No matter the size of the town, the role of Mayor is an important post. This individual, duly elected by the citizens of the town, is responsible for guiding the community into the future. It’s the Mayor’s job to maintain the success of the past, and build upon that success with new projects that continue to help the town grown. On top of all of that, a Mayor is also responsible for providing the glue to keep the community together.
For Charles James, the role of Mayor of Sunset, Louisiana, is one that he takes very seriously. His small town of some 3,000 people is situated right on Interstate 49 in southern Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish, just north of the Creole hotbed in Lafayette. As you’ll find out, the man in charge of Sunset has lofty goals for his town and the people that call the area home.
About the City of Sunset
Mr. James calls the city of Sunset home and is proudly serving as the Mayor in his first term in office. Sunset was founded in 1904 in a manner that many of southern Louisiana’s small towns were: proximity to the railroad. The town began as a small railroad town with a mainline coming right through on the to-and-from routes leading to Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and the ports of New Orleans. For a brief time after its founding, Sunset was known as the “Sweet Potato Capital of the Nation.”
Today, Sunset is a town that looks much different than it once did. Gone are the days of the city enjoying its title as Sweet Potato Capital of the Nation. Instead, the city is more a place that folks call home, that has its own major driving factors in the economy. As Mayor James notes:
“The main economy? It used to be agriculture. It’s not anymore. What happens is most of the people commute to places like Lafayette, and they work in both the oil industry or in education. Many folks work in education, but primarily, most folks work in the oil industry.”
Don’t let this city’s name fool you though. The economy may have changed, but if Mayor James has any say in the matter, the town of Sunset will not be a city that people view as being in decline. The brighter days of Sunset are not behind it, but rather, those days lie ahead in the years to come. You may even want to consider thinking of the city as Sunrise rather than Sunset! If Mayor James is successful in continuing the town’s growth and improving the sense of community, Sunset will be on a positive path, looking ahead.
Looking Back, but Moving Forward
Mr. James has been involved in the politics of Sunset, Louisiana for nearly 15 years. He is currently serving his first four-year term as the Mayor of Sunset, but before that he had spent 8 years as the town Alderman. As Mayor, Mr. James is intent on building upon the successes of the town’s past, while also looking to the future.
He has aspirations for the town and has set goals for its continued growth in the years to come.
As he reflects on the more recent past in which he worked alongside the previous town leader, he muses on the path that lead him to run for office of Mayor of Sunset:
“The last two years … Well, six years ago, the then Mayor told me that he wasn’t going to run, so I said, ‘Well, you know, I may want to do that.’ Because we had done a lot of work in four years and the prior four years also, as my last term as alderman We had done a lot of work to promote Sunset. We had done a lot of work to move the community forward, to build a plan for the future. We were in the middle of that, so I told him, I said, ‘Well, you know, if you’re not going to run, I’m going to think about it because we’ve done a lot of work. We need to continue to process.’”
Growth and sustained success are difficult in a town like Sunset. It is less a reflection on the people and more a reflection of small-town life. Sunset doesn’t have the tax base or access to the same resources that other larger communities enjoy. This means that the city’s leaders, including Mayor James, have to think outside the box and work harder to bring in revenue to support visions for a brighter future in Sunset.
The town currently has a population of roughly 3,000 but growing, which is key. Challenges remain, though, despite that growth:
“Our future is the brightest part of where we are right now. Predictions are that we’re going to increase the population by almost 25% in the next 10 years. Our biggest asset is having Interstate 49 run right through Sunset. We have worked very hard to develop a comprehensive plan to get our community ready for that economic development that’s going to be coming. It took us four years to develop the plan. I was able to get a grant for a quarter of a million dollars to do it, by the grace of God. The plan is in place. It’s been approved by the Town Council and the citizenry, and now it’s just implementation. That’s what we’re trying to do now. We’re trying to put ourselves in a position where we can implement it and do the things necessary to grow and go forward.”
Growing the Community as Well
There are always multiple facets to the role of leadership, and that includes the position of Mayor. As the town’s leader, Mr. James is focused on more than the development of the town itself and the local economy. He also wants to build a brighter future for the community of Sunset. The town’s schools need improvement to provide a better future for local children, who will one day have to take up the mantle of town leadership to guide Mr. James’ vision in the decades to come.
While he’s focused on improving the economy, on bringing more jobs to the town, and on getting people better access to affordable housing, he has a determination on building a better school system to enable that future:
“I’d like to see our education system improve. That’s one of the reasons why we’re strongly hoping and working to develop the French Immersion School next door. I’d like to do something with our young people. I would like to be able to meet them where they are, show them who they are, and make a way for them to realise that this doesn’t define them. Their poverty doesn’t define them, and inadequate education doesn’t define them either. It only makes them stronger to achieve those things that’s out there for them. The world is getting very competitive, like it or not, and competition starts in the classroom. The one that you’re competing against, often, is oneself.”
This isn’t to say that Sunset’s schools are failing the local kids. Children from Sunset are moving on to a university after completion of local primary and secondary schools. Young people from Sunset have attended universities throughout Louisiana, neighbouring Texas, and across the United States. Mr. James is proud to say that the local schools are educating children sufficiently and making them strong in character. Mayor James is, after all, a product of that same school system himself.
A Son of Sunset
Charles James is proud to serve as Mayor of Sunset, and why shouldn’t he be. He is, after all, a son of this great town. He was born and raised in Sunset, attending what was then a small local school named George Washington Carver School. Then it was the town’s primary school, housing children from first grade until graduation from high school upon completion of 12th grade.
Today, the town’s school system has grown. Integration in the 1970s, when segregation in the South started to unravel, meant that former black-only schools and white-only schools were integrated. Over time, this consolidation of schools resulted in the town splitting its classes among elementary schools, middle schools, and a high school. Mayor James was raised in a different system, but his children attended the newer, integrated schools.
Like many families in the area, Mayor James’ family background is French and Creole. His father was from Saint Martinville and his mother from Sunset. He recalls hearing his father speak both French and Creole. Though his mother understood both, she never conversed with his father at great length in either language in front of the children. After a brief stint in college at Southern University, Mayor James left to go to work. His wife of 47 years has been a teacher in Sunset since the days of George Washington Carver School, and currently works at Sunset Middle.
Education is something that is very near and dear to the heart, and future plans, of Mayor James. Listening to his wife recount stories from her day at work throughout their life, has shaped the hopes, dreams, and aspirations he has for Sunset. To that end, Mayor James has a message for the youth in Sunset:
“I would simply tell them to take advantage of every opportunity afforded to them. You start by challenging yourself to be the very best that you can be in school, understanding that education is your foundation. If you get a solid foundation in your education and have a good educational experience, then the world has no limits for you. You can go anywhere, and you can do anything you want to do.”
Regardless of how his plans for Sunset play out in the years to come, you can rest assured that this native son won’t give up. He admits that he’s had to temper his goals and aspirations for the town to some extent. In many cases just getting back to basics, but that doesn’t mean he’ll settle for anything less than what he wants to see for the town’s future. He’s not satisfied with what’s been achieved by himself to date, but he is happy with it. “Satisfaction”, claims Mayor James, “can become complacency in the future.”
As Sunset moves forward with Mayor James in office, the town appears to be in the right hands. After all, most people given one wish might selfishly use it on themselves or their family alone. Give Mayor James one wish he could have come true, and he’s focused on Sunset:
“If I had a wish, I would wish that we could all… well, the people in our community could come together and sit down at a table… simple, simple… and use those talents that they have, and those resources that they have, to really make our community better because that’s doable. It’s already there. They already have it. Let’s not let the folks who have an agenda in Washington or Texas or Alabama, or wherever, dictate what we do here. Let us sit down and concentrate on making our little square as good as it can possibly be.”