Max Bacon. Whatever he does, he does with a flourish.
So it was that last week during his State of the City message in Smyrna before a packed house, Hizzoner stunned the attendees by announcing that he would not be seeking re-election as mayor after 34 years at the helm. Say it ain’t so, Max.
Smyrna without Max Bacon as its mayor is like Laurel without Hardy, Damon without Pythias, the Lone Ranger without Tonto. It is hard to imagine one without the other.
A native of Smyrna, Bacon was elected to the City Council while his father, Arthur, was serving as mayor. Upon the death of the elder Bacon, he was named mayor by the City Council in November 1985 and, as they say, the rest is history.
It wasn’t all that many years ago that the city of Smyrna was the butt of a lot of jokes. In a 1987 article in National Geographic magazine, writer Erla Zwingle caused a local stir when she dubbed Smyrna a “redneck” town. Since that article was published, Smyrna has fared a lot better than National Geographic. The magazine has half the circulation and has sold most of its assets to Fox. Meanwhile, Smyrna is consistently rated one of the top 50 cities in the country.
I first met Max Bacon a number of years ago at the behest of the late Harry West, who was president of the Atlanta Regional Commission and a highly respected urban planner. He told me that Smyrna was one of the best examples in the nation of creating a new downtown where a mix of young people and families could live near their work and enjoy a choice of parks, restaurants and festivals without ever getting in their car.
West added that Smyrna has been transformed because of the vision and determination of Mayor Max Bacon. West told me the mayor took him on a tour of empty lots and dilapidated buildings and described to him how it would all change. West said Bacon was true to his word. He suggested that I take a look for myself.
When I told the mayor what West said, he was quick to give credit to a lot of people, including city council members and community leaders for their part in the resurrection of Smyrna. But it clearly would not have happened without him.
When talk of re-establishing downtown Smyrna was first discussed in 1988, he was told it would take 30 years to complete. The mayor’s answer was typical: “I don’t have 30 years.” The project was finished in a little less than half that time. The first phase opened in 1991. The Municipal Services Building and the Public Safety/Jail facilities followed six years later. The new Market Village, the crown jewel of the master plan, opened in 2002. By all measures, the project has been a great success, to say the least.
But Bacon admits his political career was on the line when plans to redo downtown Smyrna were announced. One longtime resident opposed to the project pointed out a couple of old oak trees to him. “See those trees?” he asked, “Well, if this thing doesn’t work, that’s where we are going to hang you.” Bacon said he was confident in his vision, but somehow those two oaks mysteriously died a couple of months later. I’m not sure whether he was serious or not. You never know with Max Bacon.
What you see with the man is what you get. Like him or not — and I do — there is not a phony bone in his body. He clearly has a zest for life. Maybe that is because he appreciates life more than many of us since he has survived not one but two heart attacks.
He is one of those rare people who says what he thinks with impunity. He also has a great ability to poke fun at himself, an unusual trait for a politician. For example, he says, “I tell people I’m not overweight, I’m just too short for what I weigh.”
At his State of the City address, Bacon mentioned he had been married three times. He said, “You would have thought I could have kept one of them. I think if you asked all three wives, they’d tell you they still loved me. They just don’t want to have anything to do with me.”
Behind the tomfoolery and the self-deprecation is a man who, through his drive, vision and leadership, has transformed a sleepy little town into a vibrant city of more than 50,000 and which now serves as a model of what tomorrow’s cities should look like.
Someone will replace Max Bacon as mayor of Smyrna. But no one will replace Max Bacon, the man. He is one of a kind. And we are better for it.