By Sam Prickett
Stewart Welch doesn’t like talking about the past.
The Mountain Brook mayor, now in his second year in office, demurs when asked about his proudest accomplishments so far.
“Let me take a little bit of a different angle,” he says after a pause. “My brain is all wired forward, so whatever’s in the past is in the past.”
Instead, Welch lays out his plans for the upcoming year, all of which center on what he calls his mantra: communication, communication, communication.
That involves helping local businesses connect with customers, making city government more user-friendly and cooperating with other Over the Mountain mayors on a variety of community initiatives and events.
Welch, a longtime financial executive, says that one of his priorities is helping local businesses combat the “Amazon effect,” which has seen brick-and-mortar stores losing business to online shopping.
“I think it’s a challenge,” Welch says.
Part of his plan for addressing that issue, he says, is to increase citizens’ awareness of community events — which he hopes in turn will increase their engagement with local businesses. He mentions attending an event in the city’s English Village and being surprised at the low turnout.
“There were like 10 people there, when there ought to have been 100, 150 people listening to the band and going into shops and restaurants and all of that! (But) when I’d say to people, ‘Why weren’t you there?’ they’d say, ‘What are you talking about? I didn’t know anything about it!’”
His response to this was to create the Mayor’s Circle of 100, a Monday-morning email newsletter alerting “raging fans of the city” to community events.
“All I’m asking you to do is open the email … and then commit to go to as much as you can!” he says. “Just find something fun that week and go and take somebody with you … . And then you’ve taken those dollars and moved them into the city, because you’re going to go, ‘Oh, I’m going over to Billy’s (Sports Grill) and getting a chicken sandwich to go.’ Or, ‘Let’s have a beer at Otey’s (Tavern).’”
Another initiative designed to support Mountain Brook businesses is the 2018 Mountain Brook Restaurant Trail Challenge, which encourages residents to visit the city’s 49 eateries, a full list of which can be found at the Mountain Brook Chamber of Commerce’s website. Welch says the idea stemmed from a goal he’d originally set just for himself.
“I’m like everybody, I think,” he says. “I’ve got half a dozen places that I just go to all the time. So I said, ‘I’m the mayor. I ought to make a commitment to go to every eatery, take pictures, and post them on the mayor’s website. And then the Chamber of Commerce said, ‘Let’s get the whole community involved!’ So they took my idea and made it much better.”
The challenge, which is open through Dec. 1, encourages participants to document their experiences at local eateries, using the hashtag #i8mb on Instagram and Facebook. Those who go to all 49 businesses on the list will be entered in a grand prize drawing; the winner will receive numerous gift cards to local restaurants, an ice cream cake from Mountain Brook Creamery, and a cooking class and one-night stay at the Grand Bohemian hotel.
“Forty-nine is going to be a challenge,” Welch says. “Really, that’s a lot! But there’s tremendous diversity, so whatever (food) it is you like, there’s one or two of it in the city.”
The Circle of 100 and the restaurant trail both necessitate a strong web presence for the city, which is something Welch says needs an overhaul. The website is being redesigned to be more user-friendly, he says, with the eventual goal of it becoming “the communications center” for Mountain Brook — a place where City Hall, the Emmet O’Neal Library and the chamber are separated by “a maximum of four clicks.” It all comes back to his mantra, he says: “It’s all about communication.”
That mantra also extends to his relationships with his fellow Over the Mountain mayors: Homewood’s Scott McBrayer, Hoover’s Frank Brocato, and Vestavia Hills’ Ashley Curry, two of whom took office about the same time Welch did.
“We looked at Scott and said, ‘There’s a lot we can learn from you because we are just getting started here.’ So we started meeting once a quarter, and we became buddies,” he says. “We created some safe space, you know? ‘Everything said here stays here.’”
But some collaborative ideas did make it out of those meetings. One, for instance, is a rotating series of anti-addiction breakfasts that will happen every quarter. Addressing addiction has been a pet cause for Curry, and the idea caught on with his fellow mayors. “It’s not like one of our communities is drug-free,” Welch says. “That problem is everywhere … . So, we said, ‘Let’s take a step.’”
After connecting with the Alabama Teen Challenge and the Addiction Prevention Coalition, they settled on the idea of the breakfasts, which will feature a speaker and resources for those who are struggling with addiction or know someone struggling with addiction. The first one is slated for March 13 at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church; the second will be in Mountain Brook in the summer.
Roughly a month after that first breakfast, on April 7, Shades Creek Fest will serve as another collaborative effort between two Over the Mountain governments, focused on the body of water that connects Mountain Brook to Homewood. The event, which also will include Friends of Jemison Park’s Arbor Day and Friends of Shades Creek’s Shades Creek Appreciation Day, is aimed at fostering “environmental appreciation” among citizens of both cities, Welch says, and it wouldn’t have happened without that spirit of communication between the city governments.
“I thought, ‘Oh, Scott will be all over this!’” he says. “So I called him and said, this was what I want to do. And he said, ‘I love it, let’s do it!’”
That positivity carries over to Welch’s outlook for Mountain Brook. He sees no immediate challenges or obstacles for the city to face in the coming year — thanks, he says, to talented and efficient city staff.
“The city’s doing well,” he says. “It is extraordinarily well-managed financially, and in every aspect. The City Council is unbelievable. They’re all here for the right reasons. Our department heads all know their business, really care about the city, do a great job, have great people under them … . I’d say we’re a city hitting on all cylinders.”