Lebanon Mayor reflects on eight years at City Hall
Eight years came and went in the blink of an eye according to Lebanon Mayor Philip Craighead.
He sought a third term in November; however, Election Night 2016 brought a change in the city - and a surprise for Craighead. The new Mayor-Elect Bernie Ash will be sworn in on Thursday night at Lebanon City Hall.
Handing over the keys to the city will be a bittersweet moment for Craighead.
No longer serving as mayor will give him much needed time with his wife of 35 years, Darlene, their kids, Zack (Melissa) Craighead and Carissa (James) Wheeler, and four grandchildren, Madison, Miles, Lyla Mae and Xavier.
But Craighead said there was still so much to be done in the city. He had hoped for four more years to see his plans come to fruition.
Craighead's first try for Mayor of Lebanon was in 2008 with the blessing of exiting Mayor Don Fox.
Prior to that, Craighead had only run for public office one time. "I had run for Ward 6 City Councilor as a write-in. I missed the deadline because we were busy working, but as a write-in I still received over 200 votes," he said. Although he wasn't victorious, Craighead noted the 200-plus votes were a "good response."
A lot of folks, including his family, wondered why Craighead wanted to be the mayor. He had a lucrative career in construction - and would be taking a hefty pay cut by choosing a path of public service.
"I never worked for anyone in my life, before becoming the mayor. Then I worked for 26,000 people," Craighead explained. "Everyone asked, 'Why are you doing this?' Darlene and I have always had our own businesses and been successful - we kept our lives to ourselves. I had about four or five things happen within 30 days that told me it was the right thing to do. When I get that gut feeling, I lead with it."
Craighead said he felt he had something to contribute to the city.
"I felt like, at that time, it was a good time for the City of Lebanon to have someone who is more business-oriented. We worked real hard for several months door-knocking and got a lot of support," he said. "I was humbled to become the Mayor of Lebanon."
The Wilson Post asked Craighead about his proudest achievements while in office.
The new mayor and his wife stepped-up during a challenging time. We were in a recession, to start, and just two years into his first term, a natural disaster destroyed many homes and businesses. Craighead combated problems head-on.
The first year, Craighead said he was proud to keep the city "in the black" - cutting the budget by $2.5 million.
"It was the hardest recession since the 1930s. A big accomplishment was keeping the city in the black and to keep it moving forward," he said.
When the Floods of May 2010 wreaked havoc in Lebanon, he led a cleanup project to get things back to normal there, too.
In 2009, Craighead organized one of the city's premier family events, the Whip Crackin' Rodeo.
"The city used to give money to charities, but when the recession hit, they couldn't do that anymore," Darlene explained. "The city had nothing to do with it. Philip devised the Rodeo to help the charities. Everything was volunteers and all of the money went to those charities."
In the past eight years, the Whip Crackin' Rodeo, held every spring at the James E. Ward Agricultural Center, has raised more than $300,000. The Craighead family plans to continue the philanthropic venture in 2017.
The Craigheads were also met with opposition during the first term. Darlene said she often attended Lebanon City Council meetings to support her husband, until becoming frustrated with how his ideas were thwarted by council seated at the time.
Craighead said he's often reminded of the adage, "If someone isn't upset, then you aren't doing anything." He was met with opposition in both terms about projects he was passionate about, including renovation of the Lebanon Public Square, the Cumberland Center, the Gasification Project, the Special Census and more.
"He was so committed to what he was doing," she said.
Darlene said the couple lived a "private life" prior to 2008 - working, raising a family, giving back to the community without seeking recognition.
In an earlier interview with The Wilson Post, Darlene expressed that she was very proud of her husband for following his desire to work for the city. However, now that it has come to an end - she's also looking forward to having her best friend back.
Craighead told WANT 98.9FM's Coleman Walker on Election Night that he planned to return to work with his son now that his second term has ended. But before that, Darlene said they will go on vacation to St. Thomas.
The Craigheads met at KOA Campground more than three decades ago.
"Philip told me if I bought him dinner, he would let us swim free at the campground," she remembered. "Then he asked me on a date."
On their second date, he asked her to attend a wedding. "I told him I didn't have anything to wear and he offered to buy me a dress. No one had ever bought me a dress before," she said. "So he bought me a dress and we went to the wedding.
He ended up proposing to Darlene with a sign at the campground when she was returning from a work trip. The couple married six weeks later.
Between reflections on the past eight years in office, the Craigheads spoke about their family and the private life to which the outgoing mayor will soon return.
Darlene said during her husband's second term as mayor, she quit cooking dinner altogether because she couldn't keep up with his busy schedule.
"Everything he did, he did with a love of Lebanon. He didn't do anything for himself," she said. "He was so committed to what he was doing, and it took him away from his family a lot."
Family photos adorned the walls of their home, and Darlene pointed out several toys left behind by their four grandchildren. "I kept the grandkids earlier today," she said of one of the biggest joys in their lives.
Many of Craighead's plans for the city were near and dear to his heart. He wanted to improve quality of life, and build a city for the next generation. He was also passionate about animals. The couple's rescue dog, Benji, a Bichon Frisch, roamed about and even posed for some photos during Wednesday's interview.
One of the mayor's last projects was establishing a dog park next to New Leash on Life in Lebanon.
Other projects included extending the Cedar City Trail and improving Don Fox Community Park through the addition of workout equipment and a Lily Pad water playground for children.
Perhaps one of the most positively received of Craighead's projects was the city's new gasification plant - which will convert tire sludge and other waste material into useable energy.
"The landfill is going to close in eight to nine years, so we've got to be prepared for what we are going to do. We have to do it economically and to our advantage. If we continue to move on to the next step of the gasification, we can do that," he explained.
"I think Philip has been on a lot of issues more proactive than reactive," Darlene added. "He's gone out and researched things and tried to make things happen."
Craighead often had several projects in the works at once.
"When I came in as mayor it was really the hardest of times," he said. "There were a long of things (recently) I was working on that would have changed the structure of the city."
Craighead was one of the driving forces behind revamping the Lebanon Public Square - converting it into a roundabout design through a Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Safety Grant, with assistance in beautification from the city.
He recalled a time when there were 22 vacant buildings on the square. "Look at it now," he said of new businesses and entertainment including The Capitol Theatre, several fashion and men's shops, salons and more.
"We brought that life back to the square," he said. He noted the city also added more than 3,000 potential jobs over the last two years - jobs that will attract new folks to Lebanon and give the folks who already live here a place to work.
"There is a lot of great potential here in our community and projects I had in the works," Craighead continues. "Those are things I would have enjoyed being part of."
Staff Writer Sabrina Garrett may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.