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Coffee with Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris

On a hot and bright afternoon over iced coffee at Simply Done Donuts in downtown Duluth, Mayor Nancy Harris glances out one of the giant windows to the elementary school across the street. “I attended school right there. That’s part of the old cafeteria where I ate lunch.”

A life-long Duluth resident, she grew up here a mere two miles from the cluster of thriving eateries and small businesses in Parson’s Alley, a section of downtown that she helped to preserve and revitalize.

Harris also has a confession to make, but she laughs when sharing it. “I draw logos and write taglines during church.” Although she has a marketing team, Harris was the one who came up with the city’s current slogan: Just be. Be You. Be Duluth. “I love logos and I love taglines,” Harris says. “What I was trying to say there is that you can come here and you can be anything you want to be. We’re not about making ourselves distinctive or different; we’re about unity and inclusion. We are a very diverse city and I wanted everyone to feel that you can be who you are here. We’re going to appreciate that, and that’s part of our mojo.”

This “mojo” of which she speaks is at the heart of her vision for the city and the reason she ran in the first place and has been the city’s dynamic leader since she was elected in 2007. “I ran on a historical preservation platform 12 years ago, and because at one of the council meetings I attended, the council voted unanimously to destroy every building on this block where we’re sitting right now. Every building: the church, the pastorium, the old warehouse where Dreamland [BBQ] is now located. And I ran on that platform.” For Harris, “mojo” is all about defining and preserving your roots.

On an exterior brick wall opposite Good Word Brewing in Parson’s Alley hangs a sign for the Dutch Mill Motel. It looks as if it could be a reproduction designed to look old, but it’s actually the original sign from a motel, razed years ago, that sat a few miles away down Buford Highway. The motel even had a decorative, full-size windmill outside. Long-time residents remember it, and when the sign showed up people were delighted. “A guy who owns a sign company in Duluth,” Harris says, “mentioned to our city manager [James Riker] one day, ‘I have this old sign from the Dutch Mill Motel if y’all want it.’ So he refurbished it, but we didn’t want it painted. We wanted it to look old and rusty, but he re-did the lights inside of it.”

It’s that sort of keen awareness of roots – mojo – that strikes a chord with residents and visitors. People have taken their photos underneath the old sign and posted them online to Facebook groups like You Know You’re From Duluth Georgia If. Harris recognizes the importance of growth while cherishing the past as a part of the city’s story. “That’s what we’re trying to do,” she says, “just tell our story.”

Harris retired after a long career in the Gwinnett County Public School system as principal of three different elementary schools. She credits her experience as a school administrator as the perfect training ground for her transition to public service in local government, and says they’re actually one in the same. “When you’re a principal in a public school, you’re a public servant. I learned to work with people, with volunteers, parents, PTA, and I had very large staffs – Gwinnett schools are large! – so I knew how to set goals.”

Setting goals, budgeting, monitoring data and mapping out strategic plans were all major parts of her world as an administrator. Bringing that experience into local government was a very easy transition for her and was a natural fit.

“I had a very good understanding of unfunded mandates,” she says of her budgeting experience in the public school system. “We do the same thing here in the city with mandates that are not funded. I understand transparency in spending. I understand saying upfront before you spend the money what you’re going to spend it for. That’s just how I was raised.”

Harris has just recently announced her bid for re-election and a fourth term as Duluth’s mayor, and she seems to have lost none of her original enthusiasm for the job, due mainly to the fact that she’s a city native. She speaks of a very deep, personal and heartfelt desire to lead her hometown into the future while still maintaining a respectful sense of the past. “The morning after I won [in 2007] I remember sitting straight up in bed going, ‘Oh my goodness. I am the mayor now.’ It was very humbling. It’s still very humbling, it really is. I do still have that strong desire and passion to serve my community.”

Preserving the city’s roots and connection to the past was a vision not only of Harris’ but of everyone who wanted her to run in the first place. She realized the city needed some icons because historic buildings were being torn down, and if the city didn’t stop, it would lose any sense of its historic downtown feel. “I woke up the next morning with that on my mind,” Harris says. “How do I start moving that forward? And the funny thing about it is, that was 2008 and the economy crashed in the fall, so everybody was very upset about that. But there was actually a rainbow at the end of that because the developer that they had hired to destroy all of this [what is now Parson’s Alley] walked away. I saw the positive in that. I wasn’t under the pressure to stop what was already happening – it was stopped for me.”

For the next two or three years, she and her staff educated themselves on the value of historic preservation as an economic tool. Today, much of the mere existence and resultant success of the businesses in Parson’s Alley are due to the vision of Harris and her staff. The eventual arrival of Eddie Owen and his Red Clay Music Foundry was a huge boon to downtown as well, and Harris credits his presence and stature as a music promoter with bringing in many of the current restaurants and bars. The owners of Good Word Brewpub, for example, knew Owen from his days as the owner of Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, because they own the Brick Store Pub there as well. He’s the reason they decided to open Good Word in Duluth.

Owen’s Red Clay venue in itself has attracted quite a following. “People turned their heads when they knew we had Eddie here,” Harris says. “We did a survey about a year and a half ago to see where our ticket holders were coming from and a majority of them were from outside of Gwinnett. We want to change that, but those music followers were coming because they knew the quality of acts that he was bringing. It’s been great. He’s a great person. He has moved here, he’s got a house, his daughter just graduated from Duluth High School – he’s a part of our community now. We’re lucky to have him.”

