Mayor Keeps Railroad Town on Track

Hometown Heroes, On the Road, People
on August 19, 2001

Although she has no opposition for an unprecedented sixth term as mayor of Madison, Miss., Mary Hawkins-Butler is campaigning just as aggressively as she did in her first election in 1980, when she won by only 61 votes.

“I want to make sure everyone knows that I have an open-door policy and that I am only a phone call away,” says Mary, as everyone in town calls her. “I feel it is important to listen to constituents to make sure we are on the right track.”

Mary’s 20-year vision to make Madison the state’s first master-planned community—with specific areas for commercial and residential growth as well as zoning to maximize property values—was the focus of that first mayoral campaign. Now that her dream has become reality, she is conducting a door-to-door campaign to solidify a plan for preserving the appeal of this bedroom community for Jackson, the state capital.

The walls of Mary’s city hall office chronicle her challenges of maintaining her town’s ambiance, even as its population grew from 1,000 in 1981 to its current 15,000. Amidst numerous framed articles, a painting of a smiling angel hangs over a pair of bright red boxing gloves, symbolic of the petite 47-year-old’s willingness to do battle in the best interest of her beloved town.

“We sought to build a city that would place quality of life as its cornerstone and family as our foundation,” Mary explains.

Toward that goal, she was instrumental in enacting architectural, landscaping, and signage regulations for commercial and residential development, along with a rule that businesses east of Interstate 55 follow a railroad station theme, while developments to the west feature Old South architecture—plantation-style, two-story structures with large columns, cupolas, and front porches.

National chains seem to have no problem complying. Companies creating innovative railroad depot designs—in keeping with Madison’s 1856 founding as a railroad town—include Burger King, Popeye’s, Texaco, Subway, and Shell.

The latest conglomerate to join in is Wal-Mart, soon to locate a brick, earth-toned superstore in a development graced by a lake and a park. To mark Madison as special, an elaborate bricked overpass—another of Mary’s coups—is being built at the interstate exit to Madison.

Local business owners welcomed the design stipulations.

“Because of Madison’s high quality standards, I wanted to build the ‘I can’t believe it’s a tire store’ tire store. We worked closely with the mayor and were happy to acquiesce to her suggestions,” says Mike Upton, whose store features high gabled roof lines, a fountain, landscaped garden, and, of course, a train engine weathervane.

But the mayor’s dedication doesn’t stop at bricks and mortar. Besides leadership roles in such civic organizations as the Mississippi Municipal League and the board of the Natchez Trace Parkway, in 1992 she authored the state’s retiree attraction plan that has become the model for the nation. And she took the Sister City Program the town established with Solleftea, Sweden, to new heights with cultural and business exchange programs resulting in Swedish industries locating in Madison.

A familiar face in Madison’s top-rated schools, Mary is often besieged by Girl Scouts who know she’s an easy target for their cookies, which she then donates to The Home Place, a residential facility for seniors.

“Mary adopted The Home Place to fill a void in her life when her parents died. In addition to her loving visits, she provides gifts for each of the 140 residents at Christmas and more than 500 eggs at Easter,” explains director Lucille Nichols.

Several years ago, Mary passed up a run for Congress to continue her vigil against development pressures that might detract from the town’s character. She created and personally financed “Madison’s Not for Sale” bumper stickers to help make this point.

While this year’s bumper stickers developed by supporters simply proclaim, “We love Mary,” the mayor won’t rest on her laurels.

“Just when you take a deep breath that the battles have been won, you get hit with a scud missile,” Mary says, referring to the 2003 opening of a 4,000-employee business just three miles from Madison’s borders.

“Generally, growth is gradual, but this will be adding 4,000 overnight. We don’t want to get caught up in a growth explosion and lose our identity,” she explains. “The real challenge will be to preserve everything we are—our precious hometown charm.”