Though the 20 cities that competed to be named a 2013 All-America City ranged from New York to California, the closest other winner to Garner shares an airport with this town.
Dunn, like Garner, returned to RDU a winner before heading down I-40 and I-95, about 35 miles south of Garner. Along with Thomasville, the three North Carolina cities cleaned house at the finals in Denver, and the three shared an experience and award sought this year by hundreds of communities across the U.S.
It’s been nearly five decades since three towns in any state won the All-America title in the same year: Anchorage, Seward and Valdez, (Alaska) were among 13 winners in 1965.
Garner delegates said they developed great camaraderie with all the cities, but stayed close to their North Carolina compatriots, Dunn in particular. But Dunn had to sweat out their win as the ninth city announced. Garner was the second named as a winner, Thomasville came in the middle of the random order.
“We were really rooting hard,” Garner Town Manager Hardin Watkins said. “Then when they did win, there were cheers of ‘N-C! N-C! N-C!’ while Dunn was on stage. That’s fun, developing a kinship among fellow North Carolinians.”
Below are some more tidbits about the award and Garner’s effort to win it:
What is the award?: The award by nature doesn’t go to the most livable cities or the most affluent.
It recognizes “Outstanding Civic Accomplishments” according to the National Civic League, and applicants “must demonstrate innovation, inclusiveness, civic engagement, and cross sector collaboration by describing successful efforts to address pressing local challenges.”
“They’re not looking to see that you have the greatest schools, the greatest job opportunities. It’s looking for communities that confront their challenges ,” former town management analyst Kady Doelling noted at a council meeting in March. “They aren’t necessarily going to be the 10 best places to live based on Forbes Magazine.”
Garner won by highlighting community outreach efforts, the grassroots veterans memorial (fitting this year’s theme) and its program to get kids involved in the arts.
Historical winners: The All-America City Award started in 1949. In that time 37 North Carolina communities have won the award at least once.
In 1949, winners ranged from Philadelphia, Boston and Cleveland to Bayonne, N.J., and Poughkeepsie, N.Y. This year, winners ranged in size from Dunn (less than 10,000 people) to Norfolk, Va. (more than 240,000). In 2012 winners included giants like Baltimore and San Francisco.
Cleveland; Des Moines, Iowa; Kansas City, Mo.; Phoenix; Roanoke, Va.; and Worcester, Mass., have won the title a record five times. Five North Carolina cities have won thrice: Asheville, Fayetteville, Gastonia, Hickory and Laurinburg.
Application process: Typically more than 100 municipalities apply. This year that process consisted primarily of writing five essays (one describing each of three projects, one on diversity, and one giving the town’s history and story). The top 30 or so are selected, though if the Civic League thinks fewer would have a reasonable chance, fewer are invited. This year 20 received invites to Denver.
Video wins most viewed: Garner was also recognized for having the most-viewed promotional video. Each All-America City finalist submitted a video before the finals, and in the weeks leading up the finals, the race was on to capture the most views.
Garner’s video featured 2011 American Idol winner Scotty McCreery visiting various programs and locations featured in the town’s bid. The exact effects of his presence and repeated promotion of the video to his 730,000 Twitter followers cannot be exactly determined. But it seems a safe bet that it could have been a factor in the video’s more than 14,000 views. That figure doubled the number of views for the second-most-watched entry.
McCreery also donated $10,000 to the fundraising efforts to pay for travel and hotel costs for the contingent that traveled to Denver.
Rough start: The weekend got off to a rough start: mainly, six hours of waiting at RDU for a plane that worked. The group missed its rehearsal session but was granted one after the other cities to accommodate the delay. The dress-rehearsal from 9:30-11:30 p.m. Eastern – didn’t have everyone in the best mood, Watkins said.
Script: A “Masterpiece”: Delegates praised the script for the presentation, written by town spokesman Rick Mercier.
“Rick put together a masterpiece of a script,” Watkins said.
The speech came in short two-to-three line bursts from members of the delegation as others held up visual aids including pictures and newspaper headlines, as well as art created by local artist Vincent Wood.
Years later, Sanchez shines: One of Garner’s most powerful representatives didn’t say a word. He wasn’t even in Denver.
During the presentation, the town outlined Henry Sanchez’ efforts in 2006 that would earn a him posthumous Bronze Star while holding up a picture of the Marine in combat gear.
In 2006, the bottom of Sanchez’ Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The gas tank ignited, engulfing the vehicle in flames. His team couldn’t get out because of enemy fire, but the gunner got into his turret and silenced two enemy positions, allowing them to escape. Grenades and rockets stored on the vehicle exploded shortly after Sanchez crawled out of the turret and escaped with second-degree burns.
Pat Ayscue said her grandson died a month later when an explosive device blew up under his vehicle. Her voice cracked as she said: “He was 21 years old.”
His contribution didn’t end there. At the end, while talking about the arts program, Towne Players of Garner youth theater camp creator Beth Honeycutt talked about naming a scholarship for a “gentle sweet boy always ready to help” as a picture of the boy in a cowboy hat was held up. Honeycutt then revealed that the boy was Henry Sanchez as the picture was reversed to show the picture of the Marine again.
Honeycutt’s voice also cracked.
Firsts for Cervantes: With nothing to do as the judges decided the fate of their efforts, about 26 delegates headed to Coors Field to watch the Colorado Rockies play the Philadelphia Phillies. For many it was their first Major League Baseball game, with no teams within a four hour drive of Garner.
Fernando Cervantes, a North Garner Middle School honor roll student, led the delegation off the bus when the group returned to Garner wearing a crisp, new black Rockies cap with purple trim. But the baseball game was not his only first of the weekend. He also went on his first ride in an airplane.
Williams on his game: Upon the delegations’ return to Garner, Mayor Ronnie Williams made a speech in which he emphatically – with passion stopping just short of anger – barked the significance of the accomplishment and his pride in Garner to the dozens gathered.
Also on display was his sharp, dry sense of humor. At one point he announced he needed a volunteer to paint the newly printed All-America City logo on the water tower. Later, while asking for others to speak, he asked Councilman Buck Kennedy – who had not traveled with the group – if he had anything he wanted to say.
“If not, it would be the first time,” the mayor bluntly jabbed.
Kennedy didn’t turn him down. He noted the projects that won the award started long before the idea of applying ever came up, and the All-America designation recognized more than one year of work in the past and applied to the town’s future.
“This is not a one-time-only event,” Kennedy said.