By Morgan Bryce
Recently retired chamber of commerce president and former Opelika mayor Barbara Patton said she hopes people remember her as someone who was guided by her faith, principles and love for both her family and the community.
“I hope people … when they talk about me, say that she put God first in her life, her family second, and her city third. That she tried to do the right thing, and tried to be a part of the community,” Patton said.
Patton became Opelika’s first female mayor in 1996, and served until 2004. She said running for mayor first crossed her mind when a group of concerned Opelikans approached her about the possibility.
“They knew that I was involved in a lot of civic activities and cared a lot about Opelika, and that I had some business background,” Patton said. “At first, I told them no, but they kept sending people. Finally, I told them that if they really wanted me to do this, then they needed to talk to my husband, and if he consented, I would do it. They pursued him, and he came home to me after work one day and said if you want to do this, it’s ok with me … and I did.”
In her eight years as mayor, Opelika saw significant growth in both its industries and economy, as well as major revisions of the city’s infrastructure, to accommodate for the growing population and increased business presence downtown. She attributed her success as mayor to the competent leadership surrounding her.
“We had a lot of good department heads that really helped me learn in that first year and the other years I was mayor … it’s about everybody coming together, and no one person does it all,” Patton said.
Patton was defeated in her bid for a third term as Opelika’s mayor by current Mayor Gary Fuller, and spent the next six years working part time for Hilyer and Associates, operating her family business Heritage Gifts, and serving as executive director for the community organization Envision Opelika.
In 2010, the chamber of commerce was looking for a new president. At the beckoning of similarly concerned citizens and her own passion for civic work, Patton applied, and was ultimately chosen as the chamber’s next president.
Patton said seeing the growth of chamber of commerce programs like Young Entrepreneurs and Young Leaders, as well as increasing recognition of the city and the development of strong city leaders have been the most satisfactory parts of being the chamber’s president.
Thoughts of retiring from the chamber crossed Patton’s mind in early fall, and said deciding to leave the job she loved was a difficult decision to make.
“Anytime you make a change like this, it’s going to be difficult. I’m going to miss all the people that I would see on a regular basis, and all the connections that I’ve made,” Patton said. “But I’ve always kind of liked change. I like new adventures and new horizons and learning new things … and this was the right decision to make, to allow some new blood in here.”
Patton’s replacement is former Opelika Main Street Director Pam Powers-Smith, whom she says will help expand and enhance the chamber’s presence in the city.
“I think the chamber of commerce will be a lot more visible with Pam, and I think she’s got a lot of high energy and she’ll look at new things to do. There’s lots of things that the chamber can be involved with and do … it’s going to mean a lot for the chamber to have someone like her to step in and lead,” Patton said in an earlier interview.
A native of Pensacola, Fla., Patton and her husband Robert and three sons Michael, Richard and Wesley moved to Opelika in 1973.
Patton said that despite her previous unfamiliarity with the area, she quickly fell in love with the city and felt welcomed.
After her children reached school age, she worked several part-time jobs and served as president or a board member on organizations like the East Alabama Arts Association and Museum of East Alabama.
In 1993, Patton and her son Richard purchased and renovated the historic Heritage House, and operated a bed-and-breakfast and gift shop there. After selling the home in 2004, they relocated Heritage House Gifts to downtown Opelika, renaming it Heritage Gifts.
Patton is also responsible for helping to form the Community Foundation of East Alabama in 2007, which helps “build and administer endowment funds for philanthropic purposes, focusing on identified community needs and strengthening nonprofit organizations,” according to the organization’s website.
Following more than four decades of civic and municipal work, Patton said she plans to spend the first few weeks of Powers-Smith’s term helping her learn and adjust to the new role, and remain involved in the community.
Patton said love is the driving force behind her work and service for the city of Opelika.
“I care about people, and I care about Opelika, and I like to see positive growth and I want good things to happen for the place that I live and for the people, family, friends and associates in the city. I think you need those things to make wherever you live a viable place to be,” Patton said..