If you see Tom Stevens taking in a view on King Street in downtown Hillsborough, he is likely: a.) admiring an area he had a hand in preserving/improving; b.) admiring a scene he has painted; c.) admiring a scene he plans to paint; or, d.) all of the above.
For 12 years, Tom Stevens was Mayor Tom, working Town Council meetings, listening to the locals, being the face of the town at events and having a key role in planning the future of Hillsborough. In between the endless mayoral duties, Stevens managed to find time to run his leadership consultation business. He also found time to paint the town. Literally.
The walls of Stevens’ art studio on King Street are adorned with oil paintings on square canvases of neighborhood scenes and other familiar sites around Hillsborough. His artist’s eye has made him familiar with tree shadows thrown across windows and porches and with the range of Fall colors along the River Walk.
And while Stevens’ desire to become more familiar with Hillsborough and its community played to his artistic curiosity, it was also key to his decision to run for mayor in 2005.
Stevens has lived in the area for more than 40 years, originally moving to Chapel Hill in 1972.
“About 15 minutes after I set foot in Chapel Hill,” Stevens said, “I knew this is where I needed to be. I’ve been in this area ever since.”
He got a social work degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and worked for many years in Durham as a social worker, including as a director at a family services organization. Stevens and his wife lived in various areas in Orange County until about 25 years ago when they found a little house near downtown Hillsborough. They bought it, moved in shortly after and have not looked back since.
“At a certain point, I changed my career from being involved with a nonprofit agency to starting a consulting agency, which I operated out of my house,” Stevens said. “I found I really missed the community work. I realized I knew very little about the community I was now living in. So, I decided to run for mayor.
“It was a very steep learning curve to community issues, getting involved in the political system,” he said.
Stevens had always had an interest in crafts and the arts, being a professional artist since the 90’s. He became interested in wood working and had a small antique and woodworking tools booth in the Daniel Boone Village.
“For the last 15 years, I was really three things,” said Stevens. “I was working on art; I was being mayor, which in many ways was completely volunteer, but it probably — of all the things — gave me the most sense of identity; and I did my leadership consultancy.”
In good hands
But that was then, and now, Stevens is no longer mayor. He said he is at peace with that and believes Hillsborough is in good hands with Mayor Jenn Weaver.
“I think we have a very cool mayor and it’s historically important to have the first female mayor,” he said. “There is a good balance of continuity from where we’ve been and the things that I was one of many people working on to help steer Hillsborough in a particular direction. We’ve got that solid continuity, but we also have some fresh ideas and perspectives, and I think that’s vitally important, and welcome that as well.”
He said he doesn’t miss much about being the mayor. “There’s always a little bit of a celebration that came with being the face of this town that’s doing so well. Sometimes I miss that. That said, I’m completely at peace and I’m delighted,” said Stevens.
He also is proud of the work he and many of the town’s leaders did to straddle the line of keeping a small-town feel while acknowledging the need to grow.
“I feel like we’ve made good decisions and made investments,” Stevens said. “We’ve picked a direction that keeps small town character. That was really the driving vision in Hillsborough. Given the choices that we have, that some growth was going to be inevitable, and the economic and social pressures that are happening, I feel like that was steered very well. I give a lot of credit to the people who were around me, particularly the town manager and the professionals who advised us as a board. I thought the part I brought to the board was a professional facilitation role of ‘what are we trying to accomplish here?’ That was vitally important. I don’t think we’ve lost that. The town has certainly gotten larger. And there’s some wonderful things. The restaurant choices, the art choices, the vibrancy of the town has really grown. In some ways the diversity of the town and the opportunities here have grown. I think some of those decisions that we made as a community have affected people who have moved in since we made those things happen. For example, deciding to have the development around the interstates and south of the river. That was a very conscious decision with lots of community input, particularly around 2006. We’re going to start seeing that around Daniel Boone and the Collins Ridge today. I fully get it when people say, ‘Oh my goodness. What about the traffic?’ That’s legitimate, but it’s not nearly going to be the traffic we would have had if there was development in the farms north of town. That part has been less visible.
“The town is going to feel more crowded and it’s going to feel a lot of things — I’m less likely to bump into somebody I know. But I remind myself of the perspective and that it’s still a small-town community. The value that holds together are rock solid,” Stevens said. “It’s become a real important place for younger families, I think, and retirees. The pragmatically progressive values that are embodied in the board (town council) — wanting diversity, wanting this to be a place with everybody having a sense of inclusion and participation. Of wanting to take care of our environment, of appreciating not only the historic preservation of some of the buildings, but also going back to the culture. What about the first people who were here and the slaves who built buildings in part of the community. You try to capture what our whole history is. I think that’s very important. And, of course, the Eno River and the natural amenities. If I had one crowning accomplishment, it’s probably the River Walk and that connectivity. And tying that to this whole sense of a small town, how do we make it walkable. One can look in hindsight and say we should polish that more, or take it in a particular direction, but I feel we did well.”
But he said he’s done with that, and has virtually let go of his leadership consulting business. “Art is really something I want to immerse myself in right now.”
And even that is happening almost quicker than he is ready for. When his current studio space came available, Stevens knew he needed to move quickly, especially with regard to the changes happening in that particular part of Hillsborough.
Ready for art
“It’s a little earlier than I was ready for. But the space was available, and these beautiful windows. I knew that if I was going to have a public facing place, I knew I needed to get it now while it was attainable, and then figure out what to do with it. I’m finding myself in a similar position now with King Street being one of the epicenters of this transformation of Hillsborough to this other level. With the restaurant community changing some of the placement of the players. Certainly the restoration of the Colonial Inn. This is a really cool place to be. I have the opportunity to do some expansion here. I think I would have liked to have had a little more transition time. But now is the time. I have to speak up while we’re doing building renovations and fast track plans for what I’m going to do here with the gallery. The current plans are to change a little bit about the footprint of the layout to have more display space. And quite possibly take on some additional space. Exactly what to do with that is still in play. But I know there’s a lot of different needs for art space in Hillsborough. Some of that will be personal studio space, but I also want to have some public events.”
And with that, the Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Mayor Tom is back to being an engine that is helping to drive the future of Hillsborough, seeking to strike that balance between small-town character and controlled growth.
“I thank my lucky stars I get to be here and still be part of it, and want to be part of a vibrant arts scene,” Stevens said. “The arts here is just exploding. I think it has the potential to grow, and in some ways, shape the character of this community. I believe in positive ways that we would never have imagined 10 years ago.”