In a small town, it’s not easy to hide. As a city official, people generally know where to find you.
“If they catch me, it’s usually at the post office, or my wife and I walk on a regular basis, and somehow they know our route,” Wingate Mayor Bill Braswell says with a chuckle.
For the past 19 years, Braswell has spent a good portion of his free time listening to residents and doing his part to make sure the town of Wingate runs smoothly. He was a town commissioner for eight years, and next year he’ll finish up his third four-year term as mayor.
During those nearly two decades, Braswell has worked closely with Wingate University as the school has emerged as a regional leader in the health sciences and a growing success story as an undergraduate destination. Earlier today, the University awarded Braswell a doctor of humane letters during its Undergraduate Commencement.
The gesture is a nod toward the symbiotic relationship between the town of Wingate and the university with which it shares a name. Although the University often feels like a town unto itself – with its own Campus Safety officers; its own operations staff; and a large, self-contained population – the two entities need each other. A healthy town benefits the University, and a healthy University benefits the town.
“Some people think the only way the University can gain is if the town loses,” Braswell says. “I’m not one of those people. I think if the University prospers, our town will prosper with it.”
Braswell has helped position the town to thrive as the University grows and the Monroe Expressway opens, most likely later this year. Just as he was entering his first term as mayor, the town had just taken the first steps toward making a major upgrade to the town’s sewer system. Braswell helped shepherd the process to completion.
Also under his watch, a major part of the town’s water system has been replaced, and two years ago a brand new town hall/fire department building opened.
The physical changes to the town have been significant, but Braswell’s people skills are just as vital for a small town. “He follows up every request, no matter how small,” says Patrick Niland, the Wingate town manager. “He gives every citizen the time and respect they deserve.”
Saving the family business
Braswell grew up in Wingate, and after graduating from nearby Forest Hills High School, he left for Wake Forest University and greener pastures. Barely four years after graduating as a Demon Deacon, Braswell was working as a CPA in Greensboro when his father called with some bad news regarding the family business, Bill. G. Braswell Poultry Farms: a large grocery-store chain, which represented 80 percent of the company’s business, was closing all of the stores the Braswells provided eggs for.
“I knew I had to come home then or never,” Braswell says.
The move was a good excuse for Braswell to be his own boss, which he knew would also be good for his health (“I was 26 and was developing an ulcer,” Braswell says). Braswell hit the road, using his considerable people skills to drum up business and save Braswell Poultry Farms. “We had good eggs,” Braswell says. “All of my competitors had good eggs. You had to figure out a way to distinguish how yours are better or differ from somebody else’s, and the difference had to be me.”
For the next four decades, Braswell ran the family business, until Braswell Poultry Farms found the industry’s new technical efficiencies benefiting only operations with more than a million birds. “I was larger than I had ever been, but I was not large enough to get the economies of scale our competitors did,” Braswell says. “I fought that for a long time.”
Braswell got out in the mid-2000s and traded commodity futures for a few years before fully retiring. Now he concentrates on the future of his town.
With the University’s enrollment and physical footprint growing, and with the bypass promising to bring more development, Braswell envisions a walkable, lively downtown area for Wingate. He believes fully in the “town and gown” partnership.
University officials love the idea of a more-active downtown. But they want the relationship to be even more meaningful, with University students working within the community – at schools, health clinics, etc. – as part of their studies. It’s part of the school’s quest to be what it calls a “lab of difference-making.”
“For us to be a lab of difference-making, we need devoted partners,” says University President Rhett Brown. “We have no more devoted partner than Bill Braswell.”
Both the town and the University have commissioned studies on how to manage and exploit the University’s expected growth.
“One lady who did a study said that to have a walkable downtown you have to have a high concentration of people,” Braswell says, “and to my knowledge we have the highest concentration of people in the county.”
Many of those people walk past the Braswells’ house every day. The Braswells live on the corner of Elm and Main streets, directly across from the University’s Neu Building, on the edge of campus. “The campus was like a big backyard for us,” says Molly Braswell, one of Bill and Carolyn Braswell’s two daughters.
Most days in late afternoon, you can find the Braswells sitting on their wrap-around porch, reading and rocking, as college students stroll by on their way to and from class.
Braswell has worked closely with the University for years, but the honorary degree still caught him off guard. “Some things you sort of anticipate,” he says. “This was not one of them. I’m very tickled.”
He highly anticipates the future for both the town and the University.
“The university is just growing by leaps and bounds, and it’s exciting for our town,” he says. “I think our town is yet to realize the full benefits of that, but it’s coming, and quickly. Businesses that couldn’t quite make the decision to locate in Wingate will.
“All indications are it’s going to work out well.”
May 12, 2018