A Mayor with an Arts-Friendly Vision
Rusty Knox ’79, an alumnus of Pfeiffer College who’s been Mayor of Davidson, N.C. since 2017, looks at his town’s 29 restaurants and sees a world of possibilities beyond a delicious meal.
“How cool would it be to eat dinner in one of those restaurants on a Friday or Saturday night — then take in a show,” he said recently. “That’s one of the goals I want to achieve.”
Beginning in January, Knox’s vision will move one step closer to reality when an old school building at 251 South Street reopens after extensive remodeling as a multipurpose town center, and Knox and other town officials move into it, having left Davidson’s current town hall.
In addition to being a place where town business is conducted in offices and meeting rooms, the center will showcase lots of visual art, and it will host performances for up to 300 patrons in what was once the school’s auditorium. There will be presentations by such artists as spoken-word poets, comedians, musicians, and dancers. Knox, an avid arts supporter, could be among the center’s performers: A guitarist of Americana fare ranging from blues to bluegrass, he’s recorded two CDs and performs at venues around Davidson on weekends.
“I don’t want the new town center to be used just from 9 to 5 for staff and just for board meetings a couple of nights a week,” Knox said, adding that groups such as scouts or students taking a class in whittling could find a home there as well.
Before the town center emerged as a reality following a successful $14 million bond referendum, Davidson’s current town hall housed the offices of all its departments, including those for police and firefighters. Severe spatial constraints were the norm. Once the town center becomes operational, Davidson’s police and firefighters will remain at the current town hall, which will provide them much more space that is being reconfigured to better meet their needs.
That Davidson’s town hall lacked sufficient space was an issue well before Knox became Mayor. Although a plan for building some generic buildings had been proposed, Knox felt that the 251 South project would be a better alternative and worked hard behind the scenes to make it a reality. He got the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools on board with the idea of selling the old school building, which was being leased to a Christian school. He worked with county and town officials to issue a bond referendum on which the citizens of Davidson would vote. And, he went into cheerleader/salesman mode, plugging the project whenever he could. The bond passed with 78 percent approval.
Knox, a native of Davidson, earned a B.A. degree in health, physical education, and recreation from Pfeiffer, where he also pitched as a starter on the baseball teams coached by the legendary Joe Ferebee, whom Knox still regards with the greatest respect and affection.
Knox recalled that Ferebee often turned to baseball-inspired sayings to teach important life lessons. Here’s one that has stuck with Knox: If you walk the batter, you’ve taken away the ability of the defense to help you; there’s no defense against the walk.
“You can take that adage and surround yourself with it in life,” Knox said. “It’s very easy to give up, but the results are always better if you put your nose to the grindstone and work through your problems.”
After Pfeiffer, Knox eventually found his way to a career in real estate, which began in 1994. He has also volunteered for numerous nonprofits, including the Arts and Science Council, where he’s a member of its Board of Directors.
Local politics is in Knox’s blood: His father, Russell, served as Davidson’s Mayor from 1985 to 1995, and his uncles also served as mayors of North Carolina cities.
Knox said he’ll run for another two-year term, which would begin in November of next year. As he starts campaigning for reelection, he’ll be able to point to several “campaign promise kept” success stories, in addition to the 251 South Street project. These include dedicating Davidson’s second fire station in 2017, adding several miles of greenways through the town, building and/or adapting more than 20 homes for affordable living, and dedicating a park that includes Davidson’s first public tennis courts.
Knox first ran for Mayor on a platform that included his opposition to attempts by Davidson in 2016 to sell 19 acres of land for commercial development. In 1986, the town purchased the land to build a park. The 19-acre plot has now been developed as a park during Knox’s tenure and will be dedicated in early 2023.
Asked to account for his success as Mayor of Davidson, Knox shared a nugget of philosophical wisdom: “You realize very quickly that you have no power in your role as Mayor,” he said. “But you do have influence, and that influence can open a door or crack a window.”