Southlake mayor leaves lots of shoes to fill

Mayor Laura Hill courtesy photo

For the past six years, Laura Hill has served as the mayor of Southlake – Southlake’s first woman mayor and Southlake’s first “Mom Mayor.” She has shifted from caring for her three children and their school classes to serving as “Mom” for Southlake’s 31,292 residents and businesses.

Hill has served her two terms, the maximum number allowed by the city charter. Councilmember John Huffman was elected mayor of Southlake on May 1.

Hill is not particularly shy. “I was born with my mouth running and I’ve never stopped,” she jokes. When told that the average person talks 10,000-15,000 words per day, she immediately responded, “Well, then I’m certainly not average. Put me down for at least 25,000.”

She may talk quite a bit, but her greatest success has been found in listening, cultivating, collaboration and finding solutions.

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Raised in Pennsylvania, you would expect her to have been class president or head cheerleader. However, the opposite occurred. “I was a little bit awkward and never in with the popular crowd,” she says. “I tended to know one or two popular girls, but I didn’t travel in that crowd.”

How have things changed. Hill now defines the popular crowd because everyone wants to be inside her inner circle. She has been the head cheerleader of Southlake on a local and regional basis.

How did she transition from an average teen to Southlake’s biggest fan?

“When I was a teen, I babysat for a family and the mother had graduated from Randolph Macon Women’s College in Virginia. Once I put the children down for bed, I would read from the lady’s college annual, and I determined I wanted to go there. Headstrong as I was, I persuaded my parents.”

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The rest is history. The small university’s close-knit classes allowed Laura Hill to build her confidence and she blossomed. Following graduation, she began working for the Stouffer Hotel chain and eventually traveled the country opening new hotel properties for 12 years.

“My boss came to me one day and said that while I achieved a lot on my own, my people skills were lacking. I was working primarily alone, rather than in teams. My boss taught me how I could collaborate and motivate others. That boss transformed my soft skills.”

Her hotel management career was interrupted when her father, Wallace Downey – who turns 90 this month – asked her to come to Texas to help him manage the family business, Downey Publishing.

Those people skills have served her well. Mayor Laura credits her father for teaching her insightful life lessons that have transformed her as a leader and manager:

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  • Every day, fix one thing
  • Leave the day better than you found it
  • Turn negatives into positives

These three concepts have served her well during her terms as mayor, which expire when the new mayor is sworn in on May 11th.

Laura Hill began her public service trek in 2004, when she won election to the Southlake City Council. With a passion for students and young people, she co-founded the first of several youth-focused organizations – S.P.A.R.K. (Students and Parents Abuse Risks to our Kids).

    Next came S.A.S.O. (Scholars and Athletes Serving Others) and then S.K.I.L. (Southlake Kids Interested in Leadership). In each case organization she established outlined core principles, helped launch each concept and then provided ongoing input along the way.

    One of her favorite youth-oriented activities has been Mayor for a Day, in which a student shadows her for three hours, sort of “walks in her shoes” by hearing her conversations regarding current decisions. Each student is encouraged to ask her questions.

Hill estimates that she has hosted over 100 students as Mayor for a Day during her two terms.

“One of my joys is to walk in the Carroll Dragon Homecoming Parade and hear the voices of students of all ages shout, ‘There goes MY mayor!’”

In addition to availing herself to students, Hill has reached out to both the public and the business community by hosting special events:

  • Coffee and Conversation – Join the mayor for a free cup of coffee and feel free to ask anything – ANYTHING! – that’s on your mind, with no holds barred
  • Meet the Mayor – Talk with the mayor during this after-hours appearance that local businesses host
  • Business Mentoring – The Southlake City Council partnered with the Southlake Chamber of Commerce to offer three hours of free mentoring from council members during the pandemic

Of course, she loves to volunteer and attend the city’s signature event – Oktoberfest.

Hill took an impressive lead during the COVID-19 pandemic. She led the Southlake City Council to spearhead a $1 million grant program that offered up to $10,000 grants to local businesses that were negatively impacted by the pandemic.

