Watson leaving office after 40 years of service
by Elsie Hodnett
LINCOLN — He is retiring on the 40th anniversary of the day he took the oath of office to serve his city.

“I took one term off during all that time,” said Carroll L. “Lew” Watson, who was first elected mayor of Lincoln in 1972 at the age of 29.

Watson said he left before the end of one term in 1991 and sought employment elsewhere, and did not run for election for the 1992-1996 term. He was re-elected in 1996 and has served Lincoln since.

“No other mayor of Lincoln was elected more than three terms,” he said. “I’ve been elected nine terms. At this time, not another elected official has served more time than I have in this county.”

If you add in his military service, approximately four-and-a-half years in the U.S. Army, add that together and it’s 40 years of public service.”

Watson said that in 1972, Lincoln had a census population of 1,127. The 2010 census lists Lincoln with a population of 6,266, which is a 456 percent increase.

“We had one stoplight,” he said. “It was by the old high school on Magnolia Street put there so the kids at the old elementary school (where the new City Hall is) could walk across the street to the lunchroom. Everyone was upset about it. No one saw the need for a light there.”

Watson said the light was installed in 1971 and taken down in late 1972.

“We took it down — not one person complained,” he said. “And one never got put back in because no one wanted it back.”

Watson said when he took office, the previous 1968 administration had laid the foundation for expansion and growth, because they recognized the need.

“We built on that beginning,” he said.

Watson said at that time, the city had no recreational park properties at all.

“We saw a need, so we got a grant to build Moseley Park, and it was completed in 1975,” he said. “We also got a grant for land for Kirksey Park, which is called First Avenue Park, in 1976 and also England Park, where the Blue Eye Creek Walking Trail is today. We felt parks would help increase the quality of life for our residents.”

Watson said Piney Grove Park was created in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

“After Honda Manufacturing of Alabama arrived, we began plans for Lincoln Park, which opened in 2008,” he said. “And construction is under way for the Blue Eye Creek Fishing Trail, which is a handicapped-accessible fishing trail in old downtown Lincoln. We have grown our parks system tremendously, and it is a source of pride for our community. I’ve had feedback from people from other cities and our own residents, and they are very impressed with Lincoln Park.”

Watson said there were numerous other projects to tackle after he first took office.

“The community wanted an overpass over Magnolia Street from the old elementary school to the old high school, because a traffic signal wasn’t the answer,” he said. “We built a school overpass in the late 1970s.”

Watson said during that timeframe the city also built its first wastewater treatment plant.

“The city owned buildings, but we built our first City Hall in 1976,” he said. “We organized a library in a room in City Hall. The state recognized it, but said it was the smallest recognized library in Alabama (at that time). The library expanded to a different room in City Hall until we finally built the current library in the late 1970s.”

Watson said in the late 1970s, the city also established a full-time paid fire department and on its heels an ambulance service.

“We went from a Class 10 ISO rating to a Class 8,” he said. “We have continued to develop and have a Class 3 rating currently, which is one of the best in the area.”

Watson said Lincoln successfully recruited its first industry, Clow Industry, in the 1970s but it closed after a few years. The city recruited Bayliner Marine, which occupied the building after Clow Industry closed.

“In 1974, NASCAR founder Bill France met with Gov. George Wallace to present the idea of building the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Alabama,” he said. “They began a site search and looked for a way to make it happen.”

Watson said there were numerous meetings that went on for years until the early 1980s.

“No one could figure out exactly how to do it,” he said. “Then Bill offered the idea to the cities surrounding the Talladega Superspeedway. Everybody was interested, but had the same problem of how to do it. Then one day Travis McCaig came into my office and asked how they had done the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and the USS Alabama battleship. And I said, ‘Travis, you’ve got it — that’s how to do it.’”

Watson said he obtained the legislation, marked out the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and put in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

“We met with Sen. Donald Stewart and invited then general manager of the Talladega Superspeedway Don Naman to make a presentation,” he said. “Sen. Stewart took our proposed bill and it was introduced the next week by Rep. Gerald Dial. It was approved in the early 1980s and construction began the next year. It opened in 1982 and that’s how the International Motorsports Hall of Fame came into existence. It was pure luck Travis presented the idea in the first place. If he hadn’t come up with the idea, I’m not sure it would have happened at all.”

Watson said a number of annexations during the 1970s and 1980s that brought the city an 82 percent population increase.

