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Trice's time: Former mayor recalls Suwanee before its growth

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Former Suwanee mayor Richard Trice, who is credited with many of the early decisions that led to Suwanee's growth poses for a portrait at The Hooch Golf Club in Duluth on Tuesday. Trice has been retired for nearly a year and enjoys golfing and volunteering.

SUWANEE -- Viewed as an outsider by some when he first moved to the city from Macon, Richard Trice's name is now mentioned among several of the landmarks and key decisions that make up the Suwanee of today.

When Trice moved to Suwanee in May of 1983, he figured growth was on the horizon when his three-and-a-half acre property was the fifth permit granted by the city that year.

Trice said since he now lived in Suwanee, he might as well attend city council meetings, and stay informed of the goings on around the city. After about a year and a half, Trice decided to run for a seat on the city council, but in his first try, he lost by four votes.

Encouraged to run again by current Mayor Jimmy Burnette, Trice won, and eventually served on the council or as mayor until the late 1990s.

Today, nearly 30 years after Trice moved to town, he's still mentioned at milestone events in the city, such as when the city opened its new police substation earlier this month, an idea Trice is credited with having 14 years ago. The Richard Trice Trail is named in his honor after he devised a plan to make the Suwanee Creek Greenway more pedestrian friendly.

Many of the decisions that were made 15 and 20 years ago, when Trice was an elected official, and the town was only a few thousand people, resonate even as Suwanee has grown to 16,000 people, has 40 events per year and is known around the region for its parks system.

When Trice served on the council in the late '90s, the city opened a new city hall on Buford Highway -- the building is now the police department -- established the first city administrator, Harold Watkins, and the city website was launched.

Before the professional staff of today was established, Burnette said the city council served on committees that monitored different areas and aspects of the city, like public works and police. The makeup of the city also meant it didn't have the staff to do legwork on projects, or make professional projections about the budget.

"It was the mayor's job to step in and keep an eye on things and keep us moving forward," Burnette said of Trice.

Now Trice has been retired for nearly a year from a food service business he started as a sandwich shop in 1981. He works part-time at Peachtree Golf Center and The Hooch Golf Club in Duluth, and plays golf several times a week. He also volunteers with events at Annandale Village, and attends city council meetings every two or three months.

Trice at times voices his opinion on city matters, and said he hasn't ruled out running for office again someday.

Because he stays involved, Burnette considered Trice an important person to talk to when he considered running for mayor last year.

"I think Richard still has some influence, and I still respect him," Burnette said. "I felt like he would be one of the first people I talk to. I included him as someone that I felt like would be important to talk to early."

As a new property owner in the city in the early 1980s Trice saw the beginnings of growth.

"I saw the writing on the wall," he said. "I saw this place was getting ready to explode."

And later as an elected official, one issue was convincing locals who had lived in Suwanee their entire life that the place was about to become a much larger town. To some, that wasn't a popular direction, but Trice said he knew it was inevitable.

The town of 1,200 people could have been swamped if officials didn't plan for growth, Trice said.

"We controlled growth, planned for the growth that was coming," he said. "Because when I got on council, they had no idea of the growth that was going to happen to Suwanee and this whole area. I started getting things ready because the people that were up there didn't really have a clue about what was about to hit us."

As mayor, Trice helped a handful of businessmen start the Suwanee Business Alliance, a networking group that he has twice served as president. Trice said it was the first city association of its kind in Gwinnett County. It's grown to more than 200 members and regularly donates to local charities.

"He's the go-to guy for so much stuff in this town, and everyone loves him," said Ed Szczesniak, the current president of the SBA.

When the new city hall was built in 1997, the new city administrator was in place and a fire department was rebuilt, that period also coincided with Trice opening a second location of his business. So Trice took a lot of people by surprise when he stepped down as mayor.

"I just decided it was time for somebody else to run it for a while," Trice said. "Sometimes I've gone back and kicked myself, and sometimes I say, 'No, you were good to leave.'"

Along with Burnette, Trice also helped campaign for Jace Brooks recently when Brooks successfully ran for the District 1 seat on the Gwinnett County Board of Commission.

"I feel like I led them all through and then (took a) step back," Trice said. "I can't stay involved anymore, they have to do it. They still know I'm around and can be found, and occasionally if I don't like something I go up and tell them, and don't have any qualms about it, and they know it."

Trice also has the distinction of serving with Burnette and his father, James Burnette Sr., who served on the city council for 32 years.

"He realizes this town isn't as small as it used to be, and it's a big job," Trice said of the younger Burnette.

The idea of a trail that bears Trice's name was called clever by Burnette, because Trice's idea was to turn a sewer easement into a trail. In the late 1980s, Trice's idea came long before the idea of greenways became popular. To get the project started, officials sold sponsorship for $8 per foot, and the Atlanta Falcons, who at the time held their training camp in Suwanee, donated $5,000. The trail that began as 400 feet now stretches several miles.

"It's come quite a ways," Trice said.

The same could be said about the city, and Trice said he has no plans to leave. His daughter lives in Duluth, and he has plenty of friends around Suwanee. He's also become an integral volunteer for Annandale Village's Jazzy Thing for the last 17 years.

"I don't see any reason to leave. I have a lot of good things here," he said. "When I drive down Moore Road now, and nothing but houses along there, and million dollar houses. That used to be a dirt road when I moved here."