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2005 Newsmaker of the Year
Graham riding a rocket of growth
Not too many years ago, Braselton was often viewed as a rural backwater of Jackson County. Even after I-85 came and clipped the community’s northern edge, the small town remained in the shadow of its larger neighbors.
It wasn’t until the town’s founding family sold most of the property in the 1980s to a group that included actress Kim Basinger that the spotlight began to shine on Braselton.
But those Hollywood lights proved to be fickle and quickly faded after that deal went sour. The property was sold again to a lower-profile investment group and the town seemed destined to return to its quiet, rural roots.
Braselton might have remained a sleepy small town were it not for two things: A surge in residential growth as people began fleeing an increasingly urban Gwinnett County in the 1990s; and a neophyte mayor, a transplanted Yankee no less, who yanked the town out of its slumber.
Since taking office in 2002 as Braselton’s first mayor who was not a member of the town’s founding family, Pat Graham has moved with a series of bold, sometimes audacious, plans for growth. Her vision for Braselton and her highly-organized, no-nonsense style of management has led to a large measure of success in a very short period of time.
In 2005, Graham defended her aggressive vision as she defeated a strong challenger for re-election with a whopping 73 percent of the vote.
Because of her impact on Braselton and on the overall political dynamics of Jackson County, Pat Graham is 2005’s Newsmaker of the Year.
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
When Graham, her husband and four children moved to toney Chateau Elan in 1995, it was in part a response to the hyper-growth she had witnessed in Gwinnett County farther down I-85. A native of Rhode Island and a former executive with Frito-Lay, Graham had opted in 1989 to stay home with her children.
Her focus may have been on her children, but after settling down in Chateau Elan she found time to observe the actions of the Braselton political leadership.
She found it lacking. Annexations with no development regulations and a weak zoning code motivated Graham to action. In 2001, she ran for the mayor’s seat and won.
What she found after taking office shocked her. The town’s audits were years behind and the rest of the small town government was dysfunctional.
For the first couple of years, Graham spent most of her efforts in putting the town’s management on a business-like footing. The audits were completed, new policies were put in place, zoning codes were updated and bridges were built with the four county governments that Braselton is part of (Jackson, Gwinnett, Barrow and Hall.)
But if those nuts-and-bolts actions seem a little boring, Graham also began a second front with a massive public relations effort to raise the profile of Braselton. New community events were staged and last year the town received a stream of recognitions with Georgia Trend’s “Trendsetter Award,” the national “City Showcase” recognition and being named the “American Dream Town” from an internet poll.
Now the town is focusing on its municipal infrastructure and is in the process of building a new police and municipal court building and will begin construction on a new library later this year.
While much of Braselton’s growth has centered on its massive residential development, growing from 1,206 residents in 2000 to over 3,000 today, the town has also seen a boom in commercial and industrial development. New restaurants have been springing up along the Hwy. 53 and Hwy. 211 corridors and the town has become the focus of warehouse development as a shipping distribution center. Several million square feet of warehouse space is either in use or under construction in Braselton.
Graham may not be able to take credit for all the growth, but she has had a strong hand in guiding the development as it happened.
While Graham has led Braselton to a large amount of success during her brief tenure, she does face some complex challenges.
For one thing, the town snakes and weaves with a jagged city limits, looking something like a Chinese origami. The town covers a large area and the ability to provide services to some of the farther reaches will be a challenge in the coming years.
Making that even more difficult is the fact that Braselton incorporates portions of four counties. That scatters children out to a variety of different school systems, which in turn makes it difficult for the town to have any one school as a focal point for community pride.
While the town has so far avoided a city millage tax levy, there may come a time when that will no longer be possible. Because of the income generated by Chateau Elan, Braselton has not needed a property tax. But as the town grows and the Chateau Elan revenue becomes a smaller part of the pie, expenses will continue to increase. How long the city can balance its non-property tax revenue with those growing expenses remains to be seen.
The distribution warehouses may also prove to be a double-edged sword for Braselton. Unless the town does decide to levy a property tax in the future, it will be difficult to generate significant town revenue from those multi-million dollar projects. And while the distribution centers do create some jobs, they aren’t as job rich as manufacturing plants or white-collar office buildings. In addition, the distribution centers gobble up valuable industrial development land along I-85, a situation that could force more intensive manufacturing plants and office buildings to bypass Braselton and locate farther up I-85 at the Jefferson interchange.
Finally, Braselton will have to deal with the disconnect between its growing public image as a progressive small town while at the same time it operates an aggressive police presence along I-85. Technically, the town may not be a “speed trap,” but it does receive a large amount of revenue from its police fines, a situation which puts it in the same category as the towns of Pendergrass and Arcade. It’ll be difficult for Braselton to keep its positive image in the state if it gets rapped as a traffic trap along I-85.
Graham’s success in Braselton would be enough to count her as a rising star in local politics, but even with her short time in office, Graham’s political influence has spread beyond her hometown. Graham’s leadership successes have not gone unnoticed by the mayors of other towns in Jackson County. Both subtly and sometimes overtly, some other towns now seek to copy Braselton’s success and Graham’s style.
“Her opinion is sought and valued because she is truly a respected public servant,” said one observer.
Among the cadre of nine mayors in Jackson County, Graham is viewed not as a junior member, but as a leader of that informal group. She has even been able to maintain a business-like relationship with the Jackson County government during what has been a tumultuous time for the county’s leadership.
“Mayor Graham is one of the most impressive elected officials I have had the pleasure of working with throughout my entire career,” said Pepe Cummings, executive director of the Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce. “She is passionate about the positive role of political leadership, particularly in the very localized setting of a municipality.”
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