The city of Sullivan is experiencing a whirlwind of change brought on by a young mayor with a transforming vision for the rural town of approximately 4,300.
Clint Lamb, 33, a former City Council president, took office in 2012 and has been shaking things up in Sullivan non-stop ever since.
“He is probably one of the hardest-working mayors I have ever known, and I’ve known a lot of them,” said Tom Frew, president of the Sullivan County Historical Society, which has been working with the new mayor to create a new downtown park.
Lamb, in a two-hour interview with the Tribune-Star, demonstrates an almost tireless enthusiasm for his “part-time” job, which pays about $17,000 a year. Holding an energy drink and wearing dark sunglasses, the youthful mayor, who works full time as a sales manager for a big, local car dealership, almost never stops talking about Sullivan and his plans for it.
“There’s something special happening here,” Lamb says as he drives his family’s minivan through town to point out new sidewalks and other points of pride. “What you’re witnessing, you’re seeing the rebirth of a city, a city that has been deteriorating for too long.”
Lamb believes there is a spirit of change sweeping Sullivan. He sees evidence all around him. He notes the local Dairy Queen, for example, has landscaped its property, one of the first things you see when you arrive in Sullivan.
“They didn’t have to do that,” Lamb said, noting the DQ received the city’s first “Take Time to Care,” award for its efforts. Other property owners are following suit.
Time to care
“Take Time to Care” is Sullivan’s slogan, but it hasn’t been widely used in a long, long time. Under Mayor Lamb, it’s printed on city-owned vehicles.
It’s purely symbolic, but Lamb believes the slogan captures a new feeling in his rural city with deep roots in coal mining and farming.
The number of initiatives Lamb is pushing all at once would be a tall order for any mayor. He has overseen the demolition of the old Central Elementary School two blocks from the town square where a new city park is planned. He has ushered a new lumber supply business to downtown, and — most ambitiously — he wants to annex 1,100 acres of Sullivan County against the wishes of a vocal and motivated opposition.
“Clint is an energetic mayor and has a pretty strong agenda,” said Jim Exline, a former political opponent of Lamb’s who is now a strong ally and president of the newly re-established City of Sullivan Redevelopment Commission.
In addition to the big-ticket items on his agenda, Lamb is also pushing a variety of smaller projects, such as public-private effort to repair aging sidewalks and a plan to resurface the streets around the city’s historic town square. His overall goal is to make Sullivan a nicer place for its residents and attract new ones, Exline said.
“I know it’s not sexy or glamorous,” Exline said of the streets and sidewalks projects, “but it’s what people want. [Lamb] has asked us [on the Redevelopment Commission] to think of concrete ways that we can help redevelop Sullivan to make the city a more attractive place to live.”
Elephant in the room
Despite the laundry list of large and small projects, annexation remains the elephant in the room for the mayor. Despite his optimism and vision, Lamb often returns to the subject, reflecting on the resistance he is encountering from residents and business owners opposed to becoming a part of the city.
The city sent certified letters to more than 100 residents explaining the case for annexation, Lamb said. The letter included all the relevant information, but people still often believe what they hear chatting in McDonald’s, he said. There is real “misinformation” being spread, he said, adding he offered in the certified letter to meet with any residents who wanted to talk about annexation. He received just three calls, he said.
The all-Democrat Sullivan City Council voted 4 to 1 in favor of annexation in November. At a public meeting, opposition forces turned out in big numbers, but Lamb believes he speaks for a “silent majority” that thinks annexation is long overdue.
“I personally think we should have done it forever ago,” said Jack Templeton, who is refinishing furniture from the former Central Elementary to raise private money for the new park. Lamb “works constantly to improve Sullivan,” Templeton said.
The property to be annexed is more than 1,000 acres and basically would extend Sullivan’s borders west and north to U.S. 41. If successful, it would increase the city’s population by about 300 from 4,300 to 4,600, Lamb said.
