By Tim Gardner
High Country Press reporter Tim Gardner recently conducted an interview with Banner Elk Mayor Brenda Lyerly about several topics. Included in the mayor’s answers to the various questions are details about her lengthy public service, what she believes constitutes a good small-town mayor and what she lists as her town’s greatest resources and stiffest challenges.
HC Press: For those who want to learn more about you, what is your personal and professional background?
Lyerly: I am the oldest of five children, born and raised in Southern Illinois. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Houston and a Master of Arts degree in Higher Education Administration from Appalachian State University. I retired from Appalachian State in 2011, where I was Senior Associate Director of Admissions. I have a cumulative of 30 years experience in higher education, as I worked for seven years as Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid for Lees-McRae College, then two years as Enrollment Specialist at Mayland Community College, and 21 years at Appalachian State University.
I came to Banner Elk when I met and married Banner Elk native, Alexander Lyerly. I was in undergraduate school in Houston, Texas, and he was in law school there. We completed our programs at the same time, married and moved back to “his mountains”, as he calls them. We live in the Banner homeplace in Banner Elk, formerly the home of Alec’s grandparents, Eva Lowe and Robert O. Banner.
HC Press: You have, perhaps, as much experience of any political figure who has ever held public office in the Town of Banner Elk and Avery County. You truly are a quintessential servant of the people though the political as well as the public service systems. What does your practical experiences in both entail?
Lyerly: I began public service in Banner Elk while I was employed at Lees-McRae College. I was first on the Planning Board, then on the Board of Adjustments. When a position came available on the Town Council in 1985, I was appointed to complete a term vacated by Vance Lecka. I then ran for that seat, and I have been on the Banner Elk Town Council ever since then. I was greatly influenced by the long-time mayor of Banner Elk, Charles VonCanon. He was the consummate public servant. He worked tirelessly to better the Town of Banner Elk and Avery County. He was in Raleigh regularly promoting Banner Elk and acquiring what we needed from the state. I accompanied him to Raleigh on many occasions, and he encouraged me.
When Mayor Tate retired, I was Mayor Pro Temp. I completed her term. It was the same time I was retiring from Appalachian State University, so it was convenient for me to run for and have time to devote to the Mayor position. I am in my second term as Mayor. My first term was two years, then the Council changed the position to a four year term. This term will be up in 2019.
I have been on the High Country Council of Governments for 22 years. This is the seven-county board organized by former Mayor Charles VonCanon. When he retired, he encouraged me to take his place on this board. I am presently the Board Chair. I have been a long-time member of the Rural Transportation Board and am a past Chair. I am Vice-Chair for Resort Towns and Convention Cities Board and Board member of the Qualifications Board for the Department of Insurance (appointed by the former Governor)
I have been involved for years with the Hospitality House for the homeless. I am a past Chair of that Board. I am no longer on that Board, but I do organize two meals per month for 100 people. I am the Vice-President of the Banner Elk Kiwanis Club, Board member for Habitat for Humanity, and I am on the Avery County Advisory Board for the Women’s Fund of the Blue Ridge. I believe giving back to those in need is an obligation and an opportunity.
HC Press: What are the components and mandates for being a productive and successful small-town mayor—yet one who presides over Avery County’s largest town in land size and population?
Lyerly: It is my contention that a good leader is a good listener. Those who elect me want to know they are represented well. I do my best to hear those who want to be heard and explain how and why this can or cannot be done. I do my best to represent Banner Elk not only in Avery County, but also throughout the state. My active involvement in organizations throughout the state keeps me aware of opportunities for Banner Elk, and it also keeps Banner Elk in the minds of others.
It is very important to step back and let others do their jobs. The Town of Banner Elk has a manager, a police chief and others who are well qualified to make good decisions.
HC Press: What do you consider the most rewarding aspects of being Banner Elk’s Mayor?
Lyerly: I love my job. Watching Banner Elk progress over the past several years is amazing. Things don’t just fall into place. It takes work, vision, cooperation and inclusion. The most rewarding aspect of being Mayor of Banner Elk is the compliments from citizens and visitors to our wonderful town. The town’s sidewalks, parks, restaurants, art availabilities, shops are all unique and inviting.
HC Press: What advice, support and help has your husband, the Honorable Alexander Banner Lyerly, a retired court judge in the State of North Carolina, given you throughout your political and public service roles?
Lyerly: Alec has been my biggest cheerleader. He encouraged me to pursue my Master’s Degree program. He encouraged me to become a member of the Town Council. He had been a Councilmember years before. He has always told me I could do anything I set my mind to do. He is very proud of Banner Elk and his heritage. He has brought me to believe it is my heritage too. Alec has qualities that I have tried to emulate. His kindness to others regardless of status, his thoughtful decision-making, and his deep religious faith are all things I need to work on. He taught me that people and events are not always what they appear to be. There may be unknown circumstances that cause someone to make a bad decision or a situation to be less than satisfactory.
HC Press: What specifically do you consider to be your town’s greatest resources… those of which you want to brag about and of which you are most proud?
Lyerly: Clearly Lees-McRae College is a huge part of Banner Elk’s history. The college brings a wonderful diversity to the area. The arts, the Wildlife Center, The May School of Nursing are only a few of the many resources available.
