Willis puts his youth and varied background—business owner, educator, radio host—to work to move his hometown forward
Ben Willis is in the business of providing service.
Cities, businesses, schools, community college — that’s what these institutions are for, Willis believes, and he has dedicated time to each. On a late summer morning, the 42-year-old city councilman from Lenoir laughs about how the coronavirus pandemic has brought that sense of service home, literally. While working from his house, he needs to spend his lunch break moving a couch.
“The longer I talk, the longer I don’t have to do that,” he jokes, though it’s clear that the put-on goes against his true, go-getter nature. There’s little procrastination in his background. Rather, on display is collage of public-minded work illustrating a clear, though not direct, path to elected office.
The big pieces are education and entrepreneurship. Tying them together is family. His work in Lenoir –his hometown – began immediately upon graduation when he started as a middle school science teacher for Caldwell County. At the same time, his family became invested in the city’s downtown revitalization efforts by purchasing and restoring historic buildings. Willis, along with his wife Jamie, wanted to be a part of that new energy taking hold in Lenoir, and so they started an outdoors shop in a historic downtown building. With the education background as a foundation, this new small businesses put his ambitions firmly on a public service track.
“Being a part of that and trying to promote your business, you get plugged into what’s happening locally,” said Wills. “We formed a merchants association that I became president of. Got more involved in city committees, downtown advisory committee, those types of things. That got me into local government – those were my first steps into that world.”
Those steps and the years that followed were anything but leisurely. With the business underway and a family at home, Willis moved his teaching career from middle school to Caldwell Community College, where he became a part-time instructor. He also picked up a position at the local radio station and played second fiddle on a morning, local news and politics talk show.
The days began at 5 a.m. Willis would get up and get to the radio station to prepare, then work the show from 6 to 9 a.m. Once the show wrapped up, he’d head home to take care of the kids and switch with his wife, who would then head downtown to open the shop. Later, Jamie would return, and Willis would head out to teach his night classes at the community college.
“Every day,” Willis said. “Rinse and repeat.”
Through the frenzy, Willis’ interest in local affairs continued to grow. The business had tapped him into the on-the-ground work that’s required of a downtown revitalization. And the radio show had connected him with the people that oversaw it: mayors, county commissioners, local leaders. While Willis was interviewing them, he was also fueling a passion. He moved on from the radio show in 2008, and then the business struggled to recover from the Great Recession, ultimately closing in 2010. Willis’ dedication to Lenoir was unmoved by this sudden crossroads. He jumped to a full-time position with the community college, and then in 2011, ran for city council and won.
The motivation was the town itself. Willis is clear on this point: He harbored no resentment toward current city leadership. Rather, it was a growing and clear understanding of the impact of local government work. It was a desire to get involved.
“I remember when I ran for office, I wrote a letter to the mayor, the manager and all the existing council member,” Willis said. “In the letter, I wrote, ‘I’m not running against you. I’m not running because I’m mad or angry. I’m running to be a part of the team.’”
He was also running to provide an infusion of youth. Willis, 33 at the time of his election, advocates strongly for diversity of perspective, and believed that a fresh outlook was necessary for Lenoir as it entered a period of growth and change. It was something that Lenoir, along with many towns across the state and country, lacked. After joining the council, he found that his fellow officials agreed.
“‘We need more of you,’ they’d tell me,” Willis said. “Each generation sees the world differently. It’s vital that you have those perspectives. It’s vital for the success of future local governments and governments across the board. I applaud any of the younger guys and gals that are in the game trying to make a difference.”
What started on the radio has evolved into real, hands-on action over the last decade, and his long-term goals have made progress. First is the continued growth and development of Lenoir’s downtown. From his position on the city council, Willis picked up the mantle started by his family and focused on renewing the dilapidated buildings. It’s a goal seen across the state in many of North Carolina’s historic towns, where once-rundown properties soon become the home for new businesses and a catalyst for economic development. “It’s taken every bit of my decade here,” Willis said about the speed of the project, but headway has been made, especially in recent years.
The second goal is the availability of high-speed internet — another slow, but steadily progressing issue for North Carolina towns. The third is the strength of the local government itself. Willis proudly touts the talent of Lenoir’s staff, and has made it a priority to see that they are competitively compensated each year.
“Local government, it’s like it’s behind the scenes,” Willis said. “You don’t really know about it until it’s broken, until a waterline breaks, until something doesn’t work or you can’t go to your playground or the local swimming pool. It was always just there. You have to have those good governments.”
The pursuit of good government is firmly in the spotlight now. Willis understands the gravity of the decisions made this year, relating to COVID-19 and its effect on communities, local economies, schools and health systems. Looked at in whole, these are issues of quality of life — always a focus of local governments, but rarely to this degree and with this level of responsibility. The most challenging year in recent history is being addressed locally, from the ground up.
Willis’ background has proved indispensable amid the uncertainty. Equipped with youth, business experience, and an understanding of numerous levels of local education, Willis has not backed down from any of these decisions.
“It’s been a really perfect balance,” Willis said. “I can relate to the business owners a lot more when there are issues that may arrive, and I can understand their perspective because I’ve been there, done that… When a new business or industry comes in, I’m not just able to wear the city council hat, but also the community college hat that allows me to say here’s where you are, here’s where we can help get you. It all fits perfectly.”
Perhaps most useful, though, is his love of community.
“We’re a blue collar, ‘roll your sleeves up and get to work’ type of community,” Willis said. “To be a part of the discussions and to make things better and moving your community forward… It really makes it worthwhile.
“Some of the best people you’ll ever meet are from this area,” he concludes, before himself rolling up his sleeves, getting to work, and moving his couch.