publix at the intersection of County Road 13 and Parker Road was at the center of debate for residents.
Despite many objections from residents, the zoning for the apartments was approved by the majority of the City Council, with only Burrell and Councilman Mike Ford voting against it. Ford decided not to run again for council and his seat was filled by Robert Brown.
Lynn Maser, chairwoman of the politically active Fairhope 98 Committee, said the zoning decision on the apartment complex was what did in Kant and Councilman Rich Mueller. Incumbent Diana Brewer was also forced into a runoff with James Reid Conyers.
Maser described the proposed, two-stage development — a village concept including apartments, townhomes and 511 single-family residences — as Kant’s “Waterloo.” A record number of Rock Creek voters came out as a result of a plan to tie nearby neighborhoods together.
“He’s no longer in office because of the apartments,” Maser said. “Rock Creek does matter.”
Wilson said the vote on the apartments completely ignored the will of the residents in the area. She also believes it played a big role in the election.
“It was totally wrong and I think timing is everything,” she said. “I think it motivated a group that probably doesn’t participate much … ”
Burrell said he voted against the project too, in part because he didn’t hear from any constituents in favor of it.
While growth and development spurred voters, Gover said a need for turnover was also a motivating factor during the election.
“I had people come up to me during the campaign period telling me they were tired of the crap that goes on this town and there was no definition to that, nothing more specific,” he said. “I do think these elected offices are really not things that people should get into and stay into as a career. Do a term, maybe two, and move on. There should be turnover, there should be change; when you get entrenched, undesirable things can begin to happen.”
The city of Fairhope already contributes roughly $350,000 per year to its public schools and Wilson said she plans to find even more school funding once she gets her hands on the $60 million budget. Part of her plan for savings would be to get the city out of many of the lawsuits she said tend to drag on for years. In addition, she said, money for schools would be about “making sure everyone pays into the benefits.”
“They need more and we can absolutely do more when I get finished with the budget,” she said. “Honestly, I feel like we’ll be able to save that money.”
Wilson seemed in favor of funding the schools at a $650,000 level, which a recent study commissioned by the Fairhope Education Advisory Committee determined would be enough to get them into the state’s top 10. Even just keeping the funding level would be welcome news to Cecil Christenberry, a former city councilman and current member of the Baldwin County School Board.
“I like the plan,” he said. “The schools absolutely need it.”
The city’s growth has had both a positive and negative impact on the schools, Christenberry said. Currently Fairhope High School has 1,611 students, but its building was designed for roughly 1,400. In October, the school will break ground on a $4.5 million addition of 20 new classrooms, which should help eliminate a dozen portable classrooms currently on campus.
No new schools have been built on the Eastern Shore, Christenberry said, since Fairhope Elementary School in 2010.
“This is a monumental shift,” Christenberry said. “I’m not fearful of it. Many people who voted for Karin and Tim understand the need for education.”
With a default seat on the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, which could allocate as much as $600 million in criminal fines from BP’s Deepwater Horizon Spill, Wilson said she’d also re-evaluate Kant’s proposed projects.
“I mean, we’ll definitely spend it wisely, but it’s going to be for the things it’s supposed to be for,” she said of the BP money. I have heard what he did [and] that can’t happen.”
The first is a $14.7 million proposal to preserve and restore lower Fly Creek and the second is a $49 million proposal to construct a “Coastal Environmental Education Network,” which “carries out the city of Fairhope’s 2006 Comprehensive Plan to expand coastal environmental education and outreach, promote green infrastructure and outdoor public recreation areas, restore and protect watershed health, mitigate impacts from coastal storms, and increase coastal resiliency.”
The latter is the sixth most costly proposal of more than 240 projects submitted to the Council. Fairhope Director of Community Affairs and Recreation Sherry Sullivan also submitted a $2.4 million request to help fund the city’s soccer complex, which has faced several delays and cost overruns, but is expected to open this fall.
Wilson said she would also take a look at the city’s infrastructure, which given the city’s growth would have to be consistently evaluated. As an example, she mentioned about $13 million recently invested in the city’s sewer system.
“I need to look into that more, but what I’ve been told is it wasn’t as much of a solution as it was maybe a Band-Aid or kicking the can down the road,” she said. “I think if [sewage] is still going into the bay on any given day, that’s a problem. We have to constantly invest money every year into infrastructure, especially when we are the fastest growing city in the state of Alabama.”
Gabriel Tynes contributed to this report.
This story was updated on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016 to correct Robert Brown’s name.