DeSimone has had a list of goals to accomplish in Maggie Valley since being elected in 2011, and he was just beginning to see the fruits of his labor before his life was cut short by a tragic accident last Friday. The community is still reeling from the sudden loss of its leader.
“To try to convey the shock, disbelief and raw pain that his town is experiencing currently is impossible,” said Town Manager Nathan Clark. “Mayor DeSimone was a tireless public servant that worked to make Maggie Valley the best possible place to live, work and visit — for that we will be eternally grateful.”
A new kind of mayor
When running for mayor, DeSimone knew he had a long and difficult road ahead of him. As a Brooklyn native who spent most of his life in Florida, he had the disadvantage of being an “outsider” in Maggie Valley. Candidates running for local office who don’t have deep roots in the area often have a hard time getting elected, but DeSimone beat the odds. He wasn’t from here, but he was a local businessman who had been heavily involved in the community since relocating to Maggie in 1999.
Maggie Valley Alderwoman Saralyn Price, who has deep family roots in Haywood County, said DeSimone was just as passionate and committed to the community as those who go back generations.
“He did so much for the town and he loved Maggie Valley so much," she said. “He really had dreams for all of Haywood County.”
Clark agreed DeSimone didn’t overlook the community’s past when looking to improve its future.
“He appreciated the roots of our community, how those roots were being cultivated in the present and how they would blossom in the future,” he said.
June Johnson, an active community member in Maggie, pointed out that DeSimone was also the first mayor in at least two decades — if not the first since the town was created in the mid-1970s — who wasn't in the tourism business. He realized that Maggie would continue to decline if it hitched its star solely to tourism, Johnson said.
In the past, it was a reality everyone refused to acknowledge, but DeSimone publicly raised the glaring reality: the town's over-reliance on tourism would be its downfall, particularly considering how dated its tourism enterprises were.
“Maggie can no longer survive on its summer influx of money. It is not possible in today's world,” Johnson said. “Our little community has been struggling for years, and Ron inserted a treasure trove of fresh ideas and initiatives. He was tireless. I often marveled at his ability to maintain a construction business, to organize, learn, plan for community growth and improvement.”
Moving Maggie forward
It was DeSimone’s tireless passion that led him to be elected in what could be considered a landslide victory in Maggie Valley — 215 votes.
He didn’t waste any time trying to get his plan to chart a new and improved course for the town started.
“Mayor DeSimone was a man of action. Even before he was elected as mayor he already had a plan in his mind of how he could make Maggie Valley a better place to live, work and play,” said Teresa Smith, executive director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “He spent countless hours talking with local businesses about his vision. Once he was elected to the office, he began putting that plan into motion.”
DeSimone did have a plan to get local businesses and residents involved in the process of improving the town. He wanted everyone to have a voice and work in unison to execute the plan. Smith remembers DeSimone coming to a chamber board meeting not long after he was elected to present his vision to improve the valley. It didn’t take long for the chamber to get behind the plan.
As a tribute to the mayor and his profession as a general contractor, the chamber created a logo for the project that had a picture of a dump truck pulling a banner that said, “Moving Maggie Forward.” Smith said the tables were adorned with miniature trucks, loaders, backhoes and other construction vehicles.
“The biggest smile came over his face when he saw that,” Smith recalled. “I don’t know how he found so many hours in his day to do all he did. And the more he talked about the good things going on, the more excited he got. He was much more to me than the mayor of our little valley. He was my friend.”
Though he had many ambitions, the first two years of his tenure were tumultuous. The board was so divided that an alderman resigned, and the remaining members couldn’t even agree on whom to appoint to the vacant seat. The seat remained empty until the next election and in the meantime, important town decisions were caught up in 2-2 stalemate votes.
DeSimone also was criticized for supporting a proposed increase to the tourism tax. Maggie Valley was the lone holdout keeping the tourism tax increase from going through. DeSimone desperately tried to deliver Maggie, but the holdouts had clouded the issue enough that it died.
Everything came to a head in the last part of 2013 as the former town manager resigned and the town’s festival director was fired over improperly loaning town money to a festival promoter, which ended up costing the town more than $10,000 that will probably never be recouped.
The November election resulted in a full board with two new members — Janet Banks and Mike Eveland — and decisions started to be made. Town planner Nathan Clark was promoted to town manager and the board decided to overhaul how it managed events at the festival grounds. Board members still disagreed on issues, but DeSimone showed the town that disagreements over policy didn't have to end ugly.
“We learned to agree to disagree and still be friends and we really were friends,” Price said, who remembers when things weren't always like that. “That says a whole lot. We can work together and don’t have to hate each other if we have different opinions.”
Eveland and Banks said DeSimone was a mentor to them when they decided to run for the board and really took the time to educate them about all the challenges the town was facing.
“He was very helpful to me when I campaigned two years ago for the board of aldermen — he gave me ideas and guidance and I really appreciated that,” Banks said. “It’s a real shock. With Ron we turned the town around after not being able to seat a full board two and a half years ago. Now we’re able to function and compromise and move forward.”
Eveland doesn’t see that momentum slowing down, because the board shared the same vision as the mayor.
“A lot of Ron’s initiatives we’ve been able to accomplish will continue because those goals are our goals,” he said. “We believe in the things we’re doing to improve the festival grounds and the downtown master plan — those are direct links to show the town is taking responsibility for the economy and shaping the town in the future.”
One of DeSimone’s initiatives was creating the first winter festival — known as “WinterFest Smoky Style” — to provide a shot in the arm during the winter months. The first event was held in February and was a success, and DeSimone wanted to double the impact at next year’s event.
In lieu of flowers at his service, family asks that memorials be made to WinterFest Smoky Style, c/o Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, 39 Walnut Street, Waynesville, NC 28786.
Making Maggie a team player
Maggie has historically acted like an island, not bothering to engage and connect with the rest of the county or region. It wasn't totally Maggie's fault. Decades ago, Maggie was ostracized as a hokey tourist town in a blue-collar factory world. But Maggie was also a victim of self-isolation.
DeSimone tried to raise Maggie's profile in the region. For the first time, Maggie's mayor actually showed up to regional council of government meetings — a gathering of mayors and county commissioner chairmen from the seven western counties.
“Ron knew no boundaries. No geographic boundaries, no political boundaries, and no party boundaries,” said Jim Blyth, one of DeSimone’s closest friends. “He was in it for the long haul. As long as it was good for North Carolina, the region and Maggie Valley, he was all in. He worked tirelessly with people on both sides of the aisle and he listened to everyone's concerns.”
Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown has been a passive observer of Maggie politics from afar. It was obvious DeSimone was able to change the tone of Maggie politics.
“He wanted to have Maggie working together with the rest of the region on issues that might pertain across the board,” Brown said.
DeSimone wanted Maggie Valley on the radar, and took it upon himself to network — whether it was attending functions or serving on the county's economic development council.
DeSimone helped Maggie overcome stereotypes of being self-absorbed and unengaged from the rest of the county. He also tried to get past the tug-of-war mentality that sometimes defined Maggie Valley's past relationships.
“He didn't just look at what was best for Maggie Valley,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said. “A lot of times people have turf battles over who gets what. But it was refreshing to hear him say ‘I want to do what is best for Haywood County because what's best for Haywood County is best for Maggie Valley and vice versa.’ He wanted to be a partner and build partnerships to make the county a better place to live.”
Eveland said most mayors delegate board appointments to members of the board, but DeSimone took on a majority of the responsibilities to create a unified voice for the town. He served on the Haywood County Economic Development Commission and a subcommittee to improve broadband services in the county.
“Mayor DeSimone was actively engaged at the regional and state level. We discussed on many occasions strategies to encourage cooperation in Maggie Valley,” said Ryan Sherby, executive director of the Southwest Commission Region A. “I don’t recall talking too much politics, as the conversation always seemed focused on how to improve WNC communities. He brought that collaborative spirit and dedication to board meetings most often joined by his Haywood County mayoral peers.”
DeSimone could always be counted on to be in Raleigh at key times, not only representing the interest of the Valley but also of the greater region, Sherby said.
During the 2012 legislative session, Blyth said, he and DeSimone authored six different bills dealing with prescription drugs abuses, synthetic drugs, prescription drug registry and adding a common sense component for toxicology testing to the DWI laws in North Carolina.
“With Sen. (Jim) Davis's help, all six bills were passed and the governor signed each bill and they are N.C. law today,” Blyth said.
Blyth said DeSimone’s last fight in the General Assembly was stopping a local bill that would de-annex an entire subdivision from the Town of Maggie Valley. The bill was stopped cold last Wednesday and DeSimone received the good news directly from Sen. Davis on Wednesday while on the construction site where he died two days later.
“Most people didn't even know that Ron and I were working on issues that impacted the entire state,” Blyth said. “Ron and I were selfless about who received credit and we didn't care who got credit. We did it because we were passionate about the issues and it needed to be done, so we did it.”
Clark said it was safe to say that DeSimone accomplished his goal of ending Maggie Valley’s isolation through building cooperation in Haywood County and throughout the region.
“Since word of his passing became public, it is safe to say that he no longer lived on an island but in the center of it all,” Clark said. “I have received an overwhelming amount of heartfelt condolences from all over the county.”
Carrying on his legacy
With his service on many countywide and regional boards, DeSimone’s impact is much wider than Maggie Valley’s borders.
Canton Alderman Zeb Smathers worked alongside DeSimone on the Economic Development Commission and considers him a great mentor for other leaders in the county.
“Politics can be petty and arduous, but every so often a person comes along who truly leads and inspires us to believe in the ‘big idea.’ Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone was that man,” Smathers said. “It now falls on us who love and care for our county to carry on his passions with the same grace and tenacity that he did.”
DeSimone was also a past president and an active member of the Smoky Mountain Homeowners Association — formerly known as the Haywood County Home Builders Association. Former HBA President Dawson Spano said DeSimone was just as passionate about the construction industry as he was local politics. He worked diligently with county officials to craft a steep slope ordinance and worked with state officials to pass legislation to make contracting the most professional licensed industry in the state.
“There is only a short period of time that we have to make a difference in the world that we live in — to make the extra effort with a vision of what can become of the future,” Spano said. “Ron DeSimone took the abilities granted to him to improve what he could and set in place a framework for others to follow.”
Haywood County commissioners held a moment of silence at their board meeting Monday in honor of DeSimone.
“Ron will be sorely missed. He was an inspiration to a lot of people,” Commission Chairman Mark Swanger said. Swanger cited DeSimone as a champion of the high-speed Internet conundrum in the mountains. Once you get off the beaten path, people are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to modern Internet speeds. It’s been bemoaned for years, but DeSimone refused to give up on finding a solution.
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick got emotional reflecting on DeSimone's contribution to the community and the sudden tragedy that claimed his life.
“When Ron woke up Friday morning he didn't know. He had no idea what was going to happen that day, and I think we should all think about that in how we live our lives every day and what we do for others and what we will be remembered by. Ron will be remembered well,” Kirkpatrick said.
— Staff writer Becky Johnson contributed to this article.