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Ambassador for All Municipalities 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

Lestine Hutchens lives amid art. And she’ll point it right out, proudly.

For outsiders strolling alongside of her in Elkin, a Yadkin River town she’s served for decades in elected office and for the past eight years as mayor, Hutchens is the convivial ambassador for the nobly aged local architecture, the public sculptures, the historic facades, the paint schemes, the brick-wall murals, the decorated drain covers, the tasteful restorations, the bright parkland, and lush nature trails where locals walk ankle-deep through kaleidoscopes of butterflies. To make a brief list.

“I just love these signs on the farmer’s market,” she said at the start of what would be a (gleefully) lengthy tour through town, pointing to colorful, stylized renderings of fresh produce affixed to the market shelter, fashioned similarly to other signs found around downtown. She showed a Southern City writer the best angle to photograph them.

Her enthusiasm could be lost on no one, which anyone might guess is, at least in part, why the Elkin locals – several of whom stopped to say hello to her along the stroll – have kept her in office for so long.

But for Hutchens, a native of the town, it’s time to kick back. It’s her last year as mayor – her choice, obviously – giving her more opportunity to enjoy what she’s helped to build over her 24 years in town office.

“She is the best,” one local, a dentist named Perry Jernigan, told Southern City for the record after stopping to greet Hutchens with a hug. “We are going to miss her so much.”

So will municipalities across North Carolina. Hutchens for 2016 has served warmly as president of the North Carolina League of Municipalities, following other officer and committee roles she’s held with the organization in the past – not surprisingly, given her long tenure.

“We’ve worked all our lives and I’m ready to play,” Hutchens told the Mt. Airy News of her then-potential retirement in a 2015 article about her election to League presidency.

Born and educated in Elkin, Hutchens worked for 40 years with a locally organized bank that, during her time there, mushroomed from nine employees to 300. Hard work is her brand, coming from parents who both worked in a woolen mill there, in an industry that employed much of the populace back in the day.

The town today is quite the mixture: art shops, nature walks, food, a large medical presence, antiques dealers and, throughout the greater Yadkin Valley, vineyards. Hutchens listed off each of them on the approach to a more recent point of pride, a restored tobacco warehouse called The Liberty, which bookends the old cruising strip of East Main Street downtown.

“This is one of our success stories,” Hutchens said of The Liberty, revitalized into a wine shop, restaurant, meeting space and banquet hall. To make it so, Elkin directly invested and administratively supported grant applications totaling $1.5 million, efforts that ended up quadrupling the site’s tax value. It’s in steady demand, with the banquet hall seeing booking rates doubling year over year, certainly to do with its interior beauty. When a Southern City writer singled out the impressively preserved double-doors inside, Hutchens dutifully corrected: “The whole place.” And right she was. She pointed out how the developers reverently maintained the space’s original character, including the wide pine plank floors, exposed original brick and enormous wooden trusses overhead. Roughly 80 percent of the bookings come from parties based outside of Elkin.

On the other side of downtown, on West Main Street, Hutchens pointed to a stone facade of a demolished building set to transform into Elkin’s new “linear park” (an urban space that is longer than is wide).

“There’s going to be a second-level on it,” she said, walking up to renderings on display of the development. "It’s going to have some really pretty shade, and a playground, and bathrooms,” the last piece of which will better accommodate street events downtown.

But it wasn’t just the public or public related projects on her show-and-tell list. She made sure to talk about each local business along the strip, whether they were mainstays, recently opened or yet-to-come. Reeves Theater, for one, when opened will be a rejuvenation of a grand, old performance hall in downtown Elkin. “The inside will look like it did back in the ‘20s, when it was built,” Hutchens said with a glow.

“She’s a great cheerleader for Elkin,” said Cicely McCulloch, an Elkin town commissioner who’s served alongside Hutchens for years. McCulloch said Hutchens as a female inspired her and others into public service circles. “I think it’s been great for women,” she said.

In another example to follow, she said Hutchens “made sure Elkin was remembered in every different aspect” when it came to regional or economic development conversations. McCulloch said one of Hutchens’ biggest successes was landing a Surry Community College location in Elkin for workforce development.

That, of course, was a stop on the tour.

“This is my most proud moment, that we have a piece of the community college here in our town, so our people who needed training (could access it),” Hutchens said, walking up to the Elkin Center, a converted grocery store building where classes are geared toward the need of existing employers, like the large local hospital or in law enforcement. The training helps people get right to work.

She’s looking after the community’s present and future needs, which might be a hard act to break.

Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny, the League’s 1st vice president, said he’s known Hutchens for years and has always seen her as a dedicated servant. “I appreciate Lestine’s friendship and always know that she has the good of the League in her heart working to enhance the League and the role of municipal government in North Carolina,” said Matheny.

But if she can manage to kick back in retirement, it’ll likely include many days with what is arguably the most scenic and relaxing feature of town – its carefully developed trail system.

“You don’t feel like you’re close to town, either,” she said, navigating the forested Elkin & Allegheny Railroad Nature & History Trail – following an old railroad bed – with a friend, Joe Hicks of the town-backed Elkin Valley Trails Association. Both remarked at the swarms of colorful butterflies – hundreds at every glance – packing onto trailside milkweeds, though they also acknowledged it wasn’t an unordinary sight.

It’s nature that completes the art of the town. This trail in particular, aided by the town’s and partners’ knack for securing grants, winds within Elkin’s limits but also connects with Stone Mountain’s complex for hiking and horse-riding that could become part of the Mountains to Sea trail system.

“I only have one more place to show you,” Hutchens said after a half-hour along the trail, a statement not entirely true as more and more sights – from sculptures to standout plants to pedestrian bridges to installations and shelters built by volunteers – kept coming into view.

Ever the cheerleader, she made sure the experience didn’t wear thin. She proved Elkin could produce.

“That’s where I grew up, on that piece of property over there,” she said on the way back to Town Hall, adding with a laugh, “It doesn’t have a sign on it.”

Hutchens doesn’t see her good-natured approach to leadership and local character as anomalous or individual. Rather, she sees herself as part of a series of caring public officials who together make up a pretty remarkable resource for the entire state.

“I am a people person, and getting to know the (League) staff and the Board of Directors and see their many talents has given me a better perspective on the future of cities towns,” she said. “I see a bright future because of the energy shown by these leaders…. It builds a network of knowledge and power to change. It educates and gives many resources to towns that would be difficult to replicate on an individual basis.”