She led the effort to dramatically increase the City’s response to social media by encouraging online conversations. It’s not unusual for her to respond to as many as 10 direct message requests from Facebook – in a single day.

“I love social media and it works best when people respond in a timely manner. I always keep my phone with me, and I do my very best to respond within minutes whenever I can. I’ve shocked some people with their very direct access to the mayor.

When asked, “What has it meant to you to be mayor?” Hill responds with such words as “collaboration”, “partnership”, “listening” and “embrace.”

Southlake has been a diverse community since its inception in 1956. The Bob Jones Nature Center & Preserve is a point of local pride, consisting of 758 acres that connect Southlake to Lake Grapevine. The center is named after Bob Jones, who was born a slave in 1850 and became a prosperous and respected farmer and rancher in the Southlake area.

Hill created the Mayor’s Alliance for Unity and Culture in 2018 following a tough and candid conversation with a group of Southlake High School students about race and discrimination.

That same year, she helped establish Celebrate Southlake as a community event to bring the residents of Southlake together to celebrate cultural diversity through food, music, entertainment and engaging conversations.

Business has boomed during her half-dozen years in office with such major companies as TD Ameritrade (now part of Charles Schwab) and VariSpace moving in. The hotel landscape continues to evolve with a new Cambria, Delta Hotel by Marriott, as well as a Westin scheduled to open before yearend.

Hill takes great pride in the city council lowering the tax rate for the third year in a row, with two of those years being below the effective rate. During that same time, the council has raised the homestead exemption to its highest level allowed, at 20%. The bottom line is that taxpayers are paying a net of less money for each year.

Hill has learned a lot and she has focused on sharing her insights so the Southlake City Council will continue to thrive well beyond her terms.

“To begin with, I have taken notice of smart, energetic leaders. These difference-makers have moved up from boards and commissions to serve on Council, and one of them will become our next mayor.”

She continues, “We have hired and trained very well with City staff. When one of our department heads may depart for an elevated position out of town, we already have their replacement – fully trained – ready to step in.”

Her advice for leaders, both within city government and in all enterprises, is amazingly simple:

  1. Your success is all about people – how well they connect with you, how much they trust you and how much they believe that you believe in them
  2. You must be genuine – people can recognize a fake from a distance, and they are attracted to real people
  3. Stay yourself – some people will like you and others won’t; gravitate to those who do while being kind to those who don’t
  4. Never fear communicating openly and transparently
  5. Be the bridge – when polarizing views separate your community or constituency, work to become the bridge that brings both sides together

And the shoes? Oh, the shoes! Mayor Laura is renowned for her dazzling assortment of shoes that began with the grand opening of The Marq conference center in 2015. She wore glittery silver shoes and received positive comments.

Next was the July 3 Stars & Stripes event, when she took a photo from the Mayor’s Balcony on the fourth floor of City Hall with her feet crossed and the view of Southlakers walking the gazebo area. From that vantage point, her “move” was to position her crossed feet with something clever and memorable in either the foreground or background – of course, covered with her signature decorated shoes.

Graduating classes for her six years of service have all decorated pairs of shoes for her, as have members of Carroll Dragon sports teams. Shoe themes include the American Flag (Stars & Stripes only!), flower shoes, Christmas shoes and even Girl Scouts Thin Mint Cookies.

“I’ve been blessed with wearing the same shoe size since high school,” continues Hill. “That has allowed me to keep some classic and clever shoes. Now, years later, each time that I buy a pair of shoes, I give one pair away.”

Reflecting on a change she’s proud of, she points to public art. “We had art expressed throughout the community but without a plan. We have developed a structure that allowed us to engage with public art on a more professional level that includes murals, statues and metalwork that has heightened the experience of visiting our community.”

What’s next for Laura Hill? That pesky Park Village Fountain at the corner of Southlake Boulevard and Carroll Avenue, for sure. She promises that the community will be able to enjoy the newly redesigned fountain by the Stars & Stripes celebration on July 3rd.

Career-wise, Hill concludes, “I will continue to manage Downey Publishing and I want to return to public service in one capacity or another. It could be county, or state or federal. You haven’t seen the last of me!”