OPINION: A coach and mayor, trying to get wins for his hometown

Mayor Tony Lamar and the leaders of Talbotton are hoping growth in Georgia might help their town east of Columbus grow, too.

Credit: Credit Patricia Murphy

Credit: Credit Patricia Murphy

Mayor Tony Lamar and the leaders of Talbotton are hoping growth in Georgia might help their town east of Columbus grow, too.

TALBOTTON, Ga.-- The silence in this red-brick, crossroads town of 742 might be the best thing and the worst thing about it.

The county seat of Talbot County is about a two-hour drive from Atlanta, and so peaceful it’s easy to forget there’s 5 p.m. traffic happening somewhere else, as there was when I visited Monday. In fact, there are no stresses of city or suburban life to deal with there, and that’s part of the problem.

Like so many towns south of Atlanta, Talbotton is shrinking, having lost more than 200 residents since 2010. So the city council, local leaders, and the mayor, Tony Lamar, are brainstorming every day about how to breathe new life into the place.

They want to attract jobs to bring young people in and new housing for them to live in. They’re hoping a newly approved rock quarry in the county might bring traffic and businesses to town. Maybe the nearby rail line would make it an attractive logistics center? So much of the state is booming. Why not this town, too?

I visited Talbotton in 2021 during my first Georgia politics road trip. Tony Lamar was a hit with our readers, who marveled at his many roles as a health teacher at the local high school, a football coach, track coach, and chairman of the county health board — on top of being mayor. That’s the way it goes in small communities, he said, people do what needs to be done.

Lamar told me then that the town he grew up in was struggling, but getting by, and that the biggest blow until that point had been the loss of the local Piggly Wiggly a few years before. Its closure had taken away not just fresh food, but a critical source of medicine, jobs, a tax base, and a community gathering spot.

Two years later, I wanted to see how Talbotton and Mayor Lamar were getting on, so I made the trip back this week.

The bad news is that the shell of the empty Piggly Wiggly is still there, with clumps of grass pushing up through the cracked-pavement parking lot, and thick vines crawling over its sides. No new store has come in its place.

But there’s been good news in town since my last visit, too.

Former House Speaker John Boehner used to say that politics is like football, where incremental progress is what eventually wins the game. “Three yards and a cloud of dust,” he’d repeat at Capitol Hill press conferences

Lamar isn’t exactly like Boehner, but the football analogy applies to Talbotton, especially since the mayor was still wearing his coach’s jersey from football practice just before our interview at City Hall.

“We’re not getting as many first downs, but we are getting some first downs,” he said. “We’re still in the game.”

A crucial first down since I was last there has been the return of New Horizons, a mental health treatment facility , along with a new first responder vehicle for the fire department, purchased with COVID recovery funds.

Talbotton was also the backdrop for one of U.S. Raphael Warnock’s final stops of his 2022 Senate campaign against Herschel Walker. Had Warnock’s staff ever followed up after the press conference, I wondered? Yes, Lamar said, and the senator’s field representative has visited town since then. Warnock’s office is helping them apply for a grant to improve its sewer system and even pointed them toward a contact at Food Lion to talk about getting a new grocery store in town.

Looking ahead, there are plans to put a new Boys and Girls Club for Talbot County in town. “Young people would have a place to go, a safe haven where they could go and recreate and maybe take workshops, maybe get tutoring,” the mayor said.

Like nearly every other town I’ve visited this year, Talbotton has not been immune from crime since 2020. They’ve had two shootings in the last two years, including one during a domestic dispute, and shoplifting, too. So the chief of police, James Biggs, started a reserve officer program to supplement the town’s small police department. So far, he said, it’s making a difference.

Like Lamar, Biggs grew up in Talbotton, and he’s back after a 30-year career in the Navy and law enforcement. “Before my mom passed, I promised her I’d come back and serve my home community,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

As we wrapped up our interview, Lamar shared some of the happiest news for Talbotton in years — the Central High School Hawks football team had snapped a years-long losing streak to win Friday night. Like the mayor and the chief of police, the new head coach grew up in Talbotton and is back home now, too.

“I felt like a weight was lifted off their shoulders,” he mayor said of the players.

Lamar is planning to run for mayor again in 2024, but he said he tells his students they need to start thinking about becoming leaders in town someday.

“I tell them all the time that somebody in this room needs to get themselves ready to take my place, whether it’s as mayor, or physical education teacher or on the health commission,” he said. When one student joked that he’d run against Lamar when he turns 18, the mayor responded, “‘I’ll congratulate you. And if you need some help and coaching in the job, I’ll be glad to do that, too.”

In some ways, it feels like Talbotton is working against a rip tide of money and power that’s flowing north toward Atlanta more every year. But they’re still working in Talbotton and moving forward, and that’s the point. Three yards and a cloud of dust.