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Ila Mae Cunningham
"Full Steam Ahead"
By Stephen Stuebner
Mature Outlook magazine
Many folks look forward to the end of full-time work with anxious anticipation. Finally, there's time to travel, relax, read -- just take it easy for a while. Not Ila Mae Cunningham. Cunningham retired as clerk and treasurer for the Marsh Valley School District in the spring of 1991, and within a few weeks, she registered to run for the mayor's seat in her home town of Downey, Idaho. She was elected as the town's first woman mayor, winning 85 percent of the vote against a write-in candidate. It was a job that most people shunned because, at the time, Downey was dying. The once-thriving railroad and agricultural community -- situated in the middle of a broad and beautiful mountain valley -- had seen a steady exodus of people and businesses for more than a decade. It was a sad tale that mirrored the circumstances of many small towns in America. The local hospital had closed, leaving Downey without a doctor or local medical care. The city's water system was broken. No jobs were available for young people. No new homes had been built; no new businesses had moved in. Since the early 1980s, Downey had lost $1 million in property tax revenue. Downtown Downey looked like a ghost town. Cunningham recalls a friend telling her at the time, "I'm going to leave this town. There's nothing left here worth staying for." "Well, I don't feel that way," Cunningham replied. A resident of Downey since 1951, she had a lot of history in Downey. She had raised four children there along with her husband, Dewey. Moreover, Cunningham had a strong sense of loyalty to her town, to her neighbors. Now that she wasn't working full-time, she was ready to tackle the massive job of revitalizing Downey. "At least I felt like I had to try," she said.
Fast-forward to August 1996. A beaming Cunningham stood on the stage at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Washington D.C., giving a speech to more than 500 small town leaders from across the nation. She had won the grand prize of the American Hometown Leadership Awards, a $10,000 grant for her community. Out of hundreds of community leaders, Cunningham was selected for bringing Downey back to life in such a creative, uplifting way. "You don't have to be elected a leader to save a community, you just need to care," she told the audience. Downey "is a good old country town. We couldn't just let it wither away." Penny Greaves, a local journalist and community volunteer, nominated Cunningham for the award. "The thing that impresses me most about Ila is that she has a really innate ability to encourage people to do things," says Greaves. "Nothing's going to happen in a small town like Downey without a lot of help from people in the community. I think her biggest talent is her ability to involve the entire community."
In a broader sense, Cunningham, 68, has invested all of her impressive personal skills, including her sparkling personality, financial expertise, community spirit, and a keen eye for creative opportunities -- doing more with less -- to revitalize Downey. When she moved there in the early 1950s, Downey was a thriving community. It had over 4,000 residents, a stately hotel, nine car dealerships and four agricultural implement dealers. Ila knew that in the 1990s, the town would have to fill a different economic niche. Its best hope was to become a bedroom community for the nearby city of Pocatello, Idaho. Soon after taking office, Cunningham wrote down a list of challenges for Downey and dove into the fray. "As you get into a job and see the challenges, the only way to solve them is to take 'em and do 'em," she says. Cunningham embodies the very definition of a "can-do" kind of person. The eldest of 12 children, she was born during the Depression in Malad City, just over the mountains from Downey. "We grew up when times were hard," she says. "All of the kids had to pitch in and help. My mother taught us to cook, clean, scrub, and we had to work to earn money for college. We didn't have much in those days. We just had to do the best we could." By the time she graduated from high school, her work ethic was strong. "I graduated on a Thursday night and went to work on a Monday," she says.
She met Dewey at Snow Mountain College in southern Utah. When he transferred to Idaho State University in Pocatello, Ila worked at the ISU bookstore to support them. She liked to stay busy, and for most of her life, she's always had a job. While raising three girls and a boy in Downey, Ila Cunningham kept the books and handled insurance needs for a local physician for 16 years. Then she worked for the school district until her "retirement." Sandra Kay Cunningham, Ila and Dewey's second daughter, says her mother has employed many of the same skills she learned as a child in the Depression and later in raising a family on a modest income to revitalize Downey. "She's just very creative, and she can see things that need to be done, and she'll figure out a way to get them done," Sandra Cunningham says. "In a small town, people have to pitch in and take care of each other. My father still shovels the walks for the old ladies in town. They always make sure that people have food. People in a small community have to watch out for each other. They have no one else to rely on except themselves." Sandra Kay recalls that her mother always had a touch of class -- a sense for aesthetics -- even when times were tough. On Thanksgiving, "we planned our whole day around setting the table with fine silverware and glasses, and flowers. My mother always has had an incredible eye for beauty."
