Thornton looks back on his years as mayor
Published Saturday 26 November 2022 at 9:00 am
After more than a decade of helping LaGrange grow and thrive, Mayor Jim Thornton is now using his talents to help all Georgia cities in his new position with the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA). In his final weeks in office, the outgoing mayor looked back on some of his accomplishments and struggles in office.
“I think my biggest accomplishment as mayor has been to keep growing, to see LaGrange grow, but to diversify that growth,” Thornton said.
During his tenure as mayor, Thornton didn’t just work to expand production at LaGrange but also diversify the types of businesses.
“LaGrange has always been a production community, and we are still a production community. We have seen great strides in growing and expanding existing industries and attracting new industries. But I really wanted to start trying to attract other types of businesses to the community,” he said.
LaGrange has done particularly well in the hospitality industry, helping to bring Great Wolf Lodge, the Courtyard Marriott, and two breweries, Wild Leap and Beacon, to the country.
“We’ve also started to see diversity in terms of geography. We’re seeing growth downtown, but also at the mall and at Exit 13,” Thornton said.
The city has been able to attract these businesses by striving to make LaGrange a place people want to visit and live in. City initiatives like the Sweetland Amphitheater and even The Thread have played a big part in LaGrange’s growth.
“I still say, ‘Cities don’t create businesses.’ Cities don’t create jobs. There is not a city in America that is engaged in the restaurant, retail or manufacturing business. Cities don’t do that. But what cities do is either stand in the way or help. That’s what I was trying to do, is to lend a helping hand.”
Thornton hasn’t just worked to expand the hospitality industry. Industry also flourished under his supervision.
The former mayor said he was involved in expanding existing industries in LaGrange such as Duracell and Jindal Films, as well as recruiting Remington Arms.
Cities build infrastructure, build public property, and provide public amenities that attract people to move here, which then attracts businesses to build in LaGrange, Thornton said.
“Some people say, ‘Why is the city building more parks and not building a bowling alley?’ Well, cities across the country own and operate parks. They have been doing this for hundreds of years. I don’t know of any city that owns or operates a bowling alley. That’s not what cities do,” Thornton said.
“We had three [bowling alleys] and they’ve all gone out of business,” he added.
Thornton said that decades from now, his pride and joy will be being a LaGrange City Attorney.
“It is a great honor for me to be mayor. The mayor does not direct the day-to-day business of the city, which is handled by the city manager. The mayor doesn’t make new laws, and I can’t make motions. I can’t even vote unless there’s a tie. But the mayor is the city’s most important advocate,” Thornton said.
“I’m proud that I’ve been able to explain to people—some who agree and some who agree and some disagree—what a great place the city of LaGrange is and what a wonderful community it is,” he said Thornton. “I really enjoyed it, but the honor was for the people of LaGrange to entrust me with this role.”
Thornton said being mayor of LaGrange isn’t always easy. He pointed to two difficult times during his tenure.
Thornton said it was a difficult time following the unexpected death of former city manager Tom Hall.
“He was a relatively young man and nobody saw that coming. After he passed away we had to do a search and ended up hiring Deputy City Manager Meg Kelsey as our permanent City Manager. It was a very challenging time,” Thornton said, noting that he needed to be involved in the city’s day-to-day operational decisions more than before or since.
The other challenging time was during COVID.
“When I was elected mayor, I often told people that there were probably a dozen crises where I foresaw maybe a dozen things that could go wrong.”
He said the city could have had a major factory shutdown with record unemployment, a fire with casualties, a police shootout, a bridge collapse, or myriad other potential disasters that could happen in LaGrange.
“I don’t think anyone expected a pandemic to shut down the city. We didn’t expect that. We didn’t have a playbook for it. We were all operating in complete darkness. But that was a very, very challenging time.”
“I think LaGrange did everything well [during the pandemic], I think Georgia did things well, but I think LaGrange in particular did things well. We took it seriously, but we didn’t overreact. We listened to the local doctors at the local hospitals and tried to follow their advice. But we didn’t go into panic mode.”
“Although we went through a brief period where some things were closed or masked, by and large that was a relatively short period and we immediately went back to business as usual.”
Thornton said what he enjoyed most was coming to the city, meeting people and discovering how much energy, diversity and passion flows through the community.
“I was able to go to charity events. I was able to go to haircuts for kids events. I could go to pastoral anniversaries. I could lead parades. And it’s all fun,” Thornton said. “These are times when people put aside small political differences, their own personal agendas, and band together as a community.”
“I will not say I will fail to chair the repurposing of public hearings. These are very important things. but not necessarily the fun part of the job,” Thornton said. “It’s part of the job that you have to do and you have to do your best. There are 31,000 people in LaGrange and everyone has a different opinion.”
Thornton said that as he looks back on LaGrange decades from now, he hopes people will become more involved in the community and try not to just be critics.
“History has proven that we need people who are invested in the community. I think they are. When I look back 25 years from now, I hope to be surprised. I hope I’m surprised at the level of progress and growth and the new amenities in the community.”
Thornton said the only project he feels he has unfinished on the table is the Hamilton Rd. expansion project.
In 2015, Thornton invited the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) board of directors to LaGrange and showed them Hamilton Rd. and spoke about the delay. It was then that they agreed to move forward with the project and have since acquired all rights of way.
“Everything is costing more than expected because of inflation, so now they’ve slowed down the construction contract,” Thornton said. “I’m disappointed with that, but I’ve been told it will happen anyway.”
“I think it’s going to happen within the next three years, but until it’s actually done there’s no telling what’s going to happen.”
Thornton said he plans to remain committed to LaGrange in his new job.
“I have accepted a position as Director of Government Relations at GMA and will be based primarily in Atlanta. It will require a lot of travel across the state as we represent and advocate for all 537 cities in Georgia.”
“It’s a full-time position, so I won’t be practicing law. My legal partner, Heather Graham, will take over the practice. It will stay here with the same staff and the same location and the same basic legislation.”
Thornton and his wife Corinne plan to remain residents of LaGrange.
“I’ll be working in Atlanta. We will continue to keep our home here, although I temporarily rented an apartment in Atlanta to make this transition. We are not planning a permanent move. We plan to remain permanent residents of LaGrange.”
“I remind people who ask me about the March special election that I’ll still be a voter, so be nice to me,” Thornton joked.