Five Questions: Long serving mayor says a bittersweet goodbye

Sue Guinn Legg • Sep 1, 2018 at 12:32 AM

With 12 years in a job he loved behind him and an all-new plan on his horizon, Friday was a bittersweet day for outgoing Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch.

But before presiding over an afternoon ceremony in which he saw his successor and a crop of new county leaders sworn into office, Lynch sat down with the Johnson City Press to look back at his long run in the mayor’s office and forward to some new and exciting prospects on the horizon.

For those who don’t know him, the Erwin native and lifelong resident shared a few basics.

Education: Elm Street School, Unicoi County High School and East Tennessee State University where he received a bachelor’s degree in corrections.

Hidden Talent: Lynch is a saxophonist and for several years played locally in a 1970s Top 40 band with his brothers.

Favorite Pastime: Listening to music. He loves all genres, learned to play listening to soul and, while not especially fond of rap, he does love its rhythm. His CD player is currently loaded with The Eagles, Miranda Lambert and Earl Thomas Conley.

Life Before Politics: As the owner of the former Greg’s Drive-in, which he ran with this late wife Tammy, and as the former Unicoi County Juvenile Services Officer, he worked two jobs most of his adult life.

Dogs or Cats: Lynch loves dogs but he loves cats best.

Our five-question interview began with a double dip inquiry into what he saw as “the highest highs and lowest lows” of his years as county mayor.

Highest Highs: Preservation of Rocky Fork and solid improvement in the financial health of Unicoi County.

“When I first came in (office), the word tourism was not an economic development tool. We were industrial-based. I ran on tourism as a second economic development source. Then Rocky Fork (preservation efforts) began to develop and I was for the conservation of Rocky Fork. Rocky Fork was an almost sacred place to a lot of people.

“It was a hot-button issue. We had quite a few public forums. There were a lot of opponents interested in developing a gated community and selling lots. Basically, I felt like it would have ruined Rocky Fork and I wasn’t even sure it would be a sellable thing. People on the other side of the issue said I was putting tourism before industry. I wasn’t.

“We never dreamed we would get a state park, but that was our hope. Ten years later we’ve got the makings of a state park and I believe in the next 10 years, we’ll get a lot of things there and start attracting a lot of people and reaping a lot of benefits.”

On the financial stability of county operations, Lynch said, “Our audits have been pretty good all the way through and we’ve had two perfect audits.

“The county was between $32 and $37 million in debt when I came in. Now it’s $20 million and we built a (high) school. So we’ve moved about $28 to $29 million ahead on our debt service.

“Nobody likes to pay taxes, but for a county our size our I think our taxes are pretty reasonable. Our general fund has grown and is near what it should And we have a 1A bond rating.

“We got a lot accomplished. I’m proud of that. But I didn’t do it. A lot of people did that, just like Rocky Fork. I worked with a lot of people to get that done … So I feel satisfied with the time I’ve been in office.”

Lowest Lows: Loss of the CSX railroad hub and the divisive era of politics from which the county is still healing.

“The biggest shock in my career would have to been the CSX railroad, when they moved out and a lot of jobs were lost.

“There were three days of meeting at the Carnegie in Johnson City as they told their people what was coming. I went to every one of them. There were a lot of people there I had known all my life, people I went to high school with. I kept thinking, what if my dad had still been at the railroad.

“We came together pretty good. We had a lot of community meetings. Everybody was in repair mode. What can we do to help? Unicoi County has always been a county that does that well. They help their neighbor,” he said.

“The events surrounding Sheriff (Kent) Harris” are also among the lowest ebbs of Lynch’s tenure in the mayor’s office. “It created a political environment that was hard to navigate,” he said. “It opened a lot of wounds.

“In social media, a lot of things came out in the community that may or may not have been there. And we still have that. We are healing but it was hard and the scars are still there. You can’t blame anyone it was just something that came about.”

Future Plans? Lynch has some lovely ones.

“I’m old enough to retire. I’m 64 so I will go ahead and start my state retirement and catch up on some projects I’ve neglected for the past 12 years.

“I’m going to work on my house and eventually I probably will sell my house and go where the wind takes me.”

“A mayor kind of, just in general, knows a little bit about a whole lot of things. So I’m going to see if there will be any consulting jobs I can do part time, until I get a little more financially stable.”

Best yet, Lynch said, “I plan to get married.”

His girlfriend is Sandra Livingston of Johnson City, who is also widowed. And eventually, he said, “I will be moving to Johnson City.”

Hopes for the county: Continued growth

“Our sales tax base has grown but it can be better. The entrepreneurial programs put on by the economic development board and the town of Erwin, that works. That’s how you grow a community, helping entrepreneurs find that training and helping them get on their feet. I was an entrepreneur for 20 years so I know what it’s like to work for nothing and also what it’s like to be successful.

“We’ve got three pretty good sites where (industrial) things can go. One that’s shovel ready. One, two others that can be ready pretty quick. I hope that happens. Our industrial base has always been NFS and the railroad still has some personnel here. But it would be great to see more industry come in.

“The employment rate is an economic barometer. The county mayors of the Northeast Tennessee region have started a program to help ensure we have a workforce to meet the demand, called the work read program, and I hope everyone can embrace that and continue it.

“I’ve put a lot of people on boards, the animal shelter board, the museum board, the equalization board, Care and Share. I’ve asked them to serve and they stepped up and done a lot of good.

“I’ve had a lot of people come by and tell me I’ve done a good job and that’s always satisfying because that’s why I’m here. To help people and to bring people into government.

“It’s been a pleasure to work with them. The real unsung heros are the heroes who work on those boards and I hope other young people, people with RISE (Erwin) will take an interest in these boards.

“Unicoi County is my home and I wish nothing but the best for Unicoi County.”

Parting Words: “This is a bittersweet thing.”

“I felt kind of excited about being mayor because there a lot of things that are starting that I’ve seen advance. There are a lot of things happening. A lot of people are taking interest in the county. But it’s kind of like Father knows best. And I’m not sure what he has in store for me.”

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