Taking the Lead
Emily Styron Talks Navigating COVID-19, Becoming Zionsville’s First Female Mayor & Long-Term Goals
Photographer / Amy Payne
After the 2016 election cycle, Emily Styron read a book called “Run for Something”, and the message resonated with her.
“I thought I’d run for Town Council and that would be my ‘run for something’ effort,” says Styron, who had the requisite skills to work at the municipal or community level, given her 25 years of experience working in central Indiana on local and regional higher education management issues.
As she began to read about how Zionsville had grown, however, she recognized that a lot of opportunities were being missed. The town was trailing every community around Indy in terms of economic development. Zionsville had not introduced any amenities to the parks system in quite some time. In addition, it seemed like the town was spending money in places that didn’t make much sense.
“The more I learned while prepping for my run for Town Council, I realized that I wouldn’t be satisfied in that position,” Styron says. “I wanted to run for mayor.”
Mayor Styron, a longtime Zionsville resident, won and took the position on January 1 of this year. She was thrilled and a little surprised, given that a democrat had not run in Boone County and gained an executive-level position in the past 20 years. She’s eager to do her part to solve some of the town’s growth issues related parking and road infrastructure.
“Oftentimes we hear more emotional and philosophical issues talked about in political campaigns, but when working at the municipal level, it’s more nuts and bolts,” Styron says. “It’s about the actual work and the professional experience someone brings to a role to manage day-to-day operations at the town level.”
As the first female mayor of Zionsville, Styron is adding more professional capacity to the town governance and has hired a chief financial officer, a new police chief, a human resources director and a new parks superintendent.
Taking office in 2020 has been interesting to say the least. Mayor Styron wasn’t fazed, however, as she drew on her past experience working for Mayor Steve Goldsmith’s administration.
“I was the chief information officer for the city of Indianapolis and Y2K officer as it related to the management of the technology effort,” Styron says. “We didn’t know what was going to happen when January 1, 2000, came so we prepared for a lot of scenarios and contingency plans.”
She learned how to effectively coordinate and communicate, as she and her team looked at different mitigation levels for an unknown risk. When COVID-19 hit, she revisited that headspace.
“I knew immediately that we needed to take a broad approach for getting and sharing information,” says Styron, who appointed the fire chief to be emergency management lead regarding staff protocol during the pandemic.
Styron also talked to the superintendent of schools and one of the county commissioners to ensure they were all in sync regarding closures and vacation strategies, and that all decisions were grounded in public health.
“I think one of the reasons Boone County did not see early surge numbers was because of that initial coordination with the Town of Zionsville,” says Styron, noting that while the coronavirus changed the town leaders’ priorities, it didn’t change the basic building blocks of good governance. “It was not me doing something. It was me working with the Town Council and others as a collective whole to treat a public health situation.”
While health and safety protocols are still in effect, the town leaders have worked hard to find ways to support local businesses while encouraging safe socializing among patrons. For instance, the Zionsville Chamber of Commerce partnered with the Town of Zionsville to create “Night on the Bricks” evenings, which ran each Thursday evening in June and July. The event was a huge hit that grew bigger every week with people bringing blankets so they could sit down and eat, then stroll back and forth to shop different retailers.
“This public health emergency has taken a horrible toll on retailers and dining establishments, but this one small effort helped to increase traffic,” says Styron, who suspects that the event will return next year. “It really is like a festival with people of every age coming to have a great time.”
Looking to the future, one of Mayor Styron’s top priorities is planning for a community center so that residents don’t have to drive to the Monon Community Center in Carmel. She and her fellow leaders are actively talking with partners and encouraging the parks board to join the effort.
“While I can’t set priorities for the parks department specifically, I can build relationships with the parks board and share our priorities with them,” says Styron, who would like to see plans in motion by year’s end.
She’s also interested in building a dog park. Her main goal during this administration is to transform the entryway to the town that has been in an undeveloped state for some time.
“We’re going to turn that area into something that we all feel proud of, and are excited about when we drive in to Main Street Zionsville,” Mayor Styron says. “People crave leadership, planning and direction. There’s a real synergy happening here as we mobilize more opportunities for change that is long overdue.”