Summer Johnson sees representing the town of Marion as a full-time job. Last November, she was elected town supervisor, and in January assumed the responsibilities. Unlike most other elected leaders though in communities across rural, Upstate New York — Johnson did something unique: She quit her full-time job.
“I’m glad I made that decision to give it 100% of my time and full-time attention, just due to the fact that it’s been a little neglected over the years,” Johnson said during a recent appearance on Inside the FLX. She was in-studio talking about goals, the complexities of running a small municipality, and balancing the need for growth with the desire to maintain its rural character.
Across the region there’s a collective desire to make rural communities more desirable. Especially in terms of attracting more people and economic development. But developing local housing strategies or economic development plans are hardly things that can be done in a spare few hours. At least not when the state itself is facing an exodus of population and legitimate questions about how to sustain tax bases long-term.
Johnson said being elected by residents of Marion to serve as town supervisor wasn’t a subsidy or side hustle. “I felt called to action,” she recalled of the moment running for town supervisor was solidified in her mind. “So, I decided in that process I would quit my full-time job in marketing and communications to take this on.”
Despite the world being more connected than it ever has been in history — Johnson says the job of supervisor, to do it the way she envisions — requires a lot more than office hours. “Really, I’m a mobile person,” she explained. “The attention I’m giving Marion is being out there in the community, talking to people, shopping at Wayne County stores, talking to people who are out supporting local businesses, and answering their questions.”
As it turns out — a background in marketing and communications is useful for someone looking to spearhead a turnaround of a rural municipality ripe for growth.
Johnson sees transparency and trust as the two biggest factors driving lackluster engagement in local government. “As long as I can remember, officials have always seemed ‘untouchable’ or unapproachable. Like they were too big to even think about talking to or engaging with and we still have that today,” she said of government overall. The appearance of being unapproachable has been a big turnoff for many voting blocks, but especially in younger families who are now at the age where their input is badly needed.
“We have an older population in Marion, but we are seeing an influx of younger families come in, and I’m seeing the opposite of that trend,” Johnson explained. “The issue is finding something for them to engage in locally.” She says there’s a strong desire for recreational programs tailored to young families. That’s particularly important when it comes to attracting more families to the area. This isn’t a situation that’s unique to Marion. In fact, most communities without full-time recreation programs are wrestling with the very same challenge. “They want events. They want opportunities to volunteer. They want town halls. But in many cases we don’t have any, so it’s a problem we have to solve.”
Whether the demographic is a recent retiree who has lived in Marion their entire life, or new family who recently moved to town — a desire for a transparent, consistent government is universal.
Shortly after taking office Johnson said she received a letter from a longtime resident. After reading the letter she picked up the phone. There were two major takeaways from that call. The resident took months to draft it, carefully considering every word written. But more importantly, he never expected to get a call. “I called him five minutes after he sent it and he’s like, ‘Oh, hi. I wasn’t expecting a phone call.’”
While anecdotal it had an impact. In effect, when it comes to transparency and trust in local government — one of the simplest things Johnson and elected officials like her can do is simply acknowledge residents when they bring concerns to them. “We talked for an hour on the phone,” she recalled. “He had questions about things that had been neglected in the past, but also about concerns he had for the future of Marion. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s a young family in town that has been one of my biggest supporters. They’re active in the community, but their biggest concerns are the lack of programs for kids — consistent programs.”
Johnsons says infrastructure is an issue that’s “split down the middle.” Whether she’s talking with young families, or generational residents who have been there for 30, 40, or 50 years — infrastructure is a top-concern. However, there’s a balance to be struck there, too, which goes back to the maintenance of local character.
“We love it here. I think a lot of families are starting to move out away from the crowded suburbs and they want to sprawl a little,” Johnson said of the move to communities like Marion. “Walworth is growing exponentially, and I wouldn’t be surprised if within the next 5-10 years you see a lot more housing developments, track housing, apartments, and things like that. We’re going to be careful with that because we’d all like to maintain the peacefulness and avoid overcrowding that could come with development. It’s a delicate balance.”
But Johnson says most community members understand that some growth will be necessary in the coming years. “Population loss is a big concern. Wayne County has seen it — the state has certainly seen it — but we feel like we’ve plateaued, and I don’t think we’ve been hit as hard as a lot of other areas. I think we have an opportunity to catch spillover of people who can’t afford Victor taxes and homes, but don’t want to live in an apartment building. So we’re in a unique position.”
In total, the Supervisor says focusing on building trust in local government, being accountable and available to residents, and finding responsible ways to enhance infrastructure and housing will position Marion to be very successful in the coming years. Given the complexity and challenges baked into those issues — it also guarantees that she will be busy for the duration of her first term as town supervisor.