Lois Cortell, Senior Development Manager, is April’s Community Hero
Lois Cortell was bitten by the community service bug early in her life, and since making Montgomery her home, her impact can be seen — and felt — in once-neglected nooks and crannies that now teem with beauty.
Cortell, who is senior development manager for the city of Montgomery, was instrumental in transforming a rundown spot where Rosa Parks once worked into Lower Dexter Park, a popular pocket park next to the renovated Kress Building. Additionally, pollinator gardens are sprouting around the city and a reimagined Rotary Park adds food trucks and outdoor spaces downtown for people and their pets.
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“I loved it,” she said. “But it was difficult – like living in Lima is difficult. So when I came back I was trying to find, how can I – I studied economics, Spanish – how can I take this and I kind of apply it locally?”
She was ‘called’ to public service
In 2013, Cortell was in her 13th year at Portland, Oregon’s Development Commission, where she worked as a senior policy officer. It was then that her husband, Andrew, was offered a job at Montgomery.
Andrew Cortell said it only took his wife three months to get involved in the Montgomery community.
“Making a difference for the public good is really what she is,” he said. one of us is from Montgomery, but she’s invested in the city, which makes it a better place.”
A few months later, she joined the development department at Montgomery. She compares her work in urban development to her father’s role as a pastor in the Midwest, whom she felt “called” to public service in the same way others are called to religion.
“In Montgomery, people don’t know their neighbors anymore,” Cortell said. “So I make it a point to just greet people.”
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Projects of public importance
One of Cortell’s personal projects is the Old Cloverdale Community Garden, where she makes it a point to meet her neighbors. When Cortell arrived, there was destroyed property across the road from her.
The woman who owned the property had been burglarized and she no longer felt safe to live there, so she left.
As she no longer cared for the property, the grass continued to grow and calls from neighbors to the city led to grass liens being put in place on the property. Then Hurricane Ivan arrived and filled the house with water after the roof succumbed to the storm.
The house was eventually demolished by the city and a demolition lien was placed on the property. The owner had also stopped paying taxes, so the property was sold through state tax sales. The Old Cloverdale Association found the owner through the Citizen Access Portal, and he agreed to turn over the deed in exchange for the OCA paying thousands of dollars owed in back taxes.
Now a beautiful community garden adorns the property, which is registered as 501(c)(3), so they can accept donations to help pay back taxes.
“And in her involvement with the community garden during this time, you know, she just gave herself selflessly, for the benefit of the community,” Benton said. “She’s all about the community — and the neighborhood.”
Cortell said she couldn’t let run-down property exist around the corner.
Now the garden is a place where people gather with their neighbors. Cortell clarified that the garden is not a professional botanical garden with perfect organization. Rather, it is a place where everyone can contribute. The tools have been given. The roses were planted by a master gardener as part of a personal project.
“And she made it sustainable for years to come,” said Deborah Hall, who works on the garden with Cortell. “And, she has been truly invaluable in transforming this dilapidated land and creating a place that simply connects gardeners, neighbors and visitors to each other in nature. It’s really about community, and without it, I don’t think we’d be where we are today. I don’t think the garden would be as advanced as it is – it might not even exist without her.
“Wonderful and creative ideas”
Cortell explained that the things that improve the quality of life – the values of city development – are nothing new. Aspects such as walkable communities and getting to know neighbors have been known for hundreds of years.
“Lois is always enthusiastic and directly engaged in the process of creating places. His contributions – both in and out of office – leave an indelible mark on Montgomery,” said Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed. “It is rare to have such a talented planning and design professional in city staff, and we see tangible benefits throughout our community.”
Cortell talks about her work through the lens that she works with others. She is building an infrastructure so that others can continue her work.
Other people talk about the legacy Cortell is building.
“And she’s just amazing,” Hall said. “I’m so proud to talk about her.”
“She is now working on trails that will connect downtown Montgomery, down to Shady Street and a new park there,” Hall said. “And because of her love of nature and gardening, she’s creating a pollinator garden on this trail, at the end of this trail, so she’s definitely going to leave a legacy in Montgomery.”
Cortell talked about his work on Lower Dexter Park. The park had originally been a way to accommodate the outing space needed for the area, but they had spoken to historians, who explained that it was the location of the Montgomery Fair Building and where Rosa Parks had worked. . Cortell explained that they rebuilt most of the original facade.
Lakeeta Davis, Cortell’s assistant, talked about the work her boss has done on Rotary Park. Cortell’s passion is green spaces, and she wants people to gather there.
“We want to be able to have an outdoor space…where people can come from all demographics, you know, and socio-economic classes and converse. And what do southerners do? They eat. So what better for next, you know , have a little food truck park, and then you have the little dog park, and people are outside eating, talking, walking their dogs or leaving them on the agility course?”
Alisa Koch, who recently worked with Cortell on planning a new sensory journey for visually impaired children, said Cortell is known for her networking. When you mention Cortell, Koch said, people say “yes” to whatever you’re calling about.
Cortell’s warm and friendly demeanor keeps people engaged, Koch said “So you just want to keep talking with her. And, she has these wonderful, creative ideas that are always so inclusive,” she continued.
One of Cortell’s most recent projects is a planned expansion of the Waterfront Trail which includes the Sensory Trail. The Koch Sensory Trail is part of the project and includes a garden designed for pollinators, as does the community garden.
The fifth anniversary of the Old Cloverdale Community Garden took place at the start of the pandemic. When COVID interrupted their initial celebratory plans, the gardening group instead held a contest for a mural. Sunny Paulk won and painted a mural to mirror the images posted on the garden’s social media account.
“So these are all images from the first five years,” Cortell said of the mural. “She put it in her colorful style.”
The garden is a community collection. One day while Cortell was working on the site, a woman stopped to say that she had often driven by and seen Cortell working there. She observed that the garden needed grass, and Cortell agreed.
The woman then wrote a check for $1,000 and told Cortell to fundraise for the rest. Today there is grass and brick everywhere in the garden.
A waiting list to rent one of the 15 raised garden beds shows how popular they are. There are two libraries: one reserved for children’s books, due to demand.
By walking, Cortell can remember who gave what in each part of the garden.
“I literally know almost every plant, like who gave, where they came from,” she said.
Now the garden is part of the community, and Cortell knows the community through the garden. She recognizes a man passing by. He consults the small free library in the garden then continues to walk.
“So,” Cortell said, “the community part is just as important as the plants.”
Montgomery Community Heroes
Community Heroes Montgomery, sponsored by Southern University, profiles one person each month in 2022.
The 12 categories the Montgomery announcer will focus on: Educator, Health, Business Leader, Military, Youth, Law Enforcement, Fire/Paramedic, Nonprofit/Community Service, Religious Leader, Senior Volunteer, Entertainment (arts/music) and athletics (such as a coach).
Do you know a Community Hero?
To nominate someone for Community Heroes Montgomery, email [email protected] Please specify the category for which you are applying and your contact details.
Jemma Stephenson is a children’s and education reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. She can be reached at [email protected] or 334-261-1569.