Thursday, April 13, 2006

Long Haired Fashion Photographer to Mayor?

“Boy, you’re gonna have to cut that hair of yours,” was what Alex Damon’s father-in-law told him in his western Oklahoman drawl when Alex decided to move to Cordell, OK (population 2,867). “And, you can’t be wearing that jewelry that you wear.”

Alex was a fashion photographer who was semi-retired in the Virgin Islands. His wife, who was born and raised in OK, talked him into moving the family (children ages 5, 7 and 11) closer to her family in the summer of 2002. He was a speaker prior to my talk at the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Leadership Education and Arts Development Conference.

When Alex was lamenting to a friend that we was moving to rural Oklahoma, his friend gave him some wise advice, “Make it what you want it to be.” Alex went with an open mind, starting a small photography studio and art gallery ( in the town 100 miles west of Oklahoma City. Alex related to the group, “I went there with an attitude of ‘what the hell, it’s only Cordell. I’d been open for two months when someone called and wanted me to fill in for a vacant seat on the town council. The town was facing state foreclosure because we were in such bad financial shape. I said ‘what the hell, it’s only Cordell.’ When the city clerk, city manager and mayor all resigned they choose me as acting mayor. I like to think that I did such a good job that when I ran for the position that no one else ran against me, but it could have been because no one else wanted the job.”

Within a short period of time he got the city finances turned around. The town is hoping to utilize the assets of their historic downtown to turn it into an arts based economy. Mayor Damon has Arts Space out of Minneapolis looking at assisting him with the establishment of artist’s lofts. Already, he has two Texas artists and one Oklahoman who have agreed to move to the town if he gets the project established.

To assist in the quality of life of the town, Mayor Damon set up a recreational board which through private fundraising and public funding is in the process of building a nine-hole municipal golf course. They also are beginning a ½ mile bike and pedestrian trail that will connect all of the outdoor facilities in town and that he hopes to grow regionally. “We’ve also got a great renovated theater. Now we need to bring in a restaurant, so that when people come to it, we keep them in town a bit longer.”

His gallery has continued to grow and he is in the process of moving into an old car dealership in the downtown that is four times larger than where he started. He has big ideas of other changes that he hopes to make.

Alex Damon is one of the best examples of what one person can do in a town. He’s only been in Cordell for 3 ½ years, but he has developed a shared vision of how life could be better for the town. He told me, “I don’t want this to be known as where a town used to be. We’ve got to make it better.” He won the Governor’s Arts Award for the State of Oklahoma in 2005 and I’m guessing that you are going to be hearing a lot more about him. Be sure to stop in Cordell, if you’re ever driving on I-40 in western OK.

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