by christine morgan arceneaux
July 19, 2012
“He will go down in history as one of the best mayors to serve the city of Hammond.” Jimmy Maurin, founder and chairman of the board at Stirling Properties.
Editor’s note: This article is the sixth in a series of feature stories about the mayors in Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes.
HAMMOND — Hammond Mayor Mayson Foster got his first taste of politics when he was just a small child.
“My father would walk down to City Hall and talk to the mayor,” Foster recalled. “I was just so enthralled that someone would walk down to talk to the mayor about their problems, and I knew one day I wanted to run (for mayor).”
In 2002, Foster’s childhood dream became reality as he won the bid for mayor. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Hammond native, who graduated from Hammond High School in 1964 and from Southeastern Louisiana University with a degree in accounting in 1968, took office in January 2003 with the goal of improving life and the economy for Hammond residents.
Nine-and-a-half years later, Foster’s goal to make improvements in the city has never wavered.
“The majority of our efforts are for the redevelopment of the future,” Foster said.
Southeastern Louisiana University President Dr. John Crain called Foster a visionary, a good leader and a good day-to-day manager.
“As a mayor, he’s had a lot of vision in that job,” Crain said. “And that’s important.”
Since he’s been in office, area residents have seen the Hammond Square area spring to new life, with the addition of an outdoor mall and a variety of restaurants, convenient to many people traveling on the I-12/I-55 corridor.
“In 2003, the road (leading to Hammond Square) was closed, and the economy was in decline,” Foster recalled.
That same year, the city of Hammond passed a $15 million bond issue to begin improvements to the area, Foster said.
“That was the catalyst to begin overhauling the economic growth of the city,” Foster said.
Today, the city sees growth. Sales tax numbers reflect an increase in revenue for 17 consecutive months, Foster said.
Jimmy Maurin said it was Foster who first approached him about redeveloping the Hammond Square area, after learning that Maurin had purchased property in the area.
Maurin is the founder and chairman of the board at Stirling Properties, a company that offers comprehensive services in development, commercial brokerage, property and asset management, investment sales, and property owner and tenant representation.
Once Maurin told Foster that the city must make improvements, such as water and sewer upgrades, to the area before any redevelopment could be done, Foster “laid out the deficiencies to the City Council,” Maurin said.
“He had the guts enough to go to the City Council,” Maurin said. “They stepped forward. He had the confidence in me and Stirling that we would do what we said we would do.”
“This totally changed the tax base of Hammond,” Maurin said.
And, “we did it in such a way that we didn’t cannibalize the downtown area,” Maurin said.
“He was on the leadership side of Hammond Square,” Crain said of Foster. “He was a great resource.”
Crain said the project is a win-win, a draw for the city and a benefit for residents, students, and university faculty and staff.
“We have a wonderful working relationship with the city of Hammond,” Crain said, adding that the relationship benefits both the city and university.
Foster, who received his master’s degree in business administration from SLU in 1988, knows Hammond and the people who live there well.
He began working when he was 15 years old as a ticket taker at the Ritz Theater in downtown Hammond. By the time he was 18, Foster was an assistant manager at the Ritz and the Columbia Theatre.
During his college career, Foster worked as a stock person and salesman at J.C. Penney, as a student worker in the Sports Information Department and as a student worker in the Business Department, he said.
It was during those formative years, Foster said, that he gained most of his business experience.
When he graduated from SLU, he was offered a job at J.C. Penney in Hattiesburg, Miss., but Foster, who said he ultimately wanted to raise a family in Hammond, passed up the opportunity so that he could stay in his hometown.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Foster said. “What was important to me was to raise my children in the same atmosphere in which we grew up.”
In 1969, he accepted a position with Citizens Bank, where he worked for 25 years until it was bought out by Deposit Guaranty.
He served on the Hammond City Council from 1977 to 1981.
“I saw then the ability to get things done was vested in the Mayor’s Office, not as a councilman,” Foster said.
