Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 21, 2023

Getting a new start in old career

Smedley switches focus from politics to real estate, family

After eight years on the Hamilton County Commission and a mayoral bid that ended in a loss, Sabrena Smedley says being only a Realtor again feels good.

“I didn’t realize how much politics had become a part of my life,” she says. “Focusing solely on real estate again has been fun.”

Smedley, 54, is sitting cross-legged on a backless blue sofa in the lobby of her new office on Lee Highway, her right elbow resting on a knee and her fist propping up her chin.

It’s the posture of a professional who’s engaged in a one-on-one conversation. Smedley has spent the last eight years listening to others and then projecting their voices in a public forum, and she’s not ready to relax her stance.

The color scheme in her neatly decorated office space suggests she’s open to trying, though. Calming shades of blue fill the lobby – from the throw pillows on a nearby chair, to the marbled lamp stand on the adjoining end table, to the accent rug under her shoes.

Outside, a new logo serves as a beacon to clients who are scanning Executive Business Park for her brokerage. Consisting of a pointed roof and a chimney poised above her company’s name, there’s no mistaking what Smedley sells.

“Changing my colors and refreshing my logo was exciting,” she smiles. “But I’m more eager to meet new people and strike new deals.”

Smedley never stopped selling real estate. After being elected to represent District 7 on the county commission in 2014, she continued to operate her one-woman brokerage, Sabrena Realty Associates, out of a converted East Brainerd house.

“You don’t run for county commissioner for the pay, which is nominal, you do it because you want to serve,” Smedley explains. “I had to keep doing real estate. It’s my livelihood.”

But Smedley didn’t shortchange her district because she was busy selling houses. Instead, she took phone calls from constituents, held quarterly community meetings and says she stood her ground on the issues she believed were important to her people.

“I made a few developers mad because I didn’t go along with every proposed project,” she recalls. “But I was looking at the big picture. Do we have the infrastructure to sustain this kind of development? And if you can’t in good faith say this is going to be an improvement, you can’t say yes.”

Smedley says any darts tossed in her direction bounced off.

“Putting yourself out there isn’t easy. But my mother was a single mom, and I was a single mom. I had to work hard because I didn’t have any support and make quick decisions. That toughened my skin.”

Besides, Smedley adds, pleasing everyone is impossible.

“There’s no way to line up 10 people and make them all happy, so you have to do what you think is best.”

Smedley also earned an MBA online through Bryan College during first term as commissioner, which effectively filled the few moments she would have had to herself. She chalks up her quest for more and more work during this phase in her life to being a new empty nester.

“All of this happened as my three kids were leaving home,” she muses. “Maybe I wanted to stay busy.”

Smedley didn’t ease off the gas during her second term on the commission. Instead, she served as its chair. In 2019, she purchased the local Pure Barre fitness franchise. She’d fallen in love with the workouts, she says, and wanted to keep the business open when the owner needed to step away.

“I bought Pure Barre three months before COVID hit,” she recalls. “Imagine owning a fitness boutique during a pandemic.”

As Smedley approached the end of her second four-year term, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2022. Soon, a rising tide of voices began urging Smedley to run.

She says she resisted at first because she “already had enough on her plate.” But after a great deal of prayer, she relented.

“I knew where Hamilton County was strong, I knew where it was weak and I knew where improvements needed to be made. It felt like a natural progression after two terms on the commission and being chairman.”

But more than that, Smedley continues, she’s a person of faith, and after praying, she felt like God was telling her to run.

Confirmations seemed to rack up like votes in a runaway election. In addition to endorsements from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Greater Chattanooga Realtors and local unions representing sheriff deputies, police officers and firefighters, a sea of individual voices spoke in favor of Smedley becoming mayor.

“What more could one want in a mayor of Hamilton County?” asked Larry Grohn, a former Chattanooga city council member who’s currently on the Hamilton County School, in a column published on Chattanoogan.com. “She’s proven her capabilities, set appropriate priorities, prepared herself for more responsibilities and has consistently demonstrated readiness to meet tough challenges head-on.

“If you don’t vote for Sabrena, don’t cry that the trade schools never happened, that there was no funding for the school board or that the development you thought would be there disappeared into the mist.”

