CUMMING -- Flags flew, music played and hundreds gathered Thursday morning in downtown Cumming to celebrate the opening of the new Forsyth County Courthouse, a facility officials hope will last for many decades.
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, several speakers recalled the difficulty of securing the funding for a new courthouse. The structure took about 18 months to build, but three elections and 15 years of planning.
“You can’t overstate or understate what a great day this is,” said Pete Amos, chairman of the Forsyth County commission. “Forsyth County needed a new courthouse. The citizens stepped forward and voted it in  and we built it.
“We’ve needed this for years. We’ve been working on a new one since 2000, and finally got it passed.”
Four times between 2001 and 2011 Forsyth voters rejected in referendums bond programs to build a new jail and/or courthouse.
Construction of the courthouse began in July 2013. It, along with a new four-story jail across East Maple Street and two nearby multi-level parking decks with hundreds of spaces each, was funded through an extension of the 1-cent sales tax program that voters approved in a November 2011 referendum. The first $100 million from the sales tax is going toward the structures.
Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt, who has led the city since 1971 and served as a councilman prior to that, said he has seen many changes during his tenure.
“As a young man growing up in Cumming, five generations here in the city of Cumming, I would have never imagined we’d have some 200,000 residents living in [the area],” Gravitt said.
“I would never have thought that someday sitting right here in the city of Cumming we’d need a five-story facility.
“But I’ve been blessed to be able to witness all the positive changes that have happened … over the decades.”
Two of the biggest criticisms of the new courthouse have been its location and the cost. Amos defended both.
“We’re on time and under budget,” he said. “… Don’t believe the [social media] blogs. We’re not millions over, we’re under budget.
“The city of Cumming participated highly, they helped us put it in the center of Cumming. Some people complained about that, but it turned out to [be] a great location the city allowed us to use.”
Forsyth County Chief Superior Court Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley noted that the previous courthouse had a relatively short life. But, the judge said, population growth and Forsyth’s transformation from a rural community necessitated the new facility.
“The 1978 courthouse was occupied as such for only 37 years, not a long time for a courthouse, but few counties have seen the phenomenal growth that Forsyth County has seen.”
And the 1978 courthouse will remain in use, just for different purposes. Plans call for it to house Probate Court and the sheriff’s office.
Bagley said the changes have brought tremendous opportunity.
“Forsyth County is not the same place in which I grew up,” he said. “Of course, we are more crowded, there’s more traffic, we’re losing rural nature and some of the small-town atmosphere.
“On the other hand, opportunities abound. We can boast of being the most affluent community in the state and, most importantly, the outside perception of our community has changed.”
The ribbon cutting ceremony also featured remarks from Jacob Ruiz and Erin Tozier, the middle and high school winners of the courthouse’s time capsule essay contest.
Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court Hugh Thomas gave the keynote address.
“As I’m sure you know, you already have an outstanding court system that has earned a reputation for excellence, fairness and equality,” Thomas said of the Bell-Forsyth Judicial Circuit. “Now you have a living, breathing showcase that will help instill confidence [for] all those who enter here … that justice will be theirs.”
John and Karen Raibikis, county residents of nearly 20 years, said the county needed something new.
“I think the framed documents are just such a great touch to the courthouse,” Karen Raibikis said. “We’ve been here 19 years, and it’s seen such a growth since we’ve been here. This is what we needed and it’s beautiful.”
The nine replica documents form the basis of American government and include the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence and Ten Commandments. Their cost was covered through donations.
Like its four predecessors, the courthouse sits in the downtown Cumming square, though it has another, unplanned, connection with the most recent courthouse.
“The then new courthouse across the street opened for business on March 16, 1978,” Bagley said. “Monday we open for business, and it’s March 16. Please know that I did not know that tidbit of information when the opening for our courthouse was scheduled.
“Coincidently, or maybe not, our new courthouse will open for business exactly 37 years to the date after the 1978 courthouse opened.”