A four-day-a-week gym regimen keeps Harris fit and sleek, but her energy and enthusiasm is most notably on display when talking about new ideas for Duluth. Not only is she focused on the city’s storied past, she seeks out contemporary ways to remain relevant. Last year the city promoted a partnership with Uber where riders could get free round-trip rides (up to a certain dollar amount) to downtown on Thursdays with a new access code given out on social media each week. The promotion was a huge success and will resume again for a few months this year. It was so popular, in fact, that Harris – ever the promotional savant – suggested making a “carpool karaoke” video, a take-off of late-night television talk show host James Corden’s segment of the same name. The promotion was City Manager Riker’s idea, but the video was Harris’. “What we were trying to do there is to make people realize that Duluth is busy on Thursday nights as well.”

In the video, Harris plays herself as a part-time Uber driver (it seems small-town mayors are notoriously underpaid) and picks up CBS sportscaster Brad Nessler, and then Eddie Owen, and finally legendary local musical duo Banks & Shane. The rideshare quartet shambles their way through classics from the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, and Queen.

Historic preservation doesn’t work in all areas. Take the old Proctor Square shopping center that stood for years on the corner of GA-120 and Buford Highway, currently the site of the District Duluth apartments. A throwback and outdated design with multiple empty storefronts, the old shopping center was an eyesore. It was also the number one complaint Harris got when she was running for mayor. People wanted her to do something about the place and to clean up Buford Highway.

“We really jumped in and focused on that immediately. What was happening, and this is happening in strip malls around the country, they were just being reused and repurposed and then those tenants would move out and they’d get a new owner and they would go through all that again. We were tired of that cycle, so we really got strict about code enforcement. We said, if you’re going to run this mall, then this mall needs to look good. [The owners] were unable to keep up with that. Also, we were working really hard to bring more density in our residential properties down here. The restaurants seemed to be waiting on the density and the density was waiting on the restaurants. It was a real balancing act for us to be able to say to these restaurants we promise you, more houses are coming, more people are coming.”

Harris is constantly seeking new avenues to tell the city’s story. A new library branch will break ground in November and combines old with new. “I can tell you a great story about it,” she says with a gleam in her eyes. She did some research and discovered that the land where the Red Clay Music Foundry now sits was the former site of a cricket box factory. And what exactly is a cricket box factory? Just as the name implies, it was a factory that made boxes to hold crickets that fisherman used for bait. “I was able to find some old photographs of it,” Harris smiles, eyebrows raised. One could almost see the wheels turning in her head. “So we worked with the architects for the new library and it looks like the old factory. It’s beautiful. It’s all brick with those really cool windows with brickwork all around. So when you ride by, you’re going to think that building has been there the whole time, and that’s what we wanted. Because if we can’t save our old icons, at least we want to retell their story.”

Harris likens the new library to a citywide conversation piece that gets people talking about the area’s story, because not every city has a cricket box factory in their past and present architecture. She also mentions plans for affordable housing developments in an area behind city hall. “We’re trying to do a variety of residential housing so we can have it for all income levels,” she says. “That’s actually an important part of what we’re doing.” Also in the works is a train viewing platform (apparently, train viewing is a thing) next to the railroad tracks that she hopes will attract train viewing enthusiasts from across the country. After all, the Southeastern Railway Museum is just down the way on Buford Highway.

 “The train platform just made perfect sense,” she says as she connects the dots from past to present. “Now we can tell that train story. This is the order of Duluth: The Eastern Continental Divide runs through the middle of the city. Because of that, the trains came through here because trains would follow the Continental Divide so it kept them above the water. Then we became a cotton city. We’re on the Chattahoochee River, so we were called Howell’s Ferry for a while, and now we’re Duluth. So it’s all because of geography that we’re here and I just think that’s a great story.”

But not every Duluth citizen lives near the heart of the city, which is undoubtedly downtown. What about the outlying areas, the arteries? How does she plan to keep the city’s metaphorical circulatory system healthy? Harris points out that the area’s biggest financial private investment has been on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, but having a vibrant downtown is like throwing a pebble in a pond – the ripples reach out. She is sure that much of what is happening within the city’s 10 square miles wouldn’t have happened if city leaders hadn’t shown support for a strong infrastructure and amenities. She mentions a new project refurbishing Rogers Bridge on the Chattahoochee River. The bridge leads into Johns Creek and Fulton County, and Harris has been working with the Georgia Department of Transportation to get more funding for the regional project that involves four intergovernmental agreements: two cities and two counties working together. “It’s like herding cats,” Harris says. “We all have good intentions, but it’s just four very different governments.” The goal is to build a pedestrian-friendly bridge that will connect to the West Gwinnett Bikeway taking people over into Fulton County and into their parks.

“There’s a term that I have coined called placekeeping,” she says. “Instead of placemaking — everybody is placemaking — I talk to old historic cities about placekeeping, and that’s keeping your mojo alive and keeping your history part of the story. I’m the kind of person that thinks we’re never finished. You know, we just keep making things better, keep improving the quality.”