Other stories cited the local activism that predated Smedley’s entry into politics, including her stand against forced annexation in Hamilton County.

“After I earned my real estate license, I became involved at Greater Chattanooga Realtors, which in turn engaged me in governmental affairs. Standing up for property rights guided me into politics,” remembers Smedley, who was GCR’s Realtor of the Year in 2012.

About three weeks before the Republican primary, the closely contested but otherwise-clean race turned dirty, Smedley says. Although she declines to say who she believes was behind the eleventh hour mudslinging, there was no shortage of local stories about the radio campaign that targeted her and Matt Hullander, one of her two opponents.

The spots accused Smedley – a conservative – of being a closet radical who would turn Hamilton County’s children over to liberal activists.

Smedley defended herself but did not return the volley. Nevertheless, ripples from the negative ads, along with what Smedley says was extensive crossover voting in the Republican primary, sounded the death knell on her bid for mayor.

Smedley seems to regret not campaigning for Democratic votes, or at least respect the tactic of the election’s winner.

“It was a smart move. It was the Republican primary, so I knocked on the doors of our Republican voters. That was the data I had. I didn’t knock on the doors of our Democrats. I never even considered it.”

Still, Smedley says she’s no worse for the wear and is proud of the race she ran and the team of volunteers who supported her.

“I still believe I was meant to be mayor, but things don’t always work out, even when you believe they will. But who knows what the future will hold? I feel good about the eight years I served and my former constituents are telling me to run again. I do have a heart to serve.”

In the months following the race, Smedley retooled her life. After touring the New England states with her husband of 11 years, Mark, she sold the house where she’d conducted business to Weigel’s, as well as her Pure Barre franchise, and located a new home for Sabrena Realty Associates.

Then, for the first time since 2014, the reinvigorated entrepreneur in Smedley returned to business as usual. For her, this means working with anyone and everyone on whatever their real estate needs are.

“I love working with everyone,” she says, her smile returning after moving on from discussing politics. “I’ve never tried to carve out a niche. I’m not going to be your lake house or farmhouse girl. I even do commercial.”

“Business as usual” also means treating people the way she would want them to treat her, Smedley adds.

“From Day One in real estate, I’ve wanted to be every client’s Realtor for life. I’ve treated every deal that way, and now a lot of my business is referrals.”

As Smedley celebrates her 20th year in real estate in 2023, she’s serving more seniors, she notes. This has given her an opportunity to exercise her heart to serve.

“I moved a client out of a three-story, 4,300-square-foot house after his wife began suffering from quick onset dementia. They’d lived there for years and didn’t know where to start, so I put together a team to help.”

Smedley brought in a dumpster to allow the elderly couple to dispose of unnecessary papers and belongings, found a church congregation to remove donated items, filled a POD with what was left and brought in people to pack.

“I love it when I have an opportunity as a Realtor to step in and make a difference,” Smedley says. “Helping people feels good.”

Smedley is also committing time to chairing a Chattanooga Republican Women fundraiser for the local Isaiah 117 House, which will be located at Chambliss Center for Children. Once open, the facility will serve as a waystation for minors who are removed from intolerable conditions. Smedley says the committee hopes to raise $175,000.

“I’m still plugged in,” she says, “but I’m being selective about where I spend my time and resources.”

Although Smedley says she has put politics behind her and unloaded her fitness franchise, she’s added a few things to her proverbial plate, which is piled as high as ever.

One of the entrees is an upcoming podcast in which Smedley and a pair of co-hosts – Amanda Livingston of Optimize U Chattanooga and Misty Bolt of Medicare Misty – feature local women who are inspiring and uplifting.

Smedley smiles wide as she drops the news on another addition to her life – the role of gigi to three “grandbabies.”

“Being a gigi is cool,” she says. “I’m getting them this afternoon after a closing, and we’re going to Chuck E. Cheese.”

Will having grandchildren permanently close the door on Smedley’s political career? What about her reinvigorated real estate business? Will her community endeavors satisfy her desire to serve?

Time will tell, Smedley hints.

“Everything is for a season. I’m simply moving through life and hopefully becoming better.”