Staff Photo: Erin Evans. Kay Lee points out sites of interest on the Livable Centers Initiative map showing the U.S. Highway 278 corridor at The Center, where she is director.
Editor's Note: This is the final installment in a series celebrating National Women's History Month, focusing on local women who have affected the community in a positive way and made their mark on history.
COVINGTON -- Kay Lee is very clear about the driving forces in her life: curiosity and an open mind, fostered at an early age by her parents.
Those two qualities are what prompted her to write a letter to Billy Payne, who was then attempting to get the Olympics in Atlanta, offering to help, and propelled her right to the top leadership position in Georgia Power's multi-million-dollar Olympic project.
They are also the qualities that prompted her to take on the challenge of creating a center that is the first of its kind, providing a neutral ground for government officials in Newton County to discuss important issues.
Growing up in the small town of Hahira in south Georgia, Lee learned early in life that, "It wasn't what I knew but if I was open to discovering new things that would inform my life and make a difference, or be invested in something bigger than me."
She credits her mother for exposing her to the outside world and always seeking new opportunities for her children. Though at times the family's financial situation was shaky, Lee's mother made sure to put her children in dress clothes and take them to the Ritz in Valdosta to hear the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Lee also credits her curiosity and drive to her father, an entrepreneur, who convinced Cecil Day, founder of Days Inn, to franchise his hotel. Day was unyielding when he arrived for dinner with Lee's father; by the end of the night, the two had a franchise agreement written out on the back of an envelope.
After college, marriage and the birth of her first child, Lee took a job with Georgia Power, where she started off doing clerical work, about the only job offered to women at that time. Eventually, she became part of the company's legislative team and traveled to Washington, where she helped shape the industry's position on the Clean Air Act.
She then went to work for Southern Company, which owns Georgia Power, in issues management, looking at trends throughout the country and attending courses taught by such notables as Charles Murray and Shirley Chisholm.
Lee moved on to running Southern Company's Political Action Committee and then became part of a pilot program for Georgia Power to put women and minorities in managerial roles.
It was during this time, while working in Lithonia, that Lee read a newspaper article about Payne and his efforts to bring the Olympics to Atlanta. An athlete since childhood who was always fascinated with the Olympics, Lee wrote to Payne offering to do anything to help, including scrubbing toilets. She was pregnant with twins at the time.
"I just knew that if this man was close to something that meant that much to me, I needed to see what I could do to help," she said.
A few months later, she was serving as a hostess to International Olympic Committee members. She was then tapped by Payne to travel to India to lobby committee members there to come and see Atlanta for themselves. A photo she took of Payne atop an elephant there landed in Sports Illustrated.
Lee is convinced that it was Southern hospitality that won over the IOC. "It wasn't that we were the most beautiful city. It's that we became friends," she said, noting that she is still Facebook friends with the Indian Raja to whom she was assigned.
She was in Japan when it was announced that Atlanta was the winning bidder. While there, she found herself in a room with Prince Albert of Monaco, Princess Ann of England and the mayors of Melbourne, Australia, and Nagano, Japan.
"I remember thinking, 'This is a long way from Hahira,'" she said.
Lee was picked by Payne to head up Operation Legacy, the economic development initiative that coincided with the Olympic bid. The goal was to use the Olympics as the hook to attract industries and businesses to Georgia. She was asked, along with Payne and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, to make a blind pitch to executives who were considering Atlanta following the Olympic announcement. Those executives turned out to be from UPS, and six months later they announced they were moving corporate headquarters to Atlanta.
After Atlanta won the bid, Georgia Power executives put her in charge of the company's Olympic project, with a price tag of more than $65 million.
"Georgia Power was one of the only companies that touched every single phase of the Games because everybody needed power," Lee said.
In addition to providing power for the opening and closing ceremonies and everything in between, Georgia Power employees volunteered their time for everything from sewing costumes to driving IOC delegates.
Lee was in the director's booth for the closing ceremonies and her children were asked to participate.
"In the end, we felt like we had been successful. People say you need a big, fat strategic plan to do something. No, you don't. You just have to know what your intent is," she said. "Ours was, first and foremost, keep the lights on; use the Olympics to promote the city and state; and be a citizen everywhere you serve."
Following the Games, Lee was commissioned by the IOC to help write a book on guidelines for providing energy services for major events and served as a consultant to Sydney, Australia, next in line to host the Summer Games.
By age 50, she was ready to retire, though her boss recommended a visit to a psychiatrist and a financial planner before she made that move. Lee acknowledges it was "financial suicide" to retire when she did, but said she knew intuitively that it was the right thing.
By that time, she and her family had moved to Covington and Lee was interested in starting an organic farmers market. She approached businessman Rob Fowler who owned a site that seemed like a good fit.
Lee was flummoxed when she walked in and Fowler said, "I'm happy to meet the woman who's going to run the rest of my life." Turns out he had done some background research.
The Square Market survived for a few years but eventually petered out. Many in the community now say the idea was ahead of its time, as farmers markets are now springing up in communities throughout the country.
It was during a meeting with Fowler and other members of The Arnold Fund that Lee mentioned an idea she'd encountered during her past work: A one-stop community shop to explain the community's past, identify present challenges and work on bettering it for the future.
A few days later, Fowler handed her the keys to a building on Washington Street and a start-up check. "Go do that thing you said," he told her. "I just went, 'Hell no,' Lee said.
That's how The Center Facilitating Community Preservation and Planning was born. The building was designed by local planner Randy Vinson. Lee said they made sure it would accommodate a restaurant in case the center failed. More than a decade later it's still going strong.
The center serves as neutral meeting ground for local leaders to discuss important issues. It's where the Leadership Collaborative, a partnership between all local governments, the school system and Water and Sewerage Authority, was started. The idea for the 2050 Plan that maps out growth and needed resources over the next 40 years was spawned there. The building is wallpapered with maps of Newton County that show every possible statistic. Numerous charrettes have been held there.
"By default, people began to think more as a team," Lee said, noting that when it was time to update the county's water service delivery strategy, the various governments responded to the state under the umbrella of the Leadership Collaborative.
Initiatives that Lee has helped foster include the LCI study, targeting improvements to the U.S. Highway 278 corridor; the comprehensive land use and transportation plans; the Economic Development Strategy; the multi-use trails movement and the UGA Metropolitan Design Studio.
"Kay has had a tremendous impact on the community, providing not only expert facilitation for the Leadership Collaborative, but also great connections to regional leaders and experts who have provided funding and guidance in our community's efforts to plan for and manage growth," said Vinson, who has worked with her on a number of projects.
Lee said she just hopes she can demonstrate for people that "Working together, there's nothing they can't do ... Together you can make a difference and have an outcome that's better than one can have as an individual."