After more than 18 years of service, the City of Park Hills will be saying goodbye to an employee who City Administrator Mark McFarland described as a “hard man to replace.”
Economic Developer Norman Lucas said he first came to the city in the period following consolidation, when he saw that he could fill the needs of Park Hills as it began expressing the wish to grow.
“I used to work for the Southeast Missouri Regional Planning Commission, which operates from an office in Perryville,” Lucas said. “I was assigned mostly to look after folks and their needs in Iron, Madison, St. Francois and occasionally Perry Counties. So I became more and more accustomed to learning about the needs of Park Hills.”
This was in the time before Flat River, Esther, Elvins and Rivermines consolidated into what is now Park Hills. Lucas said after consolidation in 1994, he saw an opportunity to assist the new city in its search for economic growth as an assistant city administrator. Lucas said because of city official’s previous experience with him during his time at the regional planning commission, his interview process was less than daunting.
“At the beginning of the interview, there were six people interviewing me in the room,” he said. “The very first one thought that it was important to make a disclaimer that they had worked with me on thus and such, and so their interview questions might not be very pointed because they already had a high level of regard and respect for me.
“When they were done, the second person said, ‘Well, I have to say the same thing because I’ve worked with Norm on ...,’ and they listed the things we’d worked together on and it just went down the row that way until we got to the end. They all looked at each other and said, ‘Do you have any questions for us, because we just want to hire you!’”
Lucas said in his time with the city, he has had the opportunity to work on projects that have helped the community a great deal and made a lasting difference in residents’ lives. In addition to physical projects, Lucas has helped work toward a more economically robust Park Hills in general.
“When I arrived our sales tax was declining, which is not a good sign,” he said. “That has not been the case now for many years. We haven’t had big leaps, but gradual increases. Real steady, strong, good stuff.”
As part of the larger goal of making Park Hills an inviting place to live and do business, Lucas has also had his hand in working to foster a healthy student population in the Central School District.
“When I arrived, the school superintendent expressed concern about the falling school population,” Lucas said. “He, I and the city administrator who hired me kind of formulated a plan by which we could reverse those things. The schools held up their end of the deal beautifully, and the school is now what many would consider the best school in the county.”
Lucas said the city’s end of the deal was to foster and provide for housing development, among other things, which have positively affected the population of the school district.
One of the more obvious projects that Lucas is proud to have worked on is the pedestrian bridge over Flat River.
“I’m really pleased that we got to build what I call the ‘new’ pedestrian bridge across Flat River,” he said. “But it’s in the exact same spot as the old swinging bridge. It has as much to do with the history of the community as it does the present. I think it’s wonderful that kids today can cross over Flat River in exactly the same way, following the same path that people did a hundred years ago.”
Lucas also mentioned such projects as the walking trails in Columbia and Haney Parks, providing residents with safe places to walk away from traffic. While important, he said that some larger projects will have more enduring effects on the city economically.
“Those projects kind of pale in comparison to the importance of some of the other projects,” he said.
He described the importance of upgrading the rail system surrounding Piramal Glass, Ltd., and partnering with Lee Mechanical Contractors, Inc. and Bulk Tank, Inc. through the Park Hills Industrial Park.
Describing the positive growth that he has seen over time in Park Hills, Lucas said he is particularly proud of the rates of individuals successfully pursuing continued education.
“I’ve seen an incremental and kind of gradual, but consistent, increase in educational attainment,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest points where Park Hills had to catch up to the average community around the state. We really had a lack of educational attainment. But now we’re moving in the right direction. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there.”
He said one factor for that positive growth is the ability for students to attain a four-year degree through Mineral Area College, Central Methodist University and Missouri Baptist University without ever leaving the immediate area.
As he prepares to move on from his position with the City of Park Hills, Lucas said that he is confident the city will continue moving in the right direction even after he has gone.
“Of course, I would love to be able to stick around and see the completion of my most recent projects,” he said. “But I know the city is going to be in good hands and I’m confident in the person who will come behind me to take up the work.
“These projects will be completed. Like I tell people — these projects have legs. At this point, they’re funded and plans are laid. People should have confidence that these projects will be accomplished.”
Lucas will be moving and beginning a new job to be closer to family. His last day at city hall is today.