Lawrence City Commissioner Mike Amyx to end long career as city leader

Lawrence City Commissioner Mike Amyx gives a customer a trim on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017 at Amyx Barber Shop, 842 Massachusetts St. Amyx has served in local government for 22 years, including six terms as mayor. His current term will end Jan. 8.

For those looking for the ear of a city leader, Lawrence City Commissioner Mike Amyx has always been easy to find.

For decades, Lawrence residents have brought their comments and complaints to the threshold of Amyx Barber Shop, 842 Massachusetts St., where Amyx is usually just steps behind the front window that is painted with his name.

“He was the guy on the street. You could just walk in and start talking to him — sit in the first chair there,” said former City Manager Mike Wildgen.

In a way, the downtown barbershop is also what brought Amyx to local politics to begin with. In 1983, Amyx was part of a downtown committee and an opponent to a proposal to build a suburban shopping center. Although he’d always been interested in local politics, Amyx said it was serving on the committee and his concern for the well-being of downtown that initially made him decide to run for office.

Since then, Amyx has been a regular figure in local government, serving 22 years in elected office. Amyx served on the Douglas County Commission and the City Commission, including six terms as mayor. Earlier this year, Amyx announced he would not run for re-election to the City Commission.

In that time, Amyx said a day at the barbershop has not passed without people calling or stopping in to give their opinion on local issues.

“At first it was a little bit different, but over time I think it’s what a barbershop in a lot of cases really is,” Amyx said. “It’s that little town square place, and we have some lively discussions.”

And there has been plenty to discuss.

The growth of Lawrence

In the 34 years since Amyx initially joined the City Commission, Lawrence has added about 30,000 residents. That growth has spurred several contentious decisions, and Amyx said one of most challenging moments came in his first term, with the decision to extend 15th Street west of Monterey Way.

“That really opened up an entire expansion of the community heading west,” Amyx said. “That was one that was extremely, extremely big at the time and had a great impact on the community.”

Amyx said the list of big decisions went on and on. There has been the development of the East Hills Business Park, the addition of the South Lawrence Trafficway and the construction of the Wakarusa Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Former City Commissioner Bob Moody said Amyx has been involved in making Lawrence what it is today. Moody said that also includes considering what Lawrence would have been without Amyx.

“Look at what downtown might be had he not gotten involved early on about the suburban mall,” Moody said. “Look at what City Hall might be had he not been accessible and been people’s portal to City Hall.”

Wildgen and Moody both said Amyx’s accessibility is what makes him an effective commissioner. Moody said that has to do with his shop, but also that Amyx is an everyday, relatable person who listens to people. Also important, Moody said, is that Amyx still respects those he disagrees with.

“I always used to tell people that the mark of a good commission is to disagree vehemently and yet respect each other in the morning,” Moody said.

Another project Amyx will likely be remembered for voting against is the development of Rock Chalk Park. Though the project went forward despite Amyx’s dissenting vote, he is the only member of that Commission still serving.

The last one standing

The election of 2015 unseated all the incumbent candidates, leaving Amyx the only commissioner not serving his first term. Then scandal brought the resignation of former Mayor Jeremy Farmer, who later pleaded guilty to stealing from a local nonprofit. In the aftermath, commissioners decided that Amyx should serve as mayor of the new Commission.

Mayor Leslie Soden said Amyx’s experience has been appreciated. She said it has been really helpful to have someone on the Commission who worked on so many projects over the years.

“When we have questions or we’re needing to know the spirit of a certain decision, we can certainly always look to Commissioner Amyx to try to enlighten us,” Soden said.

For his part, Wildgen said he always admired Amyx’s stamina. He said no matter what side of an issue Amyx was on, he was straightforward and could withstand the sometimes difficult role of a city leader.

“To be patient enough to do that for all those years is something I always admired,” Wildgen said. “I went through a lot of cycles with commissioners, and some of them said, ‘Gosh, I’m sure glad I didn’t get that four-year term.’ It’s a time-consuming and energy-driven position to hold.”

After all that has happened and not happened, what Amyx said he is most proud of may come as a surprise: the acquisition and renovation of the Union Pacific Depot in North Lawrence. The depot now serves as the Lawrence Visitors Center and is listed on the Register of Historic Places.

Amyx, who lived in North Lawrence for part of his childhood, said when he was a boy his parents would bring him to the depot to watch the trains. He said the depot always had a special place in his heart, and that he was proud to be a part of the project.

“People throughout the entire community jumped on board and really did that project right,” Amyx said.

Looking forward

Even with his term on the City Commission coming to a close, Amyx said he still can’t imagine himself not being an elected official. When asked if he planned to seek higher office, Amyx said “we’ll see if the timing is right and the opportunity is there.”

What is certain is that Amyx will still be found at his downtown barber shop, and he will continue to be involved in the Lawrence conversation.

“It’s my hometown and I take a lot of pride in it, as so many of us do,” Amyx said. “And it’s something that, even though I won’t be an elected official, I plan on being involved with a lot of things in our community.”

In November, Lawrence attorney and social worker Jennifer Ananda was elected to take Amyx’s seat on the Commission. Amyx’s last meeting will be Jan. 8, when Soden will give the state of the city address and the new mayor will be elected.