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Alton Craft Leads Oxford into a Bright Future

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Written by Charles Hill
Photography by Bill Partridge

New Mayor Alton Craft intends to build on successes in which Oxford grew from a town of 6,000 to a city of 24,000 under previous Mayor Leon Smith. His vision for Oxford is to build it into a futuristic metropolis which includes fiber optics throughout the city and welcomes controlled growth for business and industry, and which also becomes a haven for retirees and fosters a city government that cooperates across departmental lines to serve all the citizens of Oxford.


 

Mayor Craft has been employed in various capacities in the finance department for 32 years. This is his first term as Mayor of Oxford, which we won unopposed. He unabashedly calls Mayor Leon Smith a “father figure.” Craft was one of Smith’s first employees hired when he took office in 1984, and he was not given a job title but tasked with learning everything about the finance department, where he worked at virtually every job, from payroll clerk to accounts receivable.

Craft recalls being summoned into Mayor Smith’s office one morning and was asked to serve as Oxford’s Finance Director.

Craft replied, “Yes sir, I would love to be the Finance Director, but I don’t know if I am ready. I don’t want to fail you.” Mayor Smith just replied that they had a bond issue to work on that day, and that he wanted Alton to know everything about bond issues by that afternoon.

Mayor Craft says that he had no clue about bond issues and didn’t even know where to find out about them. He then sat down and prayed, ‘Lord, I really need you. I’m not going to make it at this job if you don’t help me.’ Twenty minutes later, a FedEx truck pulled up and he remembers that there was a package from the Bond Council. “It was a preliminary statement that had everything you would ever want to know about the bond issue—when it was going to be done, who to talk to—everything about the bond issue,” Craft remembers.

One of the most visible things about new mayor Alton Craft is that he is a truly nice person who, in spite of some tough times, remembers almost everything joyously. He tells of a Christmas in which there were no presents, and remembers the joy of drinking eggnog with his mother and sisters.

Craft lovingly reflects on the people in his life. At times, his mother worked all day and left him in the care of his sisters, Valrie and Bridgett. He speaks glowingly of his sisters in spite of their encouraging him to ride a bike off the roof of the house and pushing him against a tree and having to be stitched up at the hospital. His sister Valrie is now principal of Cleburne County High School in Heflin, and Bridgett, who was a nurse, passed away in a tragic hit and run accident a few years ago. He credits most of his success to these sisters, saying, “They would never let me fail. I love my sisters.”

Following closely behind the love that Mayor Craft has for his family, the person most dear to him is Mayor Leon Smith. Smith coached him on the peewee and 7th and 8th grade football teams and took a special interest in him. Craft says, “One day, Mayor Smith was talking about going to Florida. I said ‘That’s great. I’ll never get to go.’” That night, his mother got a call from Smith, and the next day, Alton was on the way to Florida with Smith and his family.

Mayor Craft remembers his childhood fondly, in spite of a few stumbles. His parents, Madelyn and Ed, moved a few times because of his father’s job with Bell Brothers (from Tuscaloosa to Rome, GA, to Anniston). He was named for his grandfathers Troy (Craft) and Alton (Lewis). The family, now with three children - Valrie, Bridgett, and Alton - finally moved to Cheaha Acres, where Alton’s first memory was of being evacuated from a flood.

The new mayor attended Friendship School for the first three years, and then attended Oxford. He ran track and played football and baseball at Oxford. His best sport was track. His relay team won State, and he remembers de-throning Anniston as the county track king.

He struggled at reading for the first few years, and remembers the pain of being laughed at. As with almost everything in his life, Mayor Craft credits others—in this case a teacher—with being kind and making a difference in his life. In spite of this start, he was, for the rest of his schooling, a straight-A student, which he attributes to his sisters. He also remembers his father telling him that “It’s not how hard they hit you, but how long it takes you to get up.”

“It’s not how hard they hit you, but how long it takes you to get up.”

Craft enrolled at Jacksonville State and graduated in 1983 with a degree in finance (after doing almost as much coursework in computer science). He later went back and took several accounting classes for a broader learning experience.

Craft met Margie his wife of 32 years when he was in the eighth grade. He vividly remembers meeting her at his locker and turning to his best friend and saying, “I’m going to marry that girl.” Apparently her reaction was not the same, and he says that she obviously thought that he was both weird and a nerd. Ultimately, they married and had twin boys, Joshua and Aaron (now 30) and a daughter Hannah (now 26).

When not serving the citizens of Oxford as mayor, Craft enjoys movies and an occasional video game. He and his wife spend time exercising. They enjoy travel, and have been to Las Vegas, Alaska, the Dominican Republic, and New Orleans. He has more recently enjoyed the performing arts that are presented at the Oxford Performing Arts Center, although he admits that the ballet may be a bit beyond his grasp.