Ironically, one of the first civic projects that Ila Mae Cunningham led in Downey was restoring some vitality to main street. The beautification project was launched as part of the Bannock County centennial celebration. The project involved planting trees, painting store fronts and sprucing up Main Street. Several red, white and blue centennial signs -- depicting the town's backdrop beneath the shadow of 9,800-foot Oxford Peak -- still hang above the city offices and the Downey Fire Department today. It was a community-wide effort, one of many that occurred that year. The beautification project inspired a new sense of pride in Downey. Townsfolk found a bell for the old school house. They built a monument to a nearby Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp. They worked on improving the city park. All of the projects required volunteer labor and community fund-raisers to make them happen. The spirit embodied in the centennial celebration was exactly the kind of thing that Downey needed. It was a start. To work on jump-starting the economy, she helped organize a Downey Chamber of Commerce. She joined the Southeastern Idaho Economic Development Council. She learned about a number of grant programs that could help her community, and applied. Downey received grants for: improving the town airport; refurbishing an RV park; planting more trees and beautifying the city park; and most importantly, a $372,000 grant for installing a new water system and meters in all of the town's homes.
"One thing about our mayor -- she's got a real nose for money," says Karl McQuivey, a Downey city councilman. "I don't know where in the world all of these grants come from. It's incredible!" The Downey City Council was so pleased with Cunningham's performance that it recently raised her salary from $50 to $100 a month. With a good water system, the city now has capacity for growth. She helped facilitate the re-opening of the town's medical clinic. The old school house is being converted into 12 apartments for affordable housing. Another grant will restore a vacant downtown building to provide an "incubator" center for small businesses. Now Downey (population 625) has new potential. It had been a community-wide effort, involving many volunteer hours. Every volunteer received a special certificate for helping out, and a personal thank you note from Mayor Cunningham. Granting authorities say Cunningham's positive vision for Downey made a big difference. "She's persistent and dynamic -- she gets the most out of everyone around her, including us," says Greg Seibert, Gem Community coordinator for the Idaho Department of Commerce. "It's very difficult for small towns to compete with larger communities for private investment. It takes a catalyst to show that your community wants to get something done, it creates a progressive feeling. "Investors want to see a ray of hope. People like Ila Mae and the people around her show a ray of hope."
Christina Martell, president of the non-profit Mercy Housing Idaho, Inc., says she was invigorated by Cunningham's vision, too. "Ila Mae has been so wonderful in bringing her community forward in a wholistic way," Martell says. "Her presence seems to create a kind of synergy that affects everyone around her. We wish we could take what is happening in Downey and spread it into a lot of other rural communities all over Idaho." At the awards ceremony at the Hyatt Regency, Sandra Kay Cunningham was there with her family, all misty-eyed about her mom. "It was incredible. Here she was surrounded by 500 to 600 people, and they all wanted to be just like her. It was quite an honor for me and my mom." Adds Penny Greaves, "It may be that rural America is dying, and we could have been part of the wake, but thanks to the efforts of one woman, a whole town is working together and making good things happen. There is a new air about town -- we know we can make things happen. It took Ila Mae Cunningham to show us that we aren't dead yet."
This page is for perpetual written accounts of historical events that have occurred in the city. Anyone who feels they have pertinent information may submit it. This includes all people in or out of Downey and could involve any interested adults or children with events or items that are of interest. Items may be submitted for publication on this page where they will remain as part of a historical archive for the city. Items of interest may include noteworthy events, special events of historical importance, information about area growth that pertains to the history of the city, and other pertinent notes. We hope to establish a large data base of information about the history of each city. Historical Societies are encouraged to open their own page on Key to the City for more extensive historical information.
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