An Interview with Bunnell Mayor: Catherine Robinson
When it comes to an eponymous, city-honoring festival, comments from the mayor are to be expected. Indeed, in many ways you can say that Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson is the city personified: She’s spent the last 20 years serving in one political capacity or another, and she also spent nearly her first 20 years coming of age here, too.
For her, Bunnell means far more than just farming,
though an examination of the city’s farming past will certainly tell you quite a bit.
With that said, it seems like a good idea to have the mayor gift us with some reflections from both periods.
Technically, while a North Floridian through and through, Robinson didn’t start in Bunnell. Her grandfather, who had fled France so as not to be forcibly conscripted into Hitler’s army, landed regionally and immediately set forth building his own legacy. He built it literally out of rocks in the form of A1A’s Rocks Motel, quarrying the coquina directly from Flagler Beach’s coastal waters. Robinson spent her first year under her grandparents’ eye at that motel. Her father was overseas serving in Korea at the time.
Robinson was three when she moved to Bunnell, where she would go on to graduate from the one K-12 school there at the time, Bunnell High. (The high school location has since been replaced by the local elementary school.)
After graduating, she left the city for 15 years, a time during which she resided in larger Florida cities such as Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and Palatka. She had her hands full, raising a bunch of young babies and working as a dietitian in “big city” hospitals, she says. She never expected she’d come back.
But she did, in 1986, with her second husband, working in her mother’s appliance and furniture store, which had opened its doors in the 50s. The store had served as the primary provider for G.E. appliances used in Palm Coast construction.
She’d forgotten how much she loved growing up here.
That small town-ness is something that either appeals to your heart or it doesn’t.
While her children were grown by this time, her own memories of growing up quickly flooded back to her.
“It was very safe. The kids all knew each other. Everybody knew each other. We’d walk to school together. We’d play after school until our parents would get back from work,” she says.
The school had summer programs common in small rural areas. She credits one such program for teaching her how to swim. What today is the Eddie Johnson soccer field used to be the Bunnell High football field, and she remembers walking to the games with her Dad at night and seeing the field illuminated under those “Varsity Blues” kind of lights.
“Those are those small town experiences, where you played out in the grass and you played all Summer…And you rode your bikes up and down the streets–I can remember when the hurricanes would come through and it was flooded up to the seat and we would ride our bikes through the streets with them totally flooded…”
While Mayor Robinson enjoys the memory, fortunately, the city’s drainage system is much better today, she says.
Her father had been the superintendent of schools and his office was in the old courthouse behind which the Bunnell Festival is to be held. She remembers running up the courthouse steps and entering his office, seeing him sitting there “behind this large desk, thinking it was the greatest thing,” she says.
Her father was also involved in politics which might just have been prescient, looking ahead to her own political future.
Though she wouldn’t have known it at the time. “Of course I was clueless,”she says, when it came to the issues back then. Yet, she does recollect those early election parties so routine in her childhood: all those people–some known, some not–sitting outside in their lawn chairs in the yard, waiting for election results to be tallied on the big board at the courthouse, waiting for her father to get the call with the news.
When she ended up running for elective office, herself, it was for a position on the Bunnell City Commission Board.
Her father had always said,
“If you have a problem, you go and find a solution. Don’t just sit there and complain about it.”
It happened that people on her street were complaining about the high millage rate.
“So I made the mistake of showing up at a meeting and it was like a moth to a light,” she says. After two resignations and the news that two officials wouldn’t be returning, four positions were available. Three of the four were two-year positions; one was one-year.
“I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do this,” she says. But she prayed about it and got the confirmation from above. She should run only for the one-year position. There were seven people contending for the two-year positions. No one else was running for the one-year. Robinson ran unopposed.
Since then, over the course of that 20-year span, Robinson has admittedly evolved from “the Pollyanna” who “sits in the chair, thinking why can’t we get these things done,“ to a more realistic politician, one who understands her constraints and how slow local government can move.
The matter of who would get the old courthouse where her father used to work, upgrading the city’s water plant and the long-term landscaping project on Moody Blvd and US1 were all large issues that she’s had to deal with throughout her tenure.
2013’s year-round Bunnell centennial celebration was her personal highlight. The celebration involved a historical reenactment based on the minutes of the city’s first council meeting, produced by the city clerk. So, one hot July day, the council members were photographed in period costumes, walking around Lake Lucille, carrying a time capsule to be buried and then disinterred 50 years later.
While the biggest changes she encountered were “the great annexations” that took the city from two to four to 140 square miles between 2005-2007.
As a result, Bunnell is the second largest Florida city, in terms of land mass.
Among all those square acres, there are 30 farms–a huge driver for the region, accounting for an estimated $303 million economic impact.
“But it’s kind of a silent giant out there,” Robinson says.
Not everyone realizes this, especially those who aren’t native to the region.
What the festival does is highlight the heritage and also the impact; it’s a statement of county and city pride–keeping agriculture in the forefront.
“Sometimes dreams die and dreams have to resurrect themselves,”
Robinson says. It’s not like she hasn’t seen this before in the city.
Her mother’s furniture and appliance store, the one which brought her back here to begin with, is a perfect example.
Robinson took over the store in 2002 after her mother fell ill. It wasn’t long before she decided to close and liquidate, a difficult decision. The building became a charter school for a while and Robinson was happy, as both of her parents had been teachers. But the school would close after only a few years.
“And what happened? The city of Bunnell ended up buying that same building that my mother owned in 1956 and moved into in 1960 or 61, so we’re back in the same building I was raised in, my brother and sister were raised in. The terrazzo floor is still there, the columns are still there, and yet it’s being used as a city hall for all the city staff.”
It was the same with the old courthouse which kindled all those memories of her father. Just recently it was leased to a private Christian school.
“I don’t need to own it to be happy and thrilled that it’s going to be used. There’s going to be life back in that courthouse.” The school will also be an economic driver, she says.
When it comes to this inaugural event, May 16, the same thinking applies.