It was summer 1988. Nat Robertson was in Gainsville, Fla., on a visit. While on a blind date, he met the perfect girl. Unfortunately, she wasn’t his date.
She was his best friend’s date. “At the end of the evening, he told his friend that if he didn’t marry me and take me back to North Carolina, he was a fool,” recalled Kim Robertson, during an interview in the Robertsons’ Haymount home.
Fortunately for Robertson, his friend didn’t take him up on the suggestion, and, with his friend’s blessing, he began calling and later visiting Kim. Following a courtship that saw Robertson driving up and down I-95 every other weekend, the couple married and Kim made the move to Fayetteville.
That was 25 years ago, and over the ensuing years, the couple has worked hard to fulfill their dreams and goals. For Robertson, that meant a partnership with his father in the family jewelry store and ownership of his own businesses, as well as a life of public service, which led him to run for Fayetteville’s top office — mayor.
The campaign, which resulted in his election, was grueling. But it wasn’t anything new. The first year the couple was married, and while Kim was pursuing her teaching degree at Fayetteville State University, Robertson ran for, and was elected to, the Fayetteville City Council. At the age of 26, he was the youngest person ever elected to the council.
“We’ve been on this journey for quite some time,” said Robertson. “I don’t know at the time that I had any goal to be mayor. I was just happy to be on the team.”
For three terms, he served on the council under the leadership of J.L. Dawkins. Twice he was elected to the at-large seat, and served one term on the district seat now held by Bobby Hurst.
“My interest has always been local,” he explained. “I want to make sure that my home folks are taken care of.”
When he left the council in 2001, he remained active in the community serving on a number of boards and commissions. His most recent service prior to his election was on the Civic Center Commission, a post that he was appointed to by the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners. He said his time on the commission has been great, noting that the commission was not willing to accept the “same-old, same-old.”
“There were a lot of fresh ideas, which can go a long way,” he noted.
Those ideas led to the privatization of the Crown under the management of Global Spectrum last year, which over time, should result in significant cost savings for the county and allow monies used to fund the Crown through hospitality taxes to be moved to other areas.
Having watched her husband serve over the years, Kim was not surprised by his desire to run for mayor.
“When we began talking about it, I said, ‘Let’s go.’ Service to the community is in his heart and it always has been,” she said. “He has always supported my endeavors without hesitation — always. We make a good team and complement each other. We both see our roles as servant leaders.”
Those who know Kim see that every day as she serves in the county school system. Her passion for the children of the community is evident in everything she does and says. It is a palpable thing. That being the case, her service as Fayetteville’s first lady may revolve around the city’s children.
“I have a very good measure of what I can do,” she explained. “I am the principal of a very large elementary school with 720 students.”
As the principal of Elizabeth Cashwell Elementary, Kim is confronted with many of the problems that Roberts will confront as mayor. About 70 percent of her students are on free or reduced lunch. Their families are impacted by the poor economy. Their community has a high crime rate. Finding ways of meeting the needs of her students is more than a full a time job, but it is one she relishes.
“It is important that my students feel welcomed and that they are at a place where they are going to be taken care of. It’s important that we meet their needs so that they can be successful,” she explained. “These kids who don’t have a lot, have such hope. They are smart and as long as they know we have their best interests at heart, they will work hard and come to school with a positive attitude.”
At the end of hectic days, Robertson has been a sounding board for Kim.
“He is a listener. He doesn’t try to give me advice or fix the problems. He just listens. That, in and of itself, is extremely helpful,” she noted.
She sees that skill serving him well in his role as mayor.
“If folks are active and concerned with the city, then Nat is going to listen to them and their concerns,” she said. “He will truly hear them.”
“That’s really my job,” said Robertson. “I need to understand where they are coming from, because their problems are very real. And if someone comes to the city engaged and looking to solve a problem, then we are going to work on it.”
That being said, the new mayor is going into his new role with a few key things at the top of his list.
“Do you want to hear my Top 10 priorities for this year?” he asked. “Here it is: Crime and Economic Development. Until we take care of those issues, everything else is going to have to wait. The 2014 and 2015 budget is going to revolve around those two issues. If we resolve some of the issues associated with those two priorities, we will solve other problems in the city.”
In the area of economic development, he noted that the community has done a great job of sending business away.
“We have done a real good job of running businesses to Hoke County or Spring Lake. Fayetteville has made it very hard for people to do business here, and that has to stop,” he said.
During his campaign, he made making the city operate like a business with its citizens being its customers a priority.
“When someone walks into city hall, they should know their issue is important. We have to empower our city employees to take ownership of citizen issues and walk them through the system,” he said. “No one should get lost in the process.”
Once the city makes doing business easier, Robertson believes the community can go after and successfully get more business.
“Traditionally we have gone after the low hanging fruit, which is commercial/shopping businesses,” he said. “Those businesses will come to the community whether we recruit them or not because of the disposable income available in the community, which can be seen by the number of great businesses that are already here, but we have to become more focused on industry and manufacturing. We have to bring jobs here.”
Economic developers will quickly point out key things that industries look at before considering a community. One key factor is the availability of a trained work force. Robertson believes we have that with the number of soldiers who leave the Army each year, but choose to remain in the city. Industries also look at education facilities and the ability of the populace to access it. With a public education system that is improving exponentially, and the presence of higher education facilities like Fayetteville Technical Community College, Methodist and Fayetteville State University, the city should be regarded positively. Add in quality of life, which includes great parks and community organizations, and Fayetteville should be a shoe-in for business relocation.
But a major detractor is the city’s crime rate, which is why Robertson has put it at the top of his list.
To combat crime and to actively seek economic development, Robertson has already begun building consensus throughout the county.
“There are a lot of walls in place that impede the community from working together,” he said. “I want to tear those walls down. I want to bring everyone to the table to tackle these important issues from the state to PWC to the schools to the county commissioners.”
He explained that crime cannot be looked at in a vacuum. It must be addressed from every angle and by every agency/body that can help address it. To that end, he is working to put together a Crime Summit to tackle the issue. That will be followed in June by an Economic Summit.
By opening lines of communication, he believes the community can begin to move in the same direction.
“I am a communicator. I want to bring people in and let’s talk it out,” said Robertson. “Together, let’s come up with the best way forward. When people who have a heart for this community come together, then there is plenty that we can do to make the community better.”
Photo: Fayetteville’s new mayor, Nat Robertson, and his wife Kim. Photo Credit: KCC Photography