‘Fayetteville owes a lot to Bill:’ Late mayor had a vision for downtown
By Bill Kirby Jr.
It was decades ago, but Sandy Hurley still remembers the conversation she and her husband were having as he contemplated getting involved in the moving and the shaking of the town he had come to love.
“I want to make this a better place,” John W. “Bill” Hurley said to his wife. “I don’t know how to do it, but I know people who do.”
It was a conversation that would lead to a remarkable legacy that reaches far and wide in Fayetteville but nowhere more than downtown. That’s where, as a three-term mayor and later as a state lawmaker, Hurley led the effort for monumental change. An area that once had a notorious reputation for bars, strip clubs and decaying buildings now is known for restaurants with outdoor dining, shops, offices, apartments and townhomes along with a minor-league baseball stadium, City Hall, the Police Department, the Medical Arts Building and the Airborne & Special Operations Museum.
“Fayetteville owes a lot to Bill,” said John Smith, who was Fayetteville’s town manager at the time, a position that can sometimes lead to contention with a town’s mayor. “Bill understood the role of mayor better than anyone I’ve ever known. He was very good at getting people’s attention and making people want to work with him. He won over the city council by winning over the community. I had a great affection for Bill.”
Hurley was 85 when he died Nov. 26, 2018, from a form of leukemia. The procession for his funeral stretched from Haymount United Methodist Church, where he was a longtime member, to Hay Street and through downtown.
It was a fitting tribute
“He was the real deal,” said John Malzone, a real estate agent and longtime friend of Hurley’s, who himself helped lead the effort for a revitalized downtown. “He was a faith-driven politician, but he also had an open mind.”
Hurley first ran for City Council in 1975. He lost that bid, but then won two years later.
Then in 1981, he ran for mayor on the platform of cleaning up downtown. Smith remembers working late one night shortly after arriving in Fayetteville.
“My first experience with the 500 block of Hay Street was driving home that night,” he said. “Women were knocking on my windshield and sitting on the hood of my car. It was infamous. There were city cops and military police everywhere.”
By May of 1983, a crane with a wrecking ball began to knock down buildings on the 500 block as people gathered to watch and celebrate.
“I was there and saw that wrecking ball,” Sandy Hurley said. “And now I can’t believe here it is 2021 and how different downtown looks. Bill had a commitment to the city. He had a genuine calling. I miss him so much. I don’t want the things he did to be forgotten.”
That isn’t likely. There are so many people who remember his remarkable accomplishments, which include helping to start the annual Dogwood Festival, helping to raise funds for the statue of Lafayette in Cross Creek Park and, perhaps his proudest moment – leading the effort to earn Fayetteville the designation of All-America City from the National Civic League in 1985. That designation, for which a delegation traveled to San Antonio to present Fayetteville’s case for the honor, “recognizes communities that leverage civic engagement, collaboration, inclusiveness and innovation to successfully address local issues.”
Malzone remembers that once a quarter, Hurley convened a meeting of a slew of representatives from various areas of leadership throughout the city. The meetings of the Fayetteville Area Communication Team took place at Highland Presbyterian Church.
“There were about a hundred chairs arranged in a circle,” Malzone said. “There was no agenda no food, just everyone sitting around and talking. Bill believed in communication. It was very effective.”
And then there is another of the permanent reminders of Hurley’s success. In 2019, the Fayetteville City Council voted unanimously to name the plaza in front of Segra Stadium,
home of the minor league Fayetteville Woodpeckers in honor of Hurley. Malzone said the plaza eventually will include a monument to Hurley, who also served in the N.C. House of Representatives before retiring from politics in 2002.
Hurley was an avid baseball fan who had long dreamed of a stadium like Segra being built in Fayetteville. Sandy Hurley said she’d always hoped her husband would be able to
throw out the first pitch. But the Rev. Brian Gentle, who was then minister at Haymount United Methodist Church, pointed out an even better truth at Hurley’s funeral.
Bill Hurley, the preacher pointed out, really has the best seat in the house now.