In 1998, Foster decided to run for mayor but lost to Louis Tallo. Foster went back into the banking industry and waited for another shot at the helm of city hall.
As he talked about the projects he and his administration chose to tackle during his three terms as mayor, Foster mirrored some of those projects with his childhood memories of Zemurray Park.
Residents have witnessed several improvements to Zemurray Park since Foster took office, some of which continue today.
“We spent so much time in Zemurray Park. I remember fishing and swimming in the pond,” Foster said. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to put so much time and effort into it.
“I remember riding my bike to Orange Street Park, now Clark Park,” Foster recalled. “During the summer, we had games to play.”
Foster plans to bring some of those same games back to the park for summer 2013 during a program to help find constructive ways for youths to spend their free time.
As he looked back on his tenure as mayor, Foster called the days after Hurricane Katrina “our proudest hour.”
“We had every major street open the same day as the storm and every street open by the end of the next day,” he said.
During his administration, Foster and his team have been able to secure the Cleanest City Contest title for six consecutive years, longer than any city in the history of the contest, he said.
Hammond was also the first city in Louisiana to be designated as a Safe Community America.
Foster helped improve traffic flow by opening Rogers Moore Parkway, which gave residents in Lincoln Park a second exit in case of an emergency, he said. Old Baton Rouge Highway was realigned, and the streets around Hammond Square have been redeveloped, he said.
The city soon will be the recipient of three roundabouts at the I-12 Hammond Square exit and the intersection of Club Deluxe Road and U.S. 51 Business.
Working with the Hammond Area Recreation District, the city will have available a new 90-acre recreation park with 12 baseball, 19 soccer and two football fields and a gym.
The city has one of the first concrete skate parks in the state.
The city, with the Downtown Development District, has rejuvenated the downtown area with events such as Hot August Night, Starry November Night and Music in the Park.
For Terry Lynn Smith, executive director of the Downtown Development District, Foster has been an invaluable resource to the redevelopment of downtown Hammond.
“He’s very sincere,” Smith said. “You can always depend on his knowledge and information.”
“He guides us,” Smith said. “He is teaching us ethical behavior, and cautions us about doing the right thing for the community.”
Smith, who said she calls Foster about four to five times a week with questions about DDD events and projects, said Foster “shares his philosophy and good will with the people of Hammond.”
“The mayor of Hammond is fortunately very interested in the city, both the residents and the business folks,” she said.
“He’s very personable, and he’s such a gentleman,” Smith continued. “It’s such a pleasure to have him in your presence.”
Continuing to develop the Hammond Northshore Regional Airport, Foster and city officials extended the main runway to 6,500 feet, and plan to construct a control tower with $750,000 in state capital outlay funds.
The city received $600,000 to purchase Hancock Bank to move the Police Department into one building and allow for expansion of Hammond City Court, he said.
The city has made improvements to the Michael J. Kenney Community Center and now hosts events there weekly.
A “weed and seed” program was established, designed to “weed out” bad elements in the community and replace them with good elements, he said. The city has used the program at MLK Park and brought social service agencies to the community rather than having the community search for assistance.
Foster and his team are in the process of improving the water system with an $800,000 water well, which will replace the oldest well in Zemurray Park. The city also is making about $1 million in drainage improvements, $900,000 of which came from grant money and capital outlay funds.
The wetlands assimilation project is moving forward, and with a Louisiana Community Development Block Grant, the city will be able to do a pre-treatment of the effluent that comes into an existing plant, thus reducing odor from the plant on C.M. Fagan Drive.
“I believe this will greatly reduce our odor challenge,” Foster said.
While Foster still has two more years left in his term as mayor, this will be his last term because of the three-term limit placed on the position.
When asked, Foster said he’s not sure what he will do when the time comes for him to hand over the keys to the city to someone else.
“I have always been active,” Foster said. “I’ve always been accused of doing too much. My guess is, I’ll find something to do.”
Many, like Maurin, will miss Foster.
“He will go down in history as one of the best mayors to serve the city of Hammond,” Maurin said.