“Always run toward the fire.”
This is the motto Mayor Robyn Tannehill follows in her career and family life, she said, because there will always be “plenty of people in the opposite direction,” but every person was put on the Earth to serve others and make a difference.
Her motto, drive and determination are what garnered Tannehill a spot on the “Mississippi Top 50” list. As mayor of Oxford, Tannehill is responsible for being the representative and spokeswoman for one of the fastest growing cities in Mississippi.
Before she immersed herself in city politics, Tannehill started out at Ole Miss in 1988 as an art and graphic design major. She fell in love with the campus, Phi Mu sorority, the culture and her future husband, Rhea Tannehill.
Her husband, a former Associated Student Body president, was always thought to be the one who would pursue a career in politics.
“Everyone assumed he would be the politician, and I, in fact, hated and wanted nothing to do with (politics),” Tannehill said. “So it’s been very interesting to see the roles change.”
After college, Tannehill worked in public relations at Ole Miss, served as assistant director for the Chamber of Commerce and then became the executive director for the Tourism Council, while her husband completed graduate school and law school.
During her time as tourism director, Tannehill pioneered the first Double Decker Arts Festival, which has grown into Oxford’s largest festival.
“I was so miffed that this awesome college town didn’t have a festival,” she said. “So I said, ‘Let’s figure out what Oxford does best,’ and it was pretty clear that music, food and art is what Oxford did best.”
During the first year of the festival, however, it was not the huge event it is today. At first, there was no money to fund the festival. The city did not initially allocate any money or promise to close off the streets, which left Tannehill with only one choice for finding money for the festival: fundraise.
There was also no money to construct or rent stages, so Tannehill enlisted someone to bring two 18-wheeler rigs to serve as a stage. Tannehill said she decorated the rigs with burlap so “they wouldn’t look ugly.”
Tannehill approached Coca-Cola and Budweiser Distribution to ask them for $10,000 each in return for advertising during the festival. She said Budweiser was astonished when it found out it wouldn’t be selling any beer, though. Instead, Tannehill left alcohol sales up to restaurants and bars on the Square.
“Tourism is about building these small businesses and bringing people in to shop at these small businesses,” Tannehill said. “So I wanted beer to be sold by these restaurants who invest in our community every day.”
The festival has now grown into an event that more than 60,000 people attend annually to celebrate the arts.
Tannehill said she plans to use this experience to preside over Oxford at a time when planning for the city’s growth is vitally important. Even though there are many ideas and issues being discussed, she said there is not a lot of partisan bickering in local politics.
“Most of the issues that divide us are things that can’t be decided on a local level. Democrats and Republicans pave roads the same way, run police departments the same way and pick up trash the same way,” Tannehill said.