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A Farewell to Visionary Leader

Duluth honors retired city administrator Phil McLemore. City employees present handmade rocking chairs to McLemore and his wife Jane.

 

Retired Duluth city administrator Phil McLemore now has a place to sit, rock and reminisce about his 15 years of service to the city. McLemore and his wife Jane were presented with a pair of rocking chairs handmade by Public Works employees from wood saved from a huge oak tree that had to be cut down to make way for the new City Hall.

McLemore has a "servant’s heart." "His door was always open. He always had time for us (employees) and everyone no matter what their status in the community,” said Jason Brock, deputy Duluth Public Works Department director. Brock and Duluth Administrative Assistant Susan Weber presented the rocking chairs at McLemore’s retirement tribute at the Red Clay Theatre Thursday (March 22).

Brock described McLemore as even-tempered despite the stress he was often under. “He was kind and loyal to employees,” Brock said.

McLemore has referred to the new City Hall as the accomplishment of which he was the most proud. Speakers at the reception also credited his vision and leadership in developing the Duluth Town Green, the Public Works Complex, and the Public Safety Center. The modern City Hall, built on a hill on Main Street, overlooks the Town Green with a view toward the Old City Hall. It was the site that McLemore preferred as the Duluth City Council debated where to build it.

He was called a quiet and unassuming leader but firm in his beliefs.

Longtime former Duluth mayor Shirley Lasseter, now a Gwinnett County Commissioner, and others recalled it was city employees who suggested that McLemore, then the city’s planning director, be hired as city administrator after Larry Rubenstein left. The council had been interviewing four other candidates when they realized they had someone who could do the job already working for the city, she said.

“He had this vision and the ability to get people to buy into his vision,” commented former Duluth councilman Doug Mundrick, who recently retired from the council. Mundrick said that McLemore was “skilled in the art of cutting the deal” evident when he was able to get most of the 24 or 25 parcels of land needed to create the Town Green donated.

McLemore was also responsible for acquiring land from Gwinnett County for the Public Works Complex on Chattahoochee Avenue and negotiating the sale of property along Buford Highway from Larry Hall for the Public Safety Center, according to Mundrick. “Phil cut the deal (for the Public Safety Center land) on the courthouse steps,” he said.

“And he talked Kathryn Willis into building the Duluth Festival Center," Mundrick added. Willis, the founder of the Duluth Fall Festival, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2012, said that she had been adamant with McLemore about building a less costly gazebo, but he eventually convinced her to go with the larger project. The Duluth Fall Festival Committee will make the final payment on the $1.7-million center this year, she said.

“Phil has been so helpful and always led us in the right direction,” Willis said. “I want to thank Phil for all he’s done for the city. We’re a better town because of him.”

Hall, who sold the property to the city for the Public Safety Center, also commended McLemore. “He (McLemore) does the best for the city and the person he’s dealing with,” Hall said.

Downtown Duluth Development Authority Member Ed Gulesserian said that when he needed information he could always count on McLemore. “Whenever I needed the facts and to get the full story, I’d go to Phil,” Gulesserian said.

“He understood Duluth and the best of what Duluth could be,” Gulesserian said. “Phil always did the right thing for the city, and he really did.”

McLemore officially retired Dec. 31, but continued to serve as a consultant to the city through March and to assist in the transition of new City Manager Tim Shearer.

“He’s (McLemore) going to be missed more than he’ll ever know,” Lasseter said. “I know he will never be forgotten here in Duluth.”

Duluth Economic Development Manager Chris McGahee, who emceed the tribute program at the Red Clay Theatre, invited McLemore and his wife to sit on the stage in their new rockers. Also seated onstage was their daughter Jill Gibbs, her husband Kevin Gibbs, and their three children Allison, Kathleen and Matthew.

The stage program was preceded by a beach-themed reception in the theatre lobby with food and decorations by city employees. In keeping with the theme, employees gave McLemore and his wife colorful tie-dyed T-shirts.

Mayor Nancy Harris presented a painting of Duluth City Hall including the fountain on the Town Green to the McLemores. Harris, president of the Gwinnett Municipal Association, recognized McLemore for his role in helping Gwinnett cities represented by the GwMA reach a settlement with the county on a Service Delivery Strategy.

Duluth Councilman Billy Jones and City Clerk Teresa Lynn and her husband Steve gave McLemore a huge package containing a Work Station that will be useful as he works on his Dunwoody home now that he will have more time.

“I’m really overwhelmed,” responded McLemore. “Can I change my mind?” He then proceeded to thank Duluth City Council members and citizens for the support he received over the years.

“No place I’ve ever been has been warmer, more community-minded and more community-focused than Duluth,” he said. “I’ve been blessed because I’ve had a city council and citizens wanting to do what’s best for Duluth.”

McLemore singled out Willis for her vision in founding the Duluth Fall Festival, which he said “serves as a training ground for new people coming to Duluth” and for future community leaders.

“It’s been my privilege and honor to serve in a community like this,” he concluded.

Faye Edmundson March 23, 2012 at 10:33 PM
Phil always took the time to answer my questions when I was learning about Duluth and reporting on city issues I was unfamiliar with at the time. He was extremely patient with me and explained things very clearly.
Crystal Huntzinger March 26, 2012 at 12:19 PM
We will miss him too! Thanks for honoring him with such a wonderful reflection of his retirement celebration!

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