Meet Mary Alford

Candidate for Alachua County Commission District 1

I am a sixth-generation Floridian, born and raised in Alachua County along with my eight brothers and sisters. My dad was a union electrician and later, an electrical contractor and my mom, besides raising nine children, worked at Shands to help indigent patients find funding to pay their bills. My dad was a Scoutmaster and I grew up camping, canoeing, and traipsing through the woods and swimming in the springs. We lived close to the land, and I grew up with chickens and pigs, bees and bunnies, worm farms and compost, fruit trees and vegetable gardens.

My family was close and family vacations were spent in the Ocala National Forest or at the beach where I learned about the environment. The forming of the EPA, the stopping of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, the acquisition of local lands, like Paynes Prairie into the state park system all happened during my childhood. Many people may not realize this, but Paynes Prairie used to be covered with billboards, and my first Letter to the Editor was asking for these billboards to be removed.

I graduated from PK Yonge Laboratory School and after marrying and having four boys, I went back to school, first at Santa Fe and then the University of Florida. During that time I worked at Shands for 5 years, both in the NICU and later in the pharmacy. I was working in the NICU when the first AIDS baby was admitted. It was horrific watching nurses struggle to understand how to deal with this disease. That and other experiences helped shape my opinions about sex education, access to birth control, women’s rights and abortion.

I graduated with my Masters just before 9/11 and the job market was stagnant. I was offered a job interview doing environmental compliance work for a power plant on the Suwannee River near Live Oak and at first, I was hesitant. But when I pulled up to the gate to access the plant and a Sherman’s Fox Squirrel sat just a few yards away from me and stared me in the eye, I felt like I was supposed to be there, to protect him.

While working for Progress Energy, I managed a 2000 acre site that included a spring, multiple endangered species, and old-growth longleaf pine. I managed water quality compliance, air quality compliance, proper waste disposal, and oversaw clean up of PCBs and asbestos and lead. I was in charge of safety and helped maintain a safety record of over twenty years of no lost-time accidents for union personnel. My hard work was rewarded and I was offered the position of Operations manager. I was pleased to work for a company that let a dedicated environmental engineer be in charge of the operation of a power plant. I also became certified as a diversity instructor and a human performance improvement instructor. I helped develop the company’s root cause analysis policy and procedure and provided training in root cause analysis to the engineers and management. I conducted root cause investigations for everything from oil spills to significant budget overruns to injuries.

Unfortunately, my health was affected by working in the power industry and, after coming out as a lesbian to my manager, things became extra difficult and I decided to leave Progress Energy, and I planned to work in the public and private sectors in environmental compliance and power plant operations management. But soon after leaving the company I was diagnosed with cancer. While undergoing cancer treatment I reevaluated what I wanted to do with my life, why I originally got that degree in environmental engineering and what I wanted to leave behind in the world.

After finding out that there were contaminated wells in the area where I lived – and being on well water myself – that I decided to study environmental engineering. I completed the engineering prerequisites at Santa Fe, then entered UF and graduated with my Environmental Engineering Science Degree and then went on for a Masters of Engineering, graduating third in my class and earning certificates in Process Engineering and Integrated Process and Product Design, with additional course work in Urban and Regional Planning. I worked for Gainesville Regional Utilities for two and a half years while completing my Masters. My master’s thesis research was completed at the Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant and focused on the treatment of high-level nitrogen contaminated industrial wastewater. It later won an international first-place award from the Water Environment Federation.

While getting my education I learned many other things about myself as well. Though I had been married and had children, I had always felt there was something really big missing in my relationships. Growing up in a traditional family I had never considered any other way of life. I realized one day that I was in love with a woman. While that part felt joyous, it was scary to make this life change and hard to come out to all of my family, but they were accepting and loving and most of them said they were not surprised. Sometimes family knows you better than you know yourself.

I changed direction and launched my own business. While recovering from chemo and radiation I studied for and passed the exam for Professional Engineer licensure. I then partnered with Jennifer Langford, the architect, to form The Sustainable Design Group, a mission-driven architecture and engineering consulting group specializing in high quality, energy-efficient and green construction as well as urban redevelopment and affordable housing.

The twelve years since starting my business have been challenging and exhilarating. After my own battle with cancer, I lost both my son, Peter, and my father, Abner James, to cancer, and my brother is currently undergoing cancer treatment. And at the same time my business began to be recognized for our work and we are fortunate now to be a part of affordable housing projects and high energy efficient homes across the country. 

As any entrepreneur knows, any venture is a risk. Inspired to be more conscious of the space we actually use in our homes I launched a startup that sold small, affordable, energy efficient, and attractive homes that were simple enough to build yourself. While that business didn’t succeed, it wasn’t a total loss. It established me as a recognized expert in sustainability and “traditionally sized homes” and I have been honored to present at many conferences like TedX, PechaKucha, and various local governments and boards as a result.

I believe that my life experience combined with my varied work experience and education give me a unique insight into Alachua County and what makes it the best place in the world to live. My family settled here six generations ago, I raised my children here, and my children are raising their children here.  I’m ready to lead Alachua County and make sure it stays the place we love to live.

Through my work, experience, and education I have become an expert in sustainability, utility, housing, environmental and energy issues and I have been honored to serve on many local and state boards.

Current and Former Board Positions:

  • Utility Advisory Board Member for City of Gainesville (current member and former Chair)
  • Alachua County Code Enforcement Board (engineer)
  • Alachua County Environmental Advisory Board (former Chair)
  • United Way of North Central Florida (board member)
  • Florida Defenders of the Environment (executive board member)
  • United States Green Building Council, Heart of Florida Chapter (President, LEED for Homes Chair)
  • Cultural Arts Coalition (board member)
  • NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee Member
  • Sequential Artists Workshop (board member)
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