 

The following are questions and answers with Mayor Craft on one of his first days in the Mayor’s office.

QUESTION: What are your short-term goals for Oxford?

CRAFT: I want employees to work better as a team. I want things to work faster and better as we respond to the residents of Oxford. One of the things we are working on is a 311 helpline that will allow citizens to call and be directed to the right department and right person who can solve their problem. This is working in Tuscaloosa and some other cities. A citizen can call 311 and the operator can route the call. What has happened in the past is that someone will call the mayor or a council member or a department, and the problem doesn’t always get referred to the correct person. Citizens remember that they reported a problem, but that problem didn’t get a response. The 311 system will allow someone to report a problem, for us to fix the problem, and then call back saying that we have fixed the problem.

Mayor Smith was a hands-on person who was able to personally handle a lot of the city’s problems, but we have grown. We now have 24,000 people, and we have to work across lines, to communicate better, and to work in a system where ideas flow freely. This is about being friendly, about helping people, about solving problems. If you are a government official, your job is being here to help!

One of the best examples of this is the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. When the people at the tournament left, they talked about how helpful the people were. Of course, they thought that the facilities were beautiful, but they talked about the people and how helpful we were. They gave a standing ovation to the people that cleaned the field. I want all of our departments and personnel to work across lines to help each other and to help our citizens.


QUESTION: What are your longer term goals for Oxford?

CRAFT: In the long run, I’m looking at technology for our city. For instance, we want to determine if fiber optics is right for the entire city. We will need the speed for our computers and to communicate. I see this as the highway to communicate on. For instance, right now, we install conduit that will carry the fiber optics every time we repair or install any cable.

I also see a time that 3D printers pretty much replace box stores. If we order a new television from Amazon, they’ll send a few components and we get some software that “prints” the item.

Oxford needs to be ready for these changes. We already have a background in technology. We were one of the first cities to have a webpage. Of course, that webpage was pretty much obsolete six months later as everyone else established one, but we have embraced technology and what it can do. We need to make sure that we continue to do this. It’s right for the citizens of Oxford, and it’s right for business and industry.

I want to bring more business and more retail to this area. We, however, need to make sure that we are selective and continue to develop. The City and the Council needs to come up with good policies and good laws that plan for this future. We don’t want the turmoil that some cities have when new officials come in. We need to be able to advance no matter who is mayor or who are council members, because our policies and laws allow for smooth transitions. A good example is that we build a wonderful Performing Arts Center, but we didn’t really have the management vision to operate it. Thank goodness, we solved that problem quickly, and we now have one of the best facilities and programs anywhere around, but excellent planning could have made us successful more quickly.


QUESTION: What challenges do you see for Oxford?

CRAFT: The immediate challenge is in our finances. Don’t get me wrong, the City of Oxford is in excellent financial shape. However, there is a short-term money flow problem. When we did the bond issue back in 2007, the bond people told our Council that we didn’t have to pay until 2013-2014. In my opinion, “if you can’t pay for it now, don’t buy it.” However, a lot of people thought that a huge recession was coming. Now that that bond has come due, the general fund has had to take on this bond. The city has absorbed this, but we have a cash flow problem because of this. Also, we were making a huge amount of interest on our money—about $5,000,000 a year. Now, the interest rate means that we are only making about $250,000 a years. In the next year, we will be able to address these problems and get the debt down to a reasonable level. So, we don’t have a money problem; we have $73,000,000 in the bank, but this money is tied up for the next year.


QUESTION: What did you learn from working for 32 years for Mayor Smith?

CRAFT: Mayor Smith was like a father to me. He taught me more about government than anyone ever could have. He did not consider himself a Republican or a Democrat, but a true independent. People think that he lined up with Democrats, but he always said, “Talk to the person. Are they honest? Are they dependable. He could tell a lot about a person. I remember in this very office, he was talking to Governor Siegelman and said, ‘Governor, those SOB’s that you have advising you are going to have you put in prison.’ Years later the Governor saw me and said, ‘Alton, if I’d listened to Mayor Smith, I’d have stayed out of prison.’ He told the truth. I hope I can do that. Leon Smith will always be “Mayor”—not me.


QUESTION: I see that a daily devotional book is on your desk. Could you address the role that God plays in your life?

CRAFT: Above everything, I credit The Lord for my life. I have always sought his guidance, and I have seen him work actively in my and my family’s life. I will continue to ask Him for guidance during my years as Mayor of Oxford.


QUESTION: This is the “What do you want on your tombstone” question. When your time in government is over, how do you want to be remembered?

CRAFT: Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, “If you want to predict the future, create it.” If I am remembered for anything, I would hope that it is that I helped create a better future for Oxford and its citizens and that they would feel more comfortable with their lives.

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