Don McClellan died early Wednesday morning but his life’s blood will continue coursing through Alexander City in the thousands of jobs he helped bring to the area in the wake of Russell Corp.’s collapse as an economic powerhouse, friends and even political opponents said.
“There’s an optimism in our city now and Don helped create that,” Mayor Tommy Spraggins said just before ordering the American flag in front of the courthouse lowered to half-mast.
McClellan, the former Alexander City mayor who celebrated his 74th birthday June 13, died just after midnight Wednesday at East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika, where he was brought after suffering a massive heart attack Sunday night, according to Denise Walls, who worked under McClellan at the Lake Martin Area Economic Development Alliance.
McClellan’s death marks the passing of a second Alexander City mayor in two months. Jim Nabors died in office May 6 after emergency surgery to remove an intestinal blockage.
McClellan’s funeral arrangements will be announced today.
“It leaves a big hole in our leadership but it also creates an opportunity for others to step up,” Spraggins said of the deaths of Nabors and McClellan. “They would want us to keep moving forward.”
McClellan once patrolled Alexander City’s streets as a police officer and owned a photography business. After he was elected mayor in 1996, McClellan guided Alexander City through a conflict with the Environmental Protection Agency over sewage runoff, avoiding potentially costly and damaging actions by the federal government, but he will be most remembered for helping the area survive a harrowing economic downturn in the late 1990s when Russell could not recover from fatal financial wounds and laid off thousands of employees.
According to the alliance, 16 new companies came to the area, there were 20 existing industry expansions and more than 3,400 jobs were created during McClellan’s tenure as its executive director. The most significant companies locating to Tallapoosa County during that time were Sejin and Kwangsung in Dadeville and C&J Tech in Alexander City, all of which supply automotive parts to Kia, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota and Honda.
“He was a common man doing uncommon things,” Tallapoosa County Commission chairman T.C. Coley said. “It’s a loss on many levels. He’s been an integral part of the leadership in Alexander City and for Lake Martin for 25 years. A lot of people don’t appreciate his impact on the community. He was instrumental in helping to create the Lake Martin Area Economic Development Alliance when Russell was making significant changes and significant layoffs.
“He was mayor when Russell announced it was downsizing and Don pulled together people. It was probably the first time we’d seen anybody reach across political lines. I know the alliance has created 3,000 jobs for the area. We’ve had some significant victories. Companies have not only located here, they’ve grown and expanded.”
Former Alex City mayor Barbara Young, who unseated McClellan by 56 votes in a 2004 runoff, said she admired McClellan’s character and ability to convince Kwangsung to come to Tallapoosa County.
“He asked me if I’d go to Korea with him to get Kwangsung here,” she said. “I watched Don and his capability and his negotiating ability. He was a tough negotiator but very personable. He knew what he was doing.
“He was a good-hearted man. His reputation and his character made people trust him and love him. It’s a sad thing for all of us. He left his footprint. Look at all the industry that came in here to replace those Russell jobs. They were all brought here by Don; he’s responsible for replacing those jobs.”
Spraggins met with McClellan at city hall a week before he died and, while observing McClellan didn’t feel well, said they discussed some major economic development projects.
“His mind was sharp,” Spraggins said. “We sat right here and met about a number of things. There were two big projects we were talking about and then all of a sudden he’s no longer there to call on. Don was a Godly man and we know he is with his Lord and Savior today.
“In my role as mayor, I found Don to have invaluable knowledge and lasting knowledge of decisions made over the years in city government and he could explain them to you and why they were made. He always volunteered. He’d say, ‘I’m here if you have any questions.’”
McClellan is survived by his wife Linda, son Chris and granddaughters Madison and Faith. He was preceded in death by his daughter Leigh Anne, who was killed in a car crash Aug. 29, 1993.