By Kristy Robinson Horine
Georgetown Mayor Tom Prather looks out his office window onto courthouse square, seeing his hometown through loving eyes and a lifetime perspective.
“I tell folks I am the new kid. I was a nine-year council member, an eight-year mayor, a sixteen-year magistrate and now I call myself the new kid.”
Prather laughs, leans his head to the side, then tells the story of home.
Born and raised
Tom Prather was born in the old Georgetown Hospital just down the road on 460. For 60 years, the Prather family had conducted business at the Chevrolet, Pontiac and Buick dealership. Being a strong and involved part of the community ran in the family.
“My grandfather served as mayor of Georgetown for four terms. My father was chairman of the water board for 35 years, chairman of the airport board for 25 years. It seemed like when I grew up, dinner time conversation was about public issues,” Prather says. “It became almost second nature to me to know about and care about these things.”
He graduated in a class of a little over 50 students in 1969 and wandered into college life at Centre College in Danville.
“I arrived at Centre as a small town kid with small town attitudes and a small town way of looking at the world,” he says.
“Four years later, I had a much more broad and inclusive way of thinking. I wasn’t always quick to be convinced I was a hundred percent right. There were other perspectives, other points of view and other information that should always be considered.”
He graduated from Centre with a degree in Political Science, then enrolled in UK to earn his MBA. He “slogged through” for a while until the practical needs of the world called him to dig some literal ditches.
“I didn’t operate equipment. I didn’t have real skills. I had a shovel and some work gloves,” he admits. “It was just practical. It wasn’t a plan.”
In 1975, Prather returned home to Georgetown and entered the family business. For the first six months, he painted the used car shed.
“I was introduced at a pretty low level of the business, but I learned that you gotta work,” he says, then he chuckles and straightens his tie as he tells of his first promotion — to washing the cars.
Prather continued to work his way up, eventually running the business for eight years.
Somewhere along the way, he felt the call to give to the community through government service.
When Prather was 26, he ran for and won a seat on the Georgetown City Council.
“For the first couple of years, I observed a lot. I tried to learn and pick up and not behave as if I were beyond my true experience, which was a real rookie,” he says.
His life experience might have been shy, but his intellectual experience at Centre prepared him for what was to come.
In the early 70s, a Political Science degree at Centre College meant more than just studying leaders, it was studying a philosophy. Prather learned about political theorists like Plato, Locke, Hobbs, and Machiavelli. The more he learned, the more he realized he didn’t know, and he endeavored to build his confidence toward subjects and people and ideas that were outside his comfort zone.
Prather had a chance to apply that teaching nearly 15 years later when Toyota Motor Manufacturing chose Scott County as the location of its first wholly owned US plant.
Prather was in his fifth term as councilman when then-mayor Sam Pollock stepped down due to health reasons.
“Sam ran for mayor in November 1985, Toyota announced their plans to build in December 1985. Sam was seated in January 1986,” Prather explains. “Sam ran for one job – Georgetown pre-Toyota, and he got a very different job – Georgetown with Toyota.”
“That changed the mayor’s job. There was a lot more intensity, a lot more time demands. We could no longer be a sleepy little town. We very quickly became relevant in a very large way,” Prather says.
“It was going to transform not only the city, but this region and this state, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
At the end of 1986, Prather was appointed to finish Mayor Pollock’s term. He went on to serve as mayor for eight years. In that time, he helped the city strike a balance between economic opportunities and preserving Georgetown’s cultural and historic heritage. The balance is a plan that he uses to this day.
“Number one, we engage citizens. Number two, we begin to plan as carefully as we can, even if it is rudimentary at first. Number three what you must do is you have to reach back into your past and gather as much heritage and culture as you can and clutch it to your bosom and bring it with you into the future,” Prather says.
“If you don’t do that then you can’t have a healthy perspective on the growth you are facing and make the right choices on the future. You can’t abandon who you were in order to take advantage of a new economic opportunity.”
For four months, Prather negotiated the annexation of Toyota into the city, ensuring an increased tax base which would help pay for urban services like traffic control and fire and police protection.
“What was remarkable about this process is that it was never adversarial,” Prather explains. “They said early on that if this is going to be a positive experience for Toyota, it must also be a positive experience for the community. Their actions matched their words.”
Prather also worked with city officials to celebrate everything historical they could to make sure local heritage was maintained.
Georgetown celebrated the bicentennial of education, then the bicentennial of the city itself. Even small events were encouraged and high publicized.
After two full terms as mayor, Prather lost a race to former Mayor Warren Powers. The year was 1993.
“Mr. Powers had been an effective mayor before and he promised folks a simpler time,” Prather explains. “On a day of low turnout, I had my feelings hurt by 200 votes.”
To soothe those hurt feelings, Prather embarked on an entirely new career.
You can go home again
“When I was fishing around for what to do after the mayor’s office, I realized I wanted to do something that mattered,” Prather says.
He accepted a job as director for the Kentucky Independent College Foundation. Six years later, he became President of Central Bank Georgetown. After that, he answered the call to serve in a non-profit arm of the Kentucky League of Cities for four years.
He ran for and won a seat as magistrate where he served for 16 years. Then, in 2014, 21 years after he left the mayor’s office, he put his hat back in the ring — and won by 21 votes.
Because Georgetown is run under a strong mayor council form of government and doesn’t have a city manager, he is the day-to-day administrator for the city.
This time around, he sees the beauty of his position in a different light.
As mayor he also serves on the board of the Bluegrass Area Development District where he gets a strong perspective and appreciation of regional issues as well.
“I think being connected is critically important. All this is done via relationships and levels of trust and levels of confidence and thankfully, in local government, we have an opportunity to relate to people in a way that can build with others,” Prather says.
The Bluegrass ADD is one place those connections are made. Whether it be through connections with the Georgetown Municipal Water and Sewer Service, regional landuse planning, temporary staff fills, or participation in advisory councils and committees, the Bluegrass ADD is making those connections from city to city, county to county and from local to state and even federal government.
“We are not distant figures. The beauty of local government is that you are available in restaurants and you are available in the grocery store. It’s very close and personal.”
For Prather, it’s a good place to come home to.
Kristy Robinson Horine is a freelance writer from Paris. She wrote this story of the Bluegrass Area Development District.