Photos Rob Smith
Concern for the welfare and well-being of the community is at the root of Mayor Sundai Stevenson’s desire to serve. Newly elected as mayor, she hits the ground running with Rome’s housing expansion initiative already in full swing.
Q: As a city commissioner, for years your priority has been serving the citizens and helping the city of Rome meet their needs. As our newly elected mayor, how do your responsibilities change?
A: Serving the citizens and helping the city of Rome meet the citizen’s needs will remain my priority. However, each city commissioner’s duties includes serving on specific committees dedicated to public safety and specific functions of city operations. As mayor, I’m tasked along with the city manager with assigning the commissioners to those committees.
The shift in responsibilities entails me working more closely with City Manager, Sammy Rich. Our city manager is tasked with the day-to-day functioning of the city. I meet with him at least three times a week, sometimes more, as issues arise. As mayor, the paperwork requirements increase dramatically. The mayor is also required to serve on the Rome/Floyd Development Authority Board. There also are added interactions with other local and regional lead elected officials.
An example of this would be a phone call I recently received from the office of one of our US Senators inquiring about our local needs and concerns. Our regular scheduled Commission meetings take place on the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month.
Q: How do you hope to inspire other members of our community who too strive to break barriers?
A: My parents always told my siblings and I, “You know, you’re not better than anyone else, but you’re just as good.” They insisted that we had to make a difference in whatever we pursued. When someone breaks a ceiling, it usually inspires others. They look and say to themselves, “I can do that too.” It opens the possibilities they see in themselves, in the goals they set, and the work they choose. When I was first elected, I received a phone call from my old youth choir director, telling me how proud she was, “Who would have thought…”
Sometimes we never know exactly where we’re going or how we’re going to get there. However, situations in life help prepare us for what’s to come later. One of the secrets to success is persistence and perseverance. Go after your dreams. Prepare for your own potential greatness. If you get knocked down, never be afraid to get back up. It is such an honor to serve Rome, and I hope I can inspire others just like others inspired me.
Q: Your dedication to Rome is evident in your extensive biography: coordinating for Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce’s High School Leadership Program, being one of the founding members of One Community United, serving on the board of several organizations like Good Neighbor Ministries and Open Door Children’s Home, working with H.O.P.E Initiative, and coordinating with the Northwest Georgia Girl Scouts Council. Tell me what drives your ambition to get involved?
A: When I was a small child, my father was in a terrible car accident on his way to work one day. His cousin, whom he carpooled with was killed in that accident and my father was left paralyzed from the waist down. He spent nearly thirteen months in the VA hospital and my siblings and I had to help our mother who was pregnant at the time manage the household.
When my dad came back home, he constantly showed us how grateful he was to be alive and back in Calhoun, GA. He refused to allow his circumstances to stop him from helping others. For anyone who needed help my father was always willing to give of himself. He never let his disability hinder him. He would always tell us, “If you can do something to help someone have a better life, you do that.” That is something that has stuck with me my whole life.
Before I had children, I was a social worker. I have witnessed people and families struggle with true crisis in their lives. I have seen people suffer through some horrific tragedies, that hardened my resolve to help people. I care about people; this is ultimately what motivates me to do what I do.
Showing local high school students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different schools, and different local communities that Floyd Countians work together daily regardless of their differences to push our community forward, is one of the things I valued most while serving as coordinator of the Chamber’s High School Leadership program.
Supporting our community through Good Neighbor Ministries, the Open-Door Children’s Home, and other non-profits continues to give me insights into the ups and downs of our fellow citizens who sometimes want to remain in the shadows. We have a great non-profit community! Collectively, it is amazing how many hours and dollars our nonprofits pour into our community. What most of our nonprofits have in common is their drive to help people have a better quality of life.
Q: You are a founding member of One Community United; an organization very dear to you. Can you tell us about its mission and this year’s focus toward community healing?
A: Our mission at One Community United is to bring racial harmony and meld separate communities into a more unified community. We have discussions around meals where new and old acquaintances of all races, ethnic backgrounds, religious and non-religious affiliations, and different political persuasions are welcome. We gather together on a regular basis (not so much since COVID) with the express purpose of getting to know other folk outside of our comfortable circles.
For the most part, the response has been positive since our inception six years ago. This year one of our priorities is to focus on the issue of disparities in education through our South and East Rome Initiative. We are working with school administrators, teachers, and parents in those areas that see the largest disparities in academic performance.
We will aim to identify different barriers that are hindering children from being able to maximize their capabilities. It could be a child is acting out because they don’t have the proper clothing, or school supplies. There might be larger issues that need addressing. We will offer support not only to the principals of those schools, but also support for the parents and community by meeting and discussing these issues full circle. We are working this year to continue building relationships within our local communities.
Q: Can you describe the push for housing development in the area, and subsequently the changes we are seeing around town?
A: This housing push has been several years in the making, and certainly not something that has happened overnight. When we speak of economic development and bringing in new industry, the issue of available housing is an important variable. Companies consider the availability of housing when they look at Rome as a potential landing spot.
Our previous mayor, Craig McDaniel, put together a special committee on housing after hearing the outcry of our citizens about the shortage of available housing. Right now, we have numerous teachers and healthcare workers commuting to Rome from out of town because they are unable to find adequate and/or available housing in our city. Every week, our population nearly doubles Monday through Friday.
People come to Rome to work at our healthcare facilities, schools, etc. and to attend one of our institutions of higher education. Many of these commuters face upwards of a 30–45 minute drive each way. Hopefully, as new single-family homes, apartment complexes, etc. are built, commuters will be able to work, live, and spend their money here in Rome.
Rome has a lot of new development activities happening right now. There is a substantial revitalization project happening in South Rome. South Rome Alliance is helping our community answer the call for the need for more affordable housing. When the word affordable is used, it doesn’t always mean subsidized.
The South Meadows project is mainly workforce affordable housing. The South Rome Alliance is an example of people working together. While receiving input from different voices in the South Rome neighborhoods, public and private entities are joining forces to create the South Meadows community.
In West Rome, we have several new projects in various stages of development. Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Big Dan’s car wash are examples of new retail development in West Rome. North Rome will soon be home to The Varsity, an iconic Georgia restaurant. In East Rome, the Northwest Georgia Housing Authority is near completion of a new 80-family housing development. Upgrades to several of our parks are on the horizon. The moral behind these stories is that success is much easier to obtain when we are willing to work together.
Q: Fast forward 50 years, what would you like to reflect on is your legacy in town?
A: I want people to say that I was kind, cared about the wellbeing of others, and worked hard to improve our community.