According to data from the 2020 U.S. census, the City of Pine Lawn, Mo., in north St. Louis County has over 2,700 residents, a median income of just over $23,000, and the median age is 24.5 years.
For the past seven years as mayor, Terry Epps has worked to undo Pine Lawn’s history of local government corruption and reverse its dwindling population.
Mayor Epps grew up in Pine Lawn and went to Normandy High School. He worked for a Fortune 500 company in the tobacco industry for 15 years before ending his “punching the clock days” to invest in real estate. He says he had “dibbed and dabbed” in politics before the 2016 special election, when the previous mayor was sentenced on charges of extortion. Epps felt someone new had to come in to make a difference. A good friend advised him, “If you’re getting into it for the people, you’ll do a great job. If you’re getting into it for the money, you’re going to jail.” He won by a slim margin and says he worked his “tail off” to get those votes.
In 2017, Epps won the general election by over 200 votes and has won each election since. He wasn’t going to run this past spring, but he signed up the last hour of the last day. He says, “The people ought to know if they want me or not, and they showed me. That meant everything to me.”
Epps says he’s learned how to be a good mayor by enthusiastically seeking on-the-job training and reaching out to other mayors he respects. He has learned the people will tell you what they need.
Pine Lawn’s motto is “Community First,” but Epps has also learned that means reaching out to and working with other communities to pool resources and exchange ideas. He says, “As I serve my terms, I’ve always had a heart for St. Louis, period. I started looking outside the box, because it’s not just about Pine Lawn, it’s about St. Louis as a whole.”
Since 2015, Pine Lawn has been part of the North County Police Cooperative, which shares the same motto and serves eight municipalities—the largest of which is one square mile. Epps says, “They are the best in the business when it comes to community engagement.”
In 2017, he organized the first annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade and Celebration in Pine Lawn. A few years later, the city of Wellston joined, and they have since invited every community in North County to participate. The parade ends at Barack Obama Elementary School where guests are invited to speak. After the event, attendees are allowed to roller skate at no cost for two hours at Skate King—originally named in honor of Dr. King.
Epps worked with Operation Food Search and Normandy Schools Collaborative to obtain a $120,000 grant to provide breakfast to children while in their first class of the day. He says the program started in Barack Obama School before moving to all schools in the Collaborative.
Epps also works with St. Louis Area Foodbank to hold food drives. A mobile market van is at Stratford Manor Apartments four months out of the year, where customers are given a bag to shop for the groceries they need. On the third Thursday of the month, cars line up in a parking lot at the intersection of Kienlen Ave. and Natural Bridge Road to receive boxes of food from the mayor and volunteers. There is no residential requirement; the only question asked is “How many families?” He says there have been fewer pallets of food lately because donations to the Foodbank are light. Through a collaboration with Our Community Our Health-St. Louis, individuals can also receive a COVID-19 vaccination during food distribution.
Epps says he would like to incorporate more healthy eating in his community. He partnered with A Red Circle, an organization focused on healthy food access and education through a racial equity lens in North St. Louis County, to create the North County Agricultural Education Center. The Center has an urban farm next to Pelton Jackson Municipal Park in Pine Lawn. Epps wants children to know they can survive if they can feed themselves.
Last spring, Epps developed an interest in fishing after friends invited him to Ohio to fish for walleye. “The older you get, the more patient you get,” Epps says, finding his new hobby relieves stress. He says he’s always been an outdoors person having grown up hunting rabbits with his dad and rafting on the Meramec River.
In addition to his new found love of fishing, Epps finds joy in working with youth. He coached little league sports for 23 years. Naturally, Epps decided to see if there were any kids in the area who wanted to go fishing. Three boys and one girl signed up. He bought some worms, grabbed some rods from his collection, and waited for the kids to show up early in the morning. Some of the kids wanted to cancel, but he convinced them to go.
They went to Fairgrounds Park Lake in north St. Louis city. The lake is stocked by the Urban Fishing initiative of the Missouri Department of Conservation. What can be caught depends on the time of year and location. Epps says the lake in Fairground Park is stocked with the most: over 800 catfish.
I wanted to go somewhere these kids were going to be successful. If they catch a fish, they’re going to want to come back.Epps
The kids caught four catfish and a bluegill and kept the fish to eat. Epps says the youngest, a nine-year-old, told him, “Mayor, I’m going to take this fish home and I will put him in a bowl and he’s going to be my pet.” Epps explained to the boy that the fish wouldn’t survive the trip home and was “only good for the frying pan.” The boy understood, as his grandmother had given specific instructions before his outing to come home with fish to fry for dinner.
After four hours of fishing, Epps says the kids didn’t want to leave. He had them clean up trash in the area before leaving.
Epps wants to take more kids fishing in different urban lakes. He has reached out to Missouri Conservation to take the kids to where the fish are bred, hoping to teach them about protecting the environment. Digging deeper into his own new hobby, Epps intends to go on a salmon fishing trip in October.
At first glance, you may assume the purple and green stand with a basket of flowers hanging below in front of city hall supports a little free library or a local newspaper. The front of the box, however, has the words “Life Box” and “Narcan,” the brand name for the medicine Naloxone, which is used to rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The boxes contain several doses of Narcan nasal spray along with information on drug addiction and resources.
The life boxes are a creation of Kevin FitzGerald, a retired union worker. The mayor reached out to him after seeing the boxes on FitzGerald’s Facebook page, asking “What’s the deal with those? How can we get them in Pine Lawn?”
He says FitzGerald explained the boxes cost about $400 to make. Epps wanted four boxes, one for each ward, but the cost was prohibitive. He says FitzGerald replied he may be able to do one or two boxes for free, but any donation money to offset that cost would help. Epps then settled on one in front of city hall, but FitzGerald came back with four boxes.
Epps admits he had mixed emotions, knowing some residents would balk at the idea of having something that may attract those with substance use disorders. The response has been overwhelmingly appreciative.
“We have an addiction problem in Pine Lawn,” Epps admits, “What do we do? Do we shun them, or do we help them? I say we help them. We give them resources. We keep doing that until they get the help to change.” He says, when it comes to the boxes, he can sleep at night.
Epps is currently working on sponsors for FitzGerald’s Narcan Life Box program, saying, “We don’t want it to stop here. We want to get them in every community that is willing to take them.”
The mayor looks forward to the extension of the Natural Bridge Improvement Project east of Lucas & Hunt Road to repair sidewalks and improve safety. Work on the project is scheduled to start in 2024 and be completed in 2025.
Epps wants people to reach out to him. He says, “When I see a resource for the community, I’m going to accept and I’m going to do my part to make sure it’s successful.”
Epps says the news doesn’t promote many of the good things in Pine Lawn, such as residents offering cold water and sandwiches to utility employees working in the heat. “We have a wonderful community here and we strive for excellence,” he says,
Everyone wants better. It’s my job as mayor to make sure I deliver that.Epps