Image courtesy of Emily Styron
“She’s damn determined…and epitomizes belief in public service,” said Mayor Emily Styron when asked about her parallels with the character Leslie Knope of the popular show Parks and Recreation. “She doesn’t hear the word ‘no’. If she can’t get there from one route, she’ll recalculate the distance and take a different route. And I was the (Deputy) Director of Indy Parks, for real, way before the show.”
Zionsville, Indiana’s real-life Leslie Knope, AKA Mayor Styron is a character worthy of note in her own right. A career-long public servant, Styron was elected in November 2019 as the town’s first Democrat and first woman mayor in their history. She’s unapologetically opinionated, fiercely committed to her community, and not afraid to tell it like it is.
“I think for me, politics is yucky but public service is fabulous. When we eked out a win, we went in with a very positive attitude. We were going to work together and throw politics out the window.”
Prior to becoming mayor of Zionsville, Emily Styron commuted to Indianapolis. On her daily journey, she passed by Creekside Corporate Park and was less than impressed with the results of the development, which had been positioned as an economic development driver.
“I was driving back and forth from Indianapolis every day going past that park and wondering, who the hell is in charge of this? We went through the largest economic boom in Indiana’s history and didn’t have any new corporate headquarters or anything built in Creekside,” commented Styron.
Inspired by the book Run For Something by Amanda Litman, a progressive call-to-action piece originally published in 2017, Styron decided to throw her hat in the ring for mayor. Styron described her campaign as an effort founded on grassroots community engagement. From knocking on hundreds and hundreds of doors to hosting house parties, Styron had to get creative with limited campaign resources.
“I’m a single mother, democrat, female. I thought there was just no way I was ever going to get elected, but it didn’t matter. I ran because I wanted to give people a choice,” said Styron. “I just talked about what I wanted to see in my town and what I would do if I were elected. I ended up winning by 88 votes.”
Two of Styron’s areas of focus were the park system and economic development; a combination for which she is uniquely suited, with a background in management of public organizations, including the Boone County Redevelopment Commission and the Zionsville Board of Parks and Recreation. During her open house Q&A sessions, many community members she spoke with expressed a desire for a community center that functioned similarly to a YMCA, while others were interested in economic development opportunities that could have a long-term financial impact on the town.
After beginning her term, Styron and Deputy Mayor Julie Johns-Cole were invited by Stan Burton, owner of Wolf Run Golf Club, which had closed in 2017, to tour the property. On the tour, Burton described his vision and the plans he had filed with the town to request a rezoning of the land into retail and office spaces, 360 single-family houses, and 200 multi-family housing units.
“I’m looking around and I feel like I’m in a PBS masterpiece mini-series. The land was stunning. I thought to myself, ‘yeah there is no f*cking way this is going to become little houses and businesses.’ I went home and made a list of people that I was going to call the next day and ask for a million dollars.”
As Styron worked her way down her list of calls, she made a significant call to Jim and Nancy Carpenter, local conservationists and founders of the retail chain, Wild Birds Unlimited. What started as a ‘what-if’ conversation, quickly grew into legitimate interest by the Carpenters who ultimately purchased the 215-acre Wolf Run golf course land in 2021 for $5.5 million. Not only has the couple been a catalyst to saving the land from redevelopment as investors, but they also committed to a $1 million gift by selling the property to the town for $4.52 million.
In May of 2023, a 6-1 vote by the Zionsville Town Council approved a $5.5 million bond to purchase the land from the Carpenters for the preserve as well as for the necessary site work and construction documentation required to make it ready for visitors. In addition to this funding, the town has also sought grant funding to support the vision for the project. This includes $4 million in Indiana Stream and Wetland Mitigation Program credits to fund restoration work alongside Eagle Creek, a $3 million Next Level Conservation Trust grant to partially reimburse the town for the land acquisition, and a $500,000 Land and Water Conservation Fund grant for the initial phase of development.
Styron and Nancy Carpenter encouraged local leaders and parks enthusiasts to unite and, in 2020, the Zionsville Parks Foundation was established with Nancy Carpenter named as the organization’s founder and president.
With community input on its master plan, the Carpenter Nature Preserve will serve as a local and regional nature destination, complete with walking trails and boardwalks, playgrounds, a nature center with outdoor classrooms, and enhanced wetlands, woodlands, and prairies. Phase one of the preserve is slated to be completed in late 2025 with trails, parking, and restrooms.
In considering the effort of championing this project and its impact, Stryon said, “This preserve will last for generations. With Carpenter Nature Preserve established, hundreds of acres will never become houses. That will never become anything other than a respite for humans, mammals, and birds. When I won, I wanted to do the best job I could. This project – the preserve – it’s worth the headaches.”
Image courtesy of the Town of Zionsville, Indiana
While certainly the most notable, Carpenter Nature Preserve isn’t the only thing Styron has achieved in her mayoral tenure. She’s done what many other mayors have done in the past few years: led her community through the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent recovery, wrestled with issues with her town council, and attended her fair share of ribbon cuttings and public appearances.
All the while, she’s also embraced forward-thinking planning initiatives for the Zionsville community including adopting the Zionsville Gateway Area and championing the reinvention of the gateway into the town’s business district. Remember that underutilized Creekside Corporate Park? She secured Rahal Letterman Lanigan, the first new corporate headquarters in four years. She opened the town’s first dog park. Additionally, she developed and implemented the first Climate Action Plan in the town’s history.
“You know, these are big issues (referring to climate), but all of the issues start in a community and so the solutions need to start there, too,” said Styron. “I raised our hand and said we can participate. We want to be part of the solution.”
Styron announced earlier this year that she will not be running for re-election. After conferring with her staff, to which she freely and passionately gives credit for her administration’s success, she decided to go out ‘on a good note.’ As she prepares to pass the torch to the next Zionsville mayor, her next step isn’t set. “Next for me? I’m not entirely sure to be honest…I love working in organizations. I love working with great teams of people…I don’t really like politics at all, I never have and I still don’t. But, I do love working for the benefit of my neighbors and visitors to my town.”
In honor of our ‘real-life Leslie Knope’, let’s close out our story on Mayor Emily Styron with a Knope quote that matches the energy of both women:
“Go find your team. Get to work. Whatever that work is that you find worth doing. Do it, and find some people to love who’ll do it with you.”