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Outgoing mayor reflects on time in office
Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt attended his last meeting as a city official last week. He took office in 1971. - photo by Jim Dean

Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt first took office as a city councilman in 1967 and, having taken office as mayor in 1971, appeared last week for his final meeting.

In the five decades since he took office, Cumming and Forsyth County have experienced unprecedented growth and changes from what was once considered a small, rural community with few economic prospects to one of the most affluent, healthy and best-educated areas in the state.

Gravitt has been a major force in that change.

“Working on the city council when I was first elected, we had a budget of $60,000,” Gravitt said. “The city was very rural and a pioneer and [did not have] a lot of population. I think the population of the city was less than 1,000, and the city water department had less than 300 customers back in the early days.

For reference, at Gravitt’s final meeting, the city council unanimously approved the city’s 2018 budget at $35.2 million, nearly 600 times the first budget.

Another factor in the growth: more businesses being in the area, a heavy focus for Gravitt.

Gravitt, a life-long resident of Cumming, said most of his graduating class from Forsyth County High school, now Forsyth Central, left the area to seek jobs. Once in office, he wanted Cumming to be a place that drew people rather than lost them.

“The work that our board has done over the years, the 51-years I’ve been in office on the council and 47 as mayor, we tried to provide the business and industry for the employment of people who don’t want to leave Cumming to go to other places to make their homes and get married and have families,” he said.

Another reason for the growth in the area, Gravitt said, was the city’s water intake from Lake Lanier, which he said took about 10 years and numerous trips to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s headquarters in Mobile.

“The work that our board has done over the years, the 51-years I’ve been in office on the council and 47 as mayor, we tried to provide the business and industry for the employment of people who don’t want to leave Cumming to go to other places to make their homes and get married and have families.”
Mayor H. Ford Gravitt

“Finally, we got that intake into Lake Lanier that we were able to expand out and provide these type services, which enabled not only the city government but the county government and individual developers to develop the county to more of a friendly, business atmosphere so people would have jobs,” he said.

Since 1972, Gerald Blackburn has worked with Gravitt and the city, first in the recreation department and now as city manager. He praised the mayor’s work through the years.

“It speaks for itself,” Blackburn said. “I think he’s done a great job … not everybody has agreed with what he’s done, but the success speaks for itself.”

Through Gravitt’s tenure, the city has gone through three city halls. The original was in downtown Cumming at the corner of Dahlonega Street and Main Street.  When the city grew too large for the 800-square-foot facility, a second city hall was completed in 1974 and is now used as headquarters for the Cumming Police Department.

After also outgrowing that facility, the city started moving to its current location.

“The board wanted to put it back on the square,” he said. “So, we were able to build this facility, and had the money in reserves [and] started working on it in 2000.”

Gravitt said the building was completed under-budget in 2002 and cost less than $100 per square foot for the 50,000-square foot building, less than $5 million.

Through the years, Gravitt worked on some of the most visible projects in the city and county, including the University of North Georgia’s Cumming campus, the new Forsyth County Courthouse, the new Forsyth County Jail and the city’s water department.

Many of those projects were done without city property taxes, which Cumming does not levy. Gravitt said the council felt city residents were paying a tax at every turn.

“I felt like and [the] board felt like the citizens always [had] taxes placed on everything they do, and we felt like all the city property owners paid a county tax and they were going to pay the local option sales tax, then later on we had the special purpose local option sales tax,” he said. “We felt like they were being tax-burdened, and we wanted to alleviate [that].”

Blackburn said the mayor and other elected officials did a good job handling the growth.

“It’s been handled very, very well by all of these elected officials that have come on through the years. They’ve done a good job of it,” Blackburn said. “It didn’t just happen. It happened because people had a desire and a concern and they worked at it, and they handled it well.”

After 51 years, Gravitt was defeated this year in his re-election bid by newcomer Mayor-elect Troy Brumbalow, who will take office in January. He said there is plenty of work for Brumbalow and Councilmen-elect Chad Crane and Jason Evans.

“There’s still a lot to be done,” he said. “It’s a revolving door; you never get everything done. We wish the new board the best for the city of Cumming, and we have been honored to have been sponsored by our voters and friends and supporters all across the state.”

Gravitt was honored several times at his final meeting. He — along with outgoing Councilman Quincy Holton — received a lifetime achievement award from the Georgia Municipal Association, a plaque from members of the council and three standing ovations throughout the meeting.

He said he has received many well-wishes from the community but voters wanted a change.

“They said they hate to see me go,” Gravitt said. “Everybody said it was a surprise, but obviously, we have a lot of new people that have moved in — we have zoned a lot of property that new people have moved in — not knowing any of the history, they think 51 years is too long; there should be term limits. So, they wanted a change, and we’ll see what happens.”

Over the years, Gravitt said he has worked with state and federal congressman, other local governments, every governor dating back to Ernest Vandiver— who took office in 1959— and then-President Jimmy Carter “back when a Democrat wasn’t a bad word [and] you had a lot of Democrats here and they were conservative Democrats.”

“I’ve had a long ride working with a lot of the influential movers and shakers throughout our community and our state and our government,” Gravitt said.

Gravitt said the successes of the city during his tenure were not his own and thanked the community, city staff and councilmen who served with him over the years.

“It’s taken a lot of help from the citizens. One person doesn’t do it,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of help, and we had a good board for a long time that worked hand-in-hand to get this accomplished.”