Opponents of annexation have forced the matter into court where a judge is expected to hear the case in the fall. A center of opposition is the Greenbriar subdivision near U.S. 41 off Wolfe Street. Other opponents can be found on the north side of the town where several businesses are located.
“I’m not too much for annexation,” said a woman who said she has lived in Sullivan for more than 50 years and did not want to be named. Higher taxes for some of the businesses affected could result in job cuts, she said. “It’s not worth it.”
Annexation would bring an additional $286,000 into the city’s treasury each year, Lamb said. For a town with a general fund budget of just $1.1 million, that’s significant. The average household would see an increase in property taxes of $380, he said, adding they would see a drop in their sewer fees and trash hauling fees.
See you in court
A salesman by profession at Sullivan Automotive Group, Lamb has tried to sweeten the annexation deal for his opponents. The city is promising to use the first five years of new property tax revenue to improve Wolfe Street, which connects U.S. 41 with the city.
Wolfe Street is the entrance to Sullivan and is the primary access road to and from the city for folks in Greenbriar. The “Wolfe Street project” would also include adding a sidewalk and path that could be used for golf carts, a surprisingly popular form of transportation within Sullivan, especially for folks visiting nearby Sullivan Park & Lake.
One Greenbriar resident, who also did not want to give his name, said Lamb is the first mayor to have the will to fully tackle annexation, but he doubts the revenue generated will cover the plans for Wolfe Street.
Still another Greenbriar resident, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said she is firmly opposed to annexation.
“That’s why we live here,” she said of the well-maintained neighborhood. Taxes are lower outside the city and the residents already pay fees for police, fire and trash removal service, she said. Folks facing annexation have nothing to gain, she said.
The pros and cons of annexation will be hashed out in court in front of a special judge from Clay County. If annexation succeeds, Lamb also promises the funds raised will go to improve Frakes Street, which runs past two schools. That is among the worst roads in the county, Lamb said, and it is one of first things some out-of-town visitors see and experience.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Lamb said of his various initiatives, including annexation. Pointing to a Sullivan Daily Times front page from 33 years ago, Lamb notes many of his current projects, including annexation, where part of a package of recommendations for the city in 1980 — the year Lamb was born.
Modern era politician
If he succeeds, Lamb, a Democrat who will face re-election in 2015, will have altered the face of Sullivan. His annexation plan alone would nearly double the city’s geographic size.
“He is very much a modern-era politician,” said Exline. In a small town, people call the mayor when a dog is barking, he said. That’s part of the job. But Lamb is taking additional steps many small-town mayors do not. He has initiated a comprehensive planning process, the first in approximately 50 years. He has re-instated the defunct city Redevelopment Commission and is trying to lure new business investment to Sullivan with the aim of making the city a nicer place in which to live and raise a family.
“That’s my passion,” Lamb says after driving all around the city and pointing to places where abandoned homes have been demolished, new sidewalks have been built and where a new lumber supply business is set to break ground.
“There is something special going on here in Sullivan,” Lamb said. “It’s my passion. I think about it at night.”
If the annexation is successful, that will be a major victory for the young mayor, whose opponents include long-established business and property owners.
“I think the mayor has some progressive ideas and is working hard,” said Sue Ann Leeth, a Sullivan resident visiting a friend in a retirement community across from the former Central Elementary School site where trucks were hauling away rubble last week. “He is working to bring progressive ideas to the town.”
Others wish Lamb would keep his “progressive” ideas to himself.
“He’s trying to be too big city,” said another lady of about the same age who did not want to give her name. “We’re not a big city.”
Still, Lamb is roaring forward with his plans.
“Giving back” by being the mayor is “my passion,” Lamb said. When he takes on a project, he asks himself whether it is something his grandchildren will someday take pride in, he said.
“That’s why we’re doing this,” he said. “I love it when somebody tells me ‘We can’t.’”
Terre Haute Tribune-Star Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org