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40 years of change: Hamrick has seen Gainesville grow during time on City Council
Gainesville’s then Mayor Robert “Bob” Hamrick throws out the first pitch at an Atlanta Braves baseball game in which the Braves played the St. Louis Cardinals, featuring Gainesville natives Cris Carpenter and Jody Davis. - photo by For The Times

At age 80, Gainesville City Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick has spent half his life making decisions for the future of the city.

He calls it a privilege.

Elected to the council in 1969, Hamrick says his near 40-year stint on the council has been driven by his desire to bring a variety of industry to town and eradicate the city of substandard housing.

In a state where state legislators have served as many as 25 consecutive terms, Hamrick’s 40-year council service may not be an anomaly but it is not common.

Amy Henderson, public information officer for the Georgia Municipal Association, says there likely are only a handful of elected municipal officials in the state who have held their posts for more than 30 years.

When it does happen, Henderson says it means residents are either pleased with their representation or that long-standing council members could be the only ones who want to take on the role.

"It’s hard sometimes to find people who will serve, because it does take time and it’s not a lot of glory," Henderson said. "I think the people who do take the time, they’re certainly very dedicated to it."

Hamrick was first inspired to run for the council when a city redevelopment project, one that would update blighted areas with adequate housing, utilities and paved streets, did not seem to be making any progress, he said.

"It just sort of seemed like this program was not moving, industry needed employees. So that’s sort of the impetus of why I got into (it)," Hamrick said.

At the time, Hamrick was working in human resources at the poultry company J.D. Jewell Inc. He could see first-hand that the city’s housing stock was inadequate and not attractive to prospective employees, he said.

Hamrick decided to put his hands in the machine of local government and try to unclog "the logjam — whatever the logjam was — that was causing the urban renewal program not to move, and then at the same time looking around to see maybe what else can we do to overcome the problems of affordable housing," he said.

The rest, you could say, is history. Hamrick served his first term as mayor in 1973, and since then, he has held the title four other times. Most times he sought re-election,except for three that he can remember, he did so without opposition.

"I think he enjoys it just as much as when he (was first elected). No, he enjoys it more," Hamrick’s wife, Carolyn said.

Hamrick said he keeps returning to his seat on the council, because he wants to see hard-fought city projects come to fruition.

He said the same was true with his most recent re-election in 2007 when a long talked about redevelopment of the city’s Midtown district was on the edge of becoming a tangible reality.

"We had talked about the Midtown Project for several years and I felt we were on the verge of implementing the first stages of the redevelopment," Hamrick wrote in an e-mail. "It certainly will be gratifying to see the improvements in that sector of our community and the enhancement of our quality of life."

Hamrick’s pet projects have usually been the ones that involved bringing industry to the city, he said.

With an unrestricted term, Hamrick says he has been able to successfully promote the city’s industrial growth and help to attract "some world-class industries" and achieve "considerable progress" in the upgrade of substandard housing.

Without such a long term, "I think the development of our industrial parks and the enlargement of our utilities (water and sewer) might not have happened as fast," Hamrick said.

Hamrick is not alone in his longevity among city officials in Georgia. In the south Georgia town of Fitzgerald, Gerald Thompson has been the mayor since 1968 and he first became a council member in 1965.

Thompson, 74, says longevity is good for local governments, as it gives elected officials the opportunity to learn how the machine of local government operates, making progress possible.

Forty-four years after entering city government, Thompson says he’s still learning how to run his city better.

"There’s something to be said for longevity and continuity," Thompson said.

Thompson says he’ll stop running for mayor when he feels an adequate replacement steps forward "that I feel like will be a good leader to carry on what we’ve started," he said.

Hamrick says he stays on because he has unfulfilled goals for Gainesville. He’d like to see the city take advantage of its natural amenities — Lake Lanier and the city’s proximity to the mountains — to develop a thriving tourism industry.

"I don’t think we’ve really developed our tourism," Hamrick said. "We, of course, have had success, but I don’t think we really have done all that we can do in this area. ... I still think we have not fully taken advantage of the lake."

In his 40 years, Hamrick has seen a lot watching Gainesville grow from a poultry and textile town to one with a more diverse industrial base. What he has not seen is an economic challenge like the one the city faces today.

"This has been one of the toughest," he said.

But for Hamrick, the answer naturally lies in creating more industry as it always has for him. Taking on debt to build a new industrial park on New Harvest Road will prepare Gainesville for when the economy turns around, he said.

"It seems to me this is the prudent thing to be doing, even though the economy doesn’t look real good at the moment," Hamrick said. "But it’s going to turn around and we’ll have sites available. Hopefully, we’ll be ahead of other areas."

As to whether he will see tourism develop on the lake from a seat on the council, Hamrick says he will just have to take it one day at a time.

"I have three years to serve on this term, so we’ll see at that particular time," he said.

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