Staff Photo: John Bohn Suwanee Mayor Jimmy Burnette discusses his restored family home on Main Street in Suwanee. Mayor Burnett's family has resided in the residence for several generations. The restoration work on the home was done during 2003 and 2004.
SUWANEE -- Jimmy Burnette grew up on Main Street, when it really was the main street in town.
Peachtree Industrial Boulevard didn't exist, and Interstate 85 stopped in Suwanee. So people would wind along Main Street of the tiny town on their way to the lake.
"We just sort of roamed all over," Burnette said of life as a boy in Suwanee.
His grandparents lived down the street, and a grocery store, dry goods store and post office were about all there was to the rural community, built around a railroad more than a century ago.
Growth was slow to come to the community, but by the 1990s Burnette barely recognized the town he has known his whole life.
But that doesn't mean he loves Suwanee any less.
In fact, the hometown man is one of the reasons the city has stepped up to become one of the most desirable places to live in the country.
A laid-back politician willing to see and even encourage change, Burnette now sits at the city's helm as mayor, continuing its growth and shaping its future.
"Usually people who grow up here want to keep it under their wings ... and hold onto the past," Burnette said. "(But) you have to embrace change."
City provided opportunities
Burnette always knew Suwanee would become someplace.
For decades, residents had to go to Atlanta or Gainesville for a nice restaurant or entertainment.
Grocery shopping was a shorter trip, but you still had to go to Buford.
And as far as jobs go -- Burnette's father worked at a General Motors plant dozens of miles away and his grandfather was a farmer.
"There was not a whole lot going on in Suwanee," he said.
When Burnette brought his bride Caron home to Suwanee to settle down after college, her sister in Albany teased her for moving to the "boondocks."
But Burnette knew there were good things in store for the town, especially as he watched suburbia grow from western Gwinnett.
With his father on city council, he knew the town was taken care of. But when the elder Burnette retired, his son knew it was his turn to make an impact on the community.
The former North Gwinnett High School quarterback ran for his father's seat in 1996, and he was so popular that he didn't draw competition for his first three terms in office.
It wasn't until 2007, when the population had more than skyrocketed, that Burnette had to knock on doors to get votes, introducing himself to people in a town where he once knew everyone. And he did it again last year when he stepped up to run for mayor.
By now, Suwanee natives are scarce and barely a fraction of the city population, which hit 15,355 in 2010, compared to the 615 who lived there when Burnette graduated from high school in 1970.
But the campaign was a wonderful opportunity to meet new friends, he said.
"It was good to meet with them and visit with them," he said, adding that the successes of the city council the past decade weren't hard to sell.
Even the oldest residents have been proud of the growth, which has brought neighborhoods, shopping and new parks, including the premiere Town Center Park, which has made Suwanee a big destination.
In most towns, the natives have been hesitant to embrace change. But Burnette has had a bigger vision for Suwanee than holding onto his small town roots.
"It used to take 10 to 15 minutes to go to Buford, now it takes two minutes to go to the grocery store," he said, adding that traffic in the once sleepy town may have made that trip a little longer. "It may take you an extra five minutes but we can still get there without driving to Atlanta."
By taking steps early to plan for the growth, he said, the city was able to capitalize and control its fate, building more quality developments and creating a place where people love to live, work and play.
"I always felt like Suwanee was going to be a lot more than what I grew up with," he said. "Once I got on council and we saw the magnitude we decided if we were going to have any say on what goes on, we better sit down and talk about it. ...
"As thing started to happen and being willing to look at new ideas and accept new ideas and suggestions, that helped me appreciate more the opportunities the city could have."
Bridge to the past
Despite his willingness to welcome new things, Burnette, who works in residential remodeling, isn't all about the modern.
He worked with his son several years ago to bring new life to his grandparents home on Main Street, and that is where he lives now.
Dave Williams remembers joining the Suwanee City Council just two years after Burnette did -- and just months after he moved into the city.
The respect, he said, was instant.
"I remember him very much serving as a bridge," between the Suwanee natives and the newcomers, Williams said. "That's a very important perspective for us to have.
"With so much growth so fast, it would be really easy to turn our back on our history," Williams said, adding that Burnette became the champion for that history, which dates back a century. "As a results, we all have a greater respect for our history."
Burnette loves the historic old town area, but he is proud of the city's new amenities, especially the parks and trails.
"I don't miss a whole lot. It's a lot better to buy your groceries nearby," Burnette said.
Williams, Burnette's predecessor as mayor, says the two are very different. Williams said he is probably a lot more impulsive than he should be, but was glad to have Burnette there to help steady the course.
"Jimmy was always very measured and very thoughtful and very deliberate," Williams said. "It's a good quality in a leader."
The road less traveled
Burnette's willingness to embrace change can be encapsulated in one story.
In the 1970s, when his father was on the city council, officials went about naming some of the old, sometimes still dirt streets. One, near his greatgrandfather's old farm and homestead, became known as Burnette Road.
No pomp and circumstance, he said, just a casual mention from his dad and the honor was bestowed.
Last year, though, with the opening of the McGinnis Ferry extension, one of the most recognizable portions of Burnette Road -- the one that goes by the school named in the Burnette family's honor -- was changed to McGinnis Ferry.
At the time, Burnette was running for mayor, and friends began to call when they saw the road signs coming down.
But Burnette was busy that day and didn't bother getting a relic. A friend eventually grabbed one and it is nailed to the wall on the back porch.
"You hated to see it gone, but you realize it's just part of the change," he said.
"I'm proud of what we've done. We're moving in a good positive direction," Burnette said. "I want to keep this moving forward, to keep this city vibrant."