The Woolly Worm Festival brings the name of Banner Elk to the forefront of our nation once a year. Not only do we have thousands of visitors, this festival brings funding for so many worthwhile community organizations.
The Historic Banner Elk Elementary School has become a thriving center for arts. The School now has an historic designation. Mayland Community College has classes there. The professional Ensemble Stage has been a total blessing to our community. The Art Cooperative has been so successful that they are doubling their space in the School. The Book Exchange has become a community hub, with lots of children’s activities, speakers and, of course, take a book. This is home to a portrait photographer and Carolina Life Magazine as well.
The Corner on Main has transformed the look of Banner Elk. The open space and the clock tower welcome everyone at the stoplight. We now have the addition of a 35 foot flagpole. Coming soon will be a wonderful new addition to the opposite end of the site. This is a grand environment that is surrounded by fabulous restaurants and shops.
HC Press: You work at the leisure of the five-person Board of Aldermen and of course, foremost, your fellow-Banner Elk citizens. Specifically, what is it like working with the aldermen and your staff which includes a town manager, administrative clerks and those who are employees or who volunteer in the town’s fire, police, utilities, public works, finance and mapping departments?
Lyerly: All of the right people are in place presently to make Banner Elk a special place. The members of the Town Council are all there for the sole purpose of making Banner Elk better. The same can be said for the Planning Board, Tourism Development Board, Chamber of Commerce and the Town Manager. Each Councilmember has his own set of skills that he brings to the group. When there are differences of opinion, we work it out. Banner Elk has a very professional police chief and police force, as well as all of the people who work in the Town Hall. I am totally amazed at the five-person maintenance crew. These guys are out there at all hours of the night fixing water pipes, pushing snow and cleaning the sidewalks. I have total respect for each person who is employed by the town and all those who volunteer their time for boards. I would like to think they feel the same about me. They all do their jobs well, and we work well together.
HC Press: What do you consider Banner Elk’s top accomplishments during your tenures working as a town council member and then also while you’ve served as Mayor?
Lyerly: At the top of the list of Town accomplishments is the purchase of the Historic Banner Elk School and its transformation into a vital part of our special town. The mortgage is huge and the renovation of this historic building is costly. So much progress has been made, and the promise to citizens that no tax payer moneys will be spent on the property has been kept. Citizens have stepped up with donations, grants have been secured, and Art on the Greene profits each year are donated.
The town also has an annual golf tournament, which is very popular.
Additionally, the expansion of the town park is another wonderful accomplishment. The Tate Evans Park is used and enjoyed by locals and visitors year round. The Robbins Amphitheater is especially popular for the summer Thursday evening music in the park. The event pavilion in the expansion of the park is suitable for weddings and other events. The dog park, the exercise equipment, the walking paths and the children’s’ playground equipment are very popular.
Sidewalks in Banner Elk are an ongoing project, but these sidewalks have made a huge difference in the look of the town as well as making the town more walkable.
Replacement of the stormwater vault is not something most people see when coming into Banner Elk. This was a much needed project and a costly project. A matching grant and a great engineering company made the project possible. A new vault was installed behind the fire department, and this area is now graveled to add much needed parking in town.
The Corner on Main property project has made such a difference in the look of the town. Thanks to Mrs. Elaine Wold, who purchased the property, paid for demolition of the building, purchased the clock tower and paid for renderings of the plan for the spot, the look of the Town of Banner Elk is transformed.
HC Press: What are the greatest challenges for the Town of Banner Elk during the next couple of years heading into the new 2020 decade?
Lyerly: As the economy strengthens, Banner Elk must be mindful of growth and development in residents, visitors and businesses. The tax base of Banner Elk is small compared to the number of seasonal visitors. The challenge is to have a strong infrastructure to accommodate all the visitors with our tax base. Banner Elk is proud of our improvements and beautification. We must continually plan for future growth.
HC Press: What are the mandates needed for the Town of Banner Elk to be prosperous financially–specifically in services available to its residents, businesses and visitors?
Lyerly: The mandate that is always foremost in our minds, as leaders in Banner Elk, is to provide the highest quality services to our residents, visitors and businesses. The town has been proactive with so many services. We have completed GIS mapping of storm water, drinking water and sewer system, so we know locations if there are problems. We have completed a Land Use Plan, and we are working on an Asset Management Plan. This plan would assure the town that we have the up-to-date inventory necessary to complete our projects and services.
HC Press: What advice would you offer an aspiring political candidate—especially one who is seeking a Mayor or Town Council seat?
Lyerly: Anyone interested in serving as Mayor or Council person should actively become involved in community service. A good background in service brings valuable experience and shows citizens a person’s qualifications and interest in service. Those interested in politics needs to be aware that it is work. While others are home eating dinner, those in political life are in a meeting.
HC Press: Last question… What additional comments would you like to make to all who read this article, particularly those who reside in Banner Elk?
Lyerly: I have said this many times when people ask why be the Mayor of Banner Elk? Banner Elk is special. We are a little more caring and a little more friendly and helpful than other places. I have never seen another place where so many people are volunteering to help those in need and volunteering to make our area better.