The End of an Era: Gary Graham reflects back on his 20 years as mayor

O’FALLON – For 20 of the 27 years Gary Graham has lived in O’Fallon he has served as its highest elected official. Now, after two decades, Graham is moving back into private life and relinquishing the mayor’s office.

For Graham, he always wanted to be a mayor, but he had envisioned it of another town.

“I moved to O’Fallon from Paducah, Kentucky. I had always wanted to be mayor of Paducah. I loved Paducah,” Graham said chuckling. He moved to O’Fallon to work at a barge company located in St. Louis.

It was once he settled in O’Fallon that he began to get involved in the community, specifically the high school.

“I got involved in the high school because I had kids there. At that time they wouldn’t let anybody raise money except for the band. I started bucking the system, saying you can have a soccer booster program or a football booster program. I ultimately decided to run for school board and I started getting some of those things changed,” he said.

While on the school board though, he watched the city leaders and felt as though something was missing.

“After I’d been on the school board for two years, I’d watched the city and it was headless. Usually when you go to a town you can find a group of people who can get something done. But because of conflicts between the military and old town, it was strange. So I decided to run for alderman and I got elected,” said Graham.

However, once he began having to attend city council meetings, Graham found himself at city hall until midnight most of the time. That prompted him to make a decision that shaped the next two decades of his life.

“When I started the meetings were running until midnight and there were no decisions. Nothing was getting done. And so I did that for a year and a half before I told my wife that I’m going to be mayor or else I’m not doing that. I’m not going to sit for four years and do that. I ran in 1997 and, even though I had only been in town since 1990, I became mayor. That’s unheard of in old towns like this,” he said.

Graham said he had many priorities when he was first elected. He jokes about how he had a list of 100 things he wanted to accomplish in his first term and how he just managed to complete the last one two years ago. But there has always been one area he felt he wanted to focus energy.

“I had lots of things I wanted to get done and my main emphasis from the start were parks and the kids,” Graham said. “We’ve always built the city on the idea that we want to attract families. Towns without families die.”

The sports park is one of Graham’s personal accomplishments, which he believes will be a major part of O’Fallon’s success moving forward.

“I started looking for a way to build the sports park. We were lucky enough to have some land donated and so I was able to sell a couple of pieces of land that were not park land and we were able to buy the 221 acres from ten or 11 different people. It was monumental. Then we figured out we could use hotel motel tax to develop it, and now today, right now, residents pay about $70 per year for their parks. Its all paid for by hotel motel tax, including all of the new expansion, and it will be a huge economic engine for the next ten years. There’s no doubt about it. I expect there to be showcase college games here. Nine fields is as much as anyone in the country has,” he said.

Another project Graham speaks highly of and says was a game changer was the building of the YMCA on Seven Hills Road.

“O’Fallon didn’t have a social club or local gathering place as many other towns did. I had served on some YMCA boards and thought it could be a good addition. I had a friend come to me and tell me that Memorial Hospital had a lot of money and really should be involved in a facility like a YMCA. We brought the city, the YMCA, and Memorial Hospital to the same table and made an arrangement that worked. A third was paid by the city, a third by the YMCA, and a third by the Memorial Hospital Foundation, and today its the most successful YMCA in the state. It’s got the largest membership,” he said. “We didn’t have anything like it. It became a place for people to gather and have coffee. In other towns where I’d lived there would be a certain restaurant where all of the bank people, chamber people, they’d all be there. We didn’t have that until the YMCA. It’s an integral part of the community and it’s prompted a lot of the development on that side of town.”

Graham said the city’s portion of the money spent was ultimately refunded to residents through a membership discount the YMCA offered for a number of years, essentially buying the city’s portion out a discount at a time.

Graham is proud of the many improvements O’Fallon has seen during his tenure. He described how when he moved to town the roads were all oiled and chipped and that one of the first projects he wanted to take on was to lay asphalt and pave roads. Additionally, Graham says he pushed for sidewalks in neighborhoods and around schools. He