A tale of two cities: Umatilla, Fla. mayor hangs out with Woodson
SALISBURY — When mayors get together, no matter how big or small their cities are, they can’t help but compare notes.
And so it was Monday morning when Herbert Kelley brought his daughter Laura Kelley Wright to Salisbury City Hall to meet Mayor Paul Woodson.
“When you’re the mayor,” Woodson told Wright, “it’s almost like you’re chairman of the board of a $75 million operation.”
Here on vacation to see her dad, Wright is mayor of Umatilla, a town of roughly 3,500 people in central Florida — about an hour from Daytona Beach and an hour from Orlando.
The mayors talked at length about budgets, employment, streets, sidewalks, elections and how time consuming mayoral duties can be.
“I’m a cheerleader for the city,” says Wright, who was first elected as Umatilla mayor last November. “I’m at a lot of places.”
On the edge of the Ocala National Forest, Umatilla is in a land of lakes, hunting and black bears. Appropriately, Wright brought gifts for Woodson in a Black Bear Festival tote bag, which held things such as a jar of honey and honey sticks for coffee, a T-shirt, a history book of Umatilla and brochures and maps.
Before Wright had left his office, Woodson sent out to Literary Bookpost for a Salisbury history book for the Umatilla mayor.
Wright says the five-man Umatilla City Council makes the decisions, but it provides her a chance to weigh in on various issues before the town.
“I always have something to say — always,” she says. “... My council is very, very good to me.”
Wright was impressed when Woodson showed her a photograph of the present Salisbury City Council, which includes two female members.
“We have women here,” she noted. “We have women in this picture. I’m not used to that.”
Last fall, Herbert Kelley and his wife, Repsy, traveled from Salisbury to Umatilla and helped Wright with her first-ever campaign.
Wright relied on two three-wheeled bicycles and lots of help from family and friends to put her campaign at every door. “I had a crew of people,” she said.
Wright attended all the council meetings, refused to accept any campaign donations and was reluctant to have a Facebook account. Woodson said he was glad he wasn’t the only person not on the social media site.
Wright ordered 50 red, white and blue campaign signs. Her father has posted one of those signs on a tree in his yard in Salisbury, just to make her feel at home.
Wright, 54, also handed out bookmarks, listing information about her business experience, volunteer work and family background.
In the end, Wright captured 67 percent of the vote against her male opponent. She said she had no clue going into the election how she would do.
“She didn’t — everybody else did,” husband Tracy Wright said.
A business owner and resident of Umatilla for 18 years, Wright said she has come to know about everybody in her small town, which is getting two new traffic lights, she told Woodson.
“Our town is so small, by the time you say it, it’s back to the post office by lunchtime,” Wright said.
Friends asked her to run, claiming she would find herself going to the same places she always had as a volunteer, only this time she would do it as mayor.
One of nine children, Wright spent her early years as a child and young adult in New England — specifically, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Her parents divorced when she was 6. Herbert Kelley was a career Navy man, but he remarried and kept in touch with his oldest daughter, who lived with her mother and stepfather.
All branches of the family have done a good job of getting along with each other, Wright said.
By chance, both sets of parents moved to Florida the same year. Grandparents also were there. Meanwhile, Wright had divorced, and was raising daughter Amanda on her own.
“Everybody from up north ends up in Florida at some point,” Wright said.
She also made the move south.
Over time, Wright lived in St. Augustine and worked a restaurant, flower shop and nursery with a business partner in Daytona Beach. One day Herb Kelley called and told her of an auction set on seven buildings in Umatilla — a strip center that was half-built.
Wright purchased the property, in a hillside setting over an orange grove, for only $70,000.
She put in her Paradise Cafe; Flamingo flower shop; a gift shop; a mulch pit, trucking company and nursery; and an ice cream parlor. She rented out two other spaces to a bakery and taxidermist and pretty much had created a Cracker Barrel on the hill.
“We had it all,” Wright said.
Selling her Hilltop Plaza businesses later would allow her and Tracy to buy the Moss Gate manor property in 1999 and transform it into their home, a bed and breakfast and an events venue.
Lying along Lake Umatilla, the stylish Moss Gate includes a bell tower, town square, chapel and a labyrinth.
The early 1800s house alone is 4,800 square feet.
Moss Gate requires constant upkeep from Laura and Tracy, who also works out of Miami for the Florida Department of Agriculture. The manor is home for weddings and receptions, Chamber of Commerce events, Kiwanis and garden club gatherings and corporate meetings with tents.
Guests who stay at the bed and breakfast sometimes fly into the small airport just behind Moss Gate.
Laura and Tracy married just before buying Moss Gate, and they had a daughter, Karlee, who will be entering the ninth grade at Umatilla High this fall. Laura gave birth to her daughters 20 years apart, when she was 21 and 41.
Amanda, 33, now works for Xerox in Indiana.
Wright uses her wide experience in plants and landscaping to help the town’s maintenance crews at times. You might find her on the work truck with them.
“When I say my office is the back of the truck — I’m out there,” Wright said. “... I think I’m respected for that.”
She has been heavily involved with community fundraisers, church, cooking and caring for the elderly, a girls ranch, the Chamber, the Florida Farm Bureau and Karlee’s schools.
Wright tries to put in 20 volunteer hours a week.
The Umatilla mayor said she is writing a book titled, “The Secrets of a Small-Town Florist,” which will be aided greatly by her experiences at the bed and breakfast.
Wright acknowledged she might consider running for the Umatilla City Council in 2014, not that she’s complaining about the mayor’s position.
“I like the mayor’s job, because you’re really not a politician,” she said.
But as the mayor and a business person, it’s hard to sit at the council meetings without a vote, Wright said.
Woodson and the rest of Salisbury City Council will face re-election this November. If he needs help, Woodson only has to go as far as Wright’s father, Herb, for a little advice.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.