Larry Poole’s loyalty to the tiny Gillsville hamlet on the Hall-Banks county line runs deep.
Maybe it starts at the beginning. He can stake a claim many can’t: He was born in the town — in an apartment at the back of his parents’ store on Ga. 52.
He strayed a bit in later years, living in Athens and Gwinnett County while working for Southern Bell and later BellSouth. But when he returned to the city of 235 people in 1988, he stayed for good.
“When I got back, I was very much on the same page with everybody else,” Poole said. “We like the way we are — laid back.”
He would go on to become one of Hall’s longest-serving mayors. He’ll hold the post until Dec. 31, having decided during last month’s qualifying not to run for a seventh four-year term.
“The mayor’s job is pretty intense,” Poole said in an interview last week, reflecting on his tenure.
“You wouldn’t believe it, looking at the town, as small as it is. But one of the biggest challenges we’ve had ... is maintaining its status as a city.”
When Poole, 70, was first elected mayor in 1994, Gillsville was “very similar to what you see today.”
“One of the first things people let me know was they liked the town the way it is. They were not interested in becoming ... a more active city. They wanted to drive somewhere else to shop. They didn’t want to look out here and see a Walmart.
“That’s the way I felt, too.”
Poole, who retired from both BellSouth and, later, Hall County’s engineering department, stuck to his principles through the years. But he also didn’t want the town to go from sleepy to snoring.
“There were things we needed to address,” he said.
The city council had started the ball rolling on a new city park, bought with grant money. But it needed development.
Also, downtown was “becoming pretty dilapidated,” Poole said.
A collection of old buildings off Ga. 52 — the main drag through town — had belonged to one owner who later ran into some health problems. The buildings had fallen into disrepair, with the roof falling in a few of the them.
Poole said a resident approached him and other council members and said, “We’re losing our identity as a town. Why doesn’t the town buy the buildings?”
So, in the late 1990s, Poole called the owner, who lived in Claxton, and asked him if he would sell the buildings to the city. The owner was agreeable, and a deal was struck. The city bought the buildings and began to refurbish them.
Later, the city got some historic grant money toward restoring a century-old, former general store at the corner of Ga. 52 and Bryant Quarter Road.
Downtown parking was a concern, with Ga. 52 a very busy road. So, the city worked with Hall County and the Georgia Department of Transportation to help realign Ga. 52 and separate parking from the rest of the road.
Before the improvements, “it was a dangerous situation,” Poole recalled.
That work led to a streetscape project, involving a brick pedestrian plaza, sidewalks and new decorative streetlights. The city officially wrapped up the project earlier this year.
Poole said he had pondered a seventh term “for quite some time.”
One of his concerns was whether anyone else would step up to the plate.
“A little town like this, you don’t have a lot of people who want to get actively involved in the politics,” he said.
Filling council seats has been a past problem, with Poole once having to sway a former council member to return to duty. So, he had mixed emotions about the 2017 election, set for Nov. 7.
“I didn’t want to leave the city without somebody (as mayor), but then again, I didn’t want to stand in somebody’s way,” he said. ”If somebody had signed up, I was good with that.”
As things turned out, Councilman Roy Turpin was the sole qualifier for mayor. He effectively takes office Jan. 1.
Poole, ever faithful to Gillsville, qualified for the council’s Post 1 seat when no one else did. That was OK by him.
“I’m still very interested in what goes on in town,” he said. “One of the overriding things I hear from people is we like the town to be stable like it is, but we want this and that improved.”
Restoring the old general store building is still a goal. Residents want an improved trail system, which is a trend in other parts of the Hall County.
Traffic zipping through town on Ga. 52 “is a significant problem,” Poole said. “We desperately need some kind of speed control.”
“Annexation is a big thing,” Poole said. “We have a number of people who have either applied or intend to apply to annex, so I think that’s going to take a fair amount of time to work through.”
With an influx of new and younger residents, Gillsville might change.
“They might decide they want the convenience of things nearby,” Poole said.
“One of the overriding things I hear from people is we like the town to be stable like it is, but we want this and that improved.”Larry Poole, longtime Gillsville mayor