F’ville Councilman Walt White retires after 25 years

Fayetteville Councilman Walt White, joined by his dog Rusty, has concluded his time on the Fayetteville City Council after 25 years in elected office. With his term expiring on Dec. 31, White chose not to qualify for his long-held council seat in the 2012 election. Photo/Ben Nelms.

It has been 25 years since Fayetteville City Councilman Walt White was sworn in for the first time. One of two of the longest-serving council members in Fayette County, White declined to run this time around and will be ending his quarter-century on the council at the end of December.

Looking back over the years, White served during the time when Fayetteville was being transformed from a more rural town into the suburban city that exists today.

“It was the biggest mistake I ever made,” White said with a chuckle. “We had a number on the council recalled, and I said if we can’t find anyone, I’ll run. Then everybody stopped looking. My desire was to get in and get out. But I was asked by people to keep running.”

It was a time when the city was near bankruptcy, and it was a time when Fayetteville and Fayette County were experiencing unprecedented growth, White said.

“It was the start of a lot of long meetings and a lot of long nights to get back on a sure footing,” White said, adding that it is not his intent to be critical of those who served on the council prior to his time of service.

Fayetteville was a much different place when White began his time on the council. The Fayetteville of 25 years ago would hardly be recognizable to many people today.

“The difference between then and now is like the difference between night and day,” White said of the transformation of the once rural town into a suburban city. “We went from struggling to prosperity.”

Twenty-five years ago Fayetteville had one or two traffic lights and maybe less than 3,000 residents, White said. But then came the rapid growth rate that was evidenced all over Fayette County.

“The council’s job was to give direction to that growth, but we wanted to maintain the city’s old charm, to keep the old Fayetteville look,” White said. “The main thing was to have appropriate growth without letting the developers take over. One of the goals was to have high-density residential development in the center of town.”

It was during the period when White served that so many of the things that signify Fayetteville came into existence. One of those was Piedmont Fayette Hospital.

“It was as big a thing as any to get the hospital,” said White, remarking that prior to Piedmont Fayette the closest large hospital within relatively easy access to Fayetteville and Fayette County residents could only be found by traveling to Clayton or Fulton counties.

“I remember the groundbreaking, standing next to (the hospital’s first CEO) Darryl Cutts,” said White. “And look at it now. It’s one fine facility. And it couldn’t have been built without the city. We did our part for the hospital, like we did our part with Pinewood.”

White’s reference to Pinewood Atlanta Studios represents the most recent large project taken up by the city council. It was one that was finalized in September with the annexation of 1,200 acres east, west and north of the hospital. While Pinewood and its affiliated projects could eventually consume approximately 700 acres of the annexed property, there remains another 500 acres that should bring significant development to the city.

Another large project from past years was the Fayette Pavilion. White noted that the developer initially proposed locating a mall on the property.

Perhaps overlooked by some today is the sales tax and property tax revenue generated by the Fayette Pavilion, revenues that for years has helped keep the city’s millage rate around 3 mills and has benefitted the general funds of both the city and county.

“A lot of people don’t like the Pavilion today. But we had to have it or we would have had curb cuts all over the city,” White said of the time when Fayetteville was booming and the population was swelling. “Fayetteville is the (sales) tax engine that runs this county. This engine is where people come to shop and most people are pleased with it. I think we’ve done the best with it that we could.”

White in reflecting on his time on the council spoke about the other elected officials with whom he served.

“You’ve got five different minds. You’ve got to sell the feature (on a given agenda item or proposal) you think is best. For many years we had work sessions on the Wednesday before the regular session. We’d go over everything at the work session and we got things worked out,” White said. “We reached consensus at the work session and 99 percent of the time it was a 5-0 vote at the regular session. We were basically business people who were generally on the same page even though sometimes we had to tweak things.”

Thinking back on the past and bringing the focus into the present, White spoke about the growing number of people who made Fayetteville their home. And he spoke about the city staff whose job it is to keep things running once the council’s decisions are made and the meetings have ended.

“It’s the people, the citizens, and it’s the city employees. The city employees are the greatest,” said White.

White is seen by some as a man of few words. Yet when he speaks there is little doubt on where he stands and the opinion he holds.

“I shoot straight and I never try to be someone I’m not,” White said of the endless topics on countless city council agendas that spanned more than two decades. “I knew I was doing what was right.”

For Walt White, the time of his service on the council is ending. It is a time of his own choosing.

“I would have left sooner, but my wife kept saying, ‘You can’t leave,’” White said with another chuckle.

And as that time ends officially at the end of December, White offered a final reflection on what a quarter-century on the Fayetteville City Council meant to him.

“I’ve seen it all and done it all. I had done everything I wanted to do, and I figured 25 years was enough,” White said of his decision not to qualify for another term on the council. “I’m glad I served. And I’m ready to let someone else do it. For the last 25 years I’ve run the city as a business, not politically. My main philosophy was helping give ‘direction’ to the city.”

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