“Our water system in 1972 had 372 customers with a very limited service area,” he said. “We began expanding our water system to pick up more customers. The water system was just being built when I took office and as soon as it was completed we began expanding. Today, we have more than 3,200 water customers and provide service to a large portion of the north end of the county. And we are still expanding.”

Watson said another thing residents really wanted was cable TV.

“We contacted five different cable companies, and all of them told me ‘no’ over the phone,” he said. “One had the decency to come out and look and said they would only do the central area of town, which we did not find acceptable. I did some research, and found the federal government had funds available for building cable TV systems.”

Watson said when he went to the source of funding, he discovered it was transferred to a different part of the government, the Rural Electric Administration.

“The REA folks said they had never done a cable TV loan, but the city needed an engineer and provided a list,” he said.

Watson said as he began calling the engineers on the approved list, he kept getting turned down.

“The very last engineer on the list decided he would take the project,” he said. “We had things started, and it was during the time of the 1980 presidential changeover, when we got a call saying they needed all the paperwork in one week or we wouldn’t get funding. The engineer said, ‘I’ll have everything ready — get a plane ticket and hand-carry it to Washington.’ So I did — I carried the plans into the federal office. They unwrapped the plans and were overjoyed with the engineer firm’s work, so everything went through and we got the first REA loan to build a cable TV system.”

Watson said the cable TV system was put in operation in 1982.

“We had to have a special legislative act signed into law granting us the authority to build a cable system, and they limited it to Talladega County,” he said. “Shortly thereafter, we expanded to 39 channels, which had more channels than some of the competing cable companies offered in neighboring cities at that time.”

Watson said around that time, the city also lost its doctor.

“We went after and received a grant to build a medical center and recruited a doctor, the first dentist the city had in 50 years, and a mental health therapist,” he said.

Watson said the next major project was Honda.

“I received a call on the last Friday in February 1999 from Calvin Miller, who was the county economic development coordinator, and he wanted to know if we could come up with 1,500 acres for a possible large industry,” he said. “At that time, the city was preparing a letter to T.J. Watson & Sons Inc. asking for an option on some of the property they owned for industrial recruitment. We amended the letter to include the additional land where the Honda site is today.”

Watson said the following week, T.J. Watson & Sons approved to grant the city the options.

“The Honda site selection committee began looking at the Lincoln site, and in early March we attended our first meeting with the site selection committee,” he said. “It was a matter of secrecy, so we held the meeting at 6 a.m. on a Friday morning in Birmingham. We learned Honda had been in Alabama looking for a site since January 1998. They told the state to find them a site or they were gone.”

Watson said they had already looked at the Lincoln site by the first meeting in March, and it became obvious it was becoming a serious study.

“At our early April meeting, they told us they would make the announcement in May 1999,” he said. “That’s how quickly Honda came to Lincoln. We were Alabama’s last shot at this project. If we hadn’t come up with the site, they wouldn’t be in Alabama today.”

Watson said with Honda came a lot of city improvements.

“Honda brought us the largest residential development activity to this city with more than 22 new subdivisions,” he said. “It has been very positive for Lincoln. We were also able to build a new wastewater treatment plant that allows for future growth.”

Watson said in 2008, the city pursued a Community Development Block Grant for the Lincoln Streetscape Project, which renovated old downtown Lincoln and was completed in 2010.

The city also began plans for a new City Hall and Fire Station in 2007, because the city had greatly outgrown the first City Hall, which was built in 1976.

Watson said the old city hall and fire station combined was approximately 4,500 square feet. The new City Hall is almost 13,000 square feet and features a large courtroom/council chambers, 14 offices, a conference room, drive-thru access and more. The new fire station is almost 12,500 square feet and can house all of the department’s equipment. Both new facilities offer room to grow.

“I have really enjoyed working and helping grow my community,” he said. “We have laid the foundation for future retail growth and are currently working to recruit retail. I think we will see good retail growth at the end of this decade, or certainly the start of the next decade. We have come a long way, and the foundation and infrastructure is there.”

Watson said after four decades of service, it is time to retire.

“I don’t feel I’m as effective as I was in my earlier years,” he said. “I think it’s the time for someone else, who shares my enthusiasm for the city to continue its growth, to take the reins and continue the city’s growth into the future.”

Watson said all the accomplishments were not made by him alone.

“In public service as mayor, you can’t accomplish anything without the support of the city council, department heads and city employees,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to work with people who shared the same desire to see the community grow, and want to thank them for their service.”

Contact Elsie Hodnett at ehodnett@dailyhome.com.

© 2012