Mayor of Bartlett since 2003, Keith McDonald is now a three-time recipient of The Bartlett Express Readers’ Choice “Man of the Year” award.
“I’ve been blessed, and it’s been mainly because I surround myself with so many good people,” he said.
Many successful parts of the city bear his thumbprints, from industrial development to service roles in church, the city’s first Kiwanis Club, Boy Scouts and schools. He considers the development of the Bartlett City Schools district as one of his top contributions.
“There are many of us who will share in that legacy, but I’m at least a part of that legacy and proud to be a part of that because I think it will make the long-term difference,” McDonald said.
He has a pull-himself-up-by-the-bootstraps biography — growing his own business, developing a political career and nurturing a solid family life.
McDonald is the son of an Alabama preacher, and the family was living in Vermont when he was born. His sister was born three years later, and the family stayed in Vermont through his second grade. They spent the next three years in Alabama and then moved to Clarksville, Tenn., staying through his high-school graduation.
He studied at Freed-Hardeman College (now a university) in Hendersonville, Tenn., where he met Patty, the woman who became his wife 43 years ago this month. They then attended the University of Memphis, where their education paths diverged. He continued working while she earned a degree, and the way never cleared for him to return to his studies.
Early years in his career included retail work at a mom-and-pop shoe store, and then he entered the insurance industry in 1977. An entrepreneurial spirit and a dearth of funds drew him to insurance, he said, because it didn’t require investing in inventory to be successful.
“The first month, I brought home $40,” he said. His wife was skeptical about his career choice.
“But now she’s very happy that I made that decision,” he said. “It just took a while to get the business up and running, and we had to eat a lot of bologna sandwiches for a while. I worked at least six days a week, and most days 12 hours, toward building my own agency.”
After three years, he had his own Nationwide agency. The family grew to include two sons and, in more recent years, three grandchildren. In December 2013, he retired from insurance work after a 35-year career.
McDonald gradually added civic duties and worked behind the scenes for other people’s political campaigns. Different mayors encouraged him to run for office, but he demurred while his children were little and he was building his business.
Then an alderman resigned in 1997 about six months into his term, and the mayor asked McDonald to fill the role. He served out the term and was re-elected, serving as a Bartlett alderman and liaison to the Parks Board until 2002.
About two years into Mayor Ken Fulmar’s term, he told McDonald he would not run again, and McDonald began considering the office. With his family’s blessing and encouragement from supporters, McDonald ran for the officer and won. That was 12 years ago, and he’s running again this year.
“I’ve been involved for 30-plus years, and I stand on the shoulders of a lot of really good people who got us to where we were 12 years ago.”
He appreciates the opportunity to help others and to shape the city’s direction.
“I don’t think a good leader can lead with his head down at his desk,” McDonald said. “I think a leader has to have his head up, looking forward. And have good people around him who are taking care of most of the day-to-day.”
The first half of his tenure was all about vision and new things for the city. Then the recession hit, and the plans and ideas for taking Bartlett to the next level had to be put on hold. Sales tax revenue dropped by 10 percent.
“We had to figure out, ‘How do we keep at least the same services we had?’ ” McDonald said. “So I went from kind of visionary leadership to crisis management. And I’m proud we didn’t have to lay anybody off or cut anybody’s salary. We did it by attrition. But we’ve come through a tough time.”
He praised his directors for managing the city’s money well during the difficult years. “The surpluses that we have built up in our reserves are not because we got more taxes than we were expecting – it is because we spent less money than we had budgeted.”
He plans to put a lot of effort into attracting more retail to Bartlett, with the help of a consultant to develop a strong retail strategy. McDonald said a lot of the city’s empty retail space is due to overbuilding in 2008, anticipating growth before the recession hit. Although there has been some turnover, many retail spaces have never been occupied.
Retail growth will help with the general fund and increase the money available for the school district, all without having to increase property taxes, he said. He’s proud of having no more than one or two property tax increases during his tenure.
This year is the first since about 2008 that he’s felt cautiously optimistic about shifting from crisis management to more forward-thinking leadership. He sees positive signs for Bartlett, including the city’s new school district, rising home prices, more new home starts and more conversion of rentals to home ownership.
“We’ve still got a couple of years we’re going to have to just make sure the economy really is rebounding,” he said. “… But I feel good generally.”
He’s proud of Bartlett for many reasons, including the fact that it has attracted long-term residents who came for the good schools, clean atmosphere and safety, and many remained as retirees.
“A lot of our kids are coming back,” he said. “They were going elsewhere. This was too old-fashioned for them. But now they’re having children and they’re coming back and saying, ‘Wait a minute, I want my child to grow up like I did.’”
Milestones for Mayor McDonald
McDonald has a long list of participation, achievement and recognition:
- Tennessee Municipal League Mayor of the Year, 2012
- Leader in multiple U.S., state and regional organizations, including the National League of Cities, Tennessee Municipal League, West Tennessee Mayor’s Association and Memphis Area Association of Governments (MAAG)
- A major factor in the city’s receipt of the Governor’s ThreeStar Award for the past 20 years
- Past president of the Bartlett Area Chamber of Commerce
- Past chairman of the Bartlett Industrial Development Board, where he played a major role in the recruitment of industries such as Brother and Richards
- Recipient of insurance industry leadership awards, honoree in multiple Who’s Who publications and honoree in a proclamation from the State of Tennessee
- 2008 recipient of the Bobby Dunavant Public Servant Award from the Rotary Club of Memphis East
- 2007 honoree as the “Most Beloved Leader” in the Memphis Most Awards
- 2004 and 2008 honoree as “Man of the Year” and 2008 “City Employee of the Year” in The Bartlett Express Readers’ Choice Awards
- Delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business in 1986
- Current or former member of state and county organizations, including the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR), the Shelby County Schools Merger Transition Team, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, Memphis Shelby Growth Alliance, and MPO Transportation Policy Board
- Past member of Bartlett organizations, including the Bartlett Station Central Business Improvement District Board and the Bartlett Industrial Development Board
- Co-founder of Leadership Bartlett
- Past President of the Alumni Association at Freed-Hardeman University
- Member of the first Bartlett Stage Coach Days (now known as the Bartlett Celebration)
- A major force in the conversion of the old Ellendale School to the Singleton Community Center
- Co-treasurer on the PTA boards at Oak Elementary and Appling Middle Schools
- Coach for Bartlett children’s baseball, basketball and soccer
- Founder of Cub Scout Pack 261 and Boy Scout Troop 261 and member who completed all adult leader training while his sons both earned the Eagle Scout rank
- Former Sunday School teacher, deacon, and elder at Brownsville Road Church of Christ. More recently, the family attended Sycamore View Church of Christ, and McDonald and his wife are now transitioning to Bartlett Woods Church of Christ.
- Leader of mission trips and relief programs to the Caribbean for more than a decade
- Supporter of victims of the Bartlett Heights Apartments fire in 2000, securing warehouse space, opening a donation center and organizing volunteers
- Foster parent with his wife for years, caring for infants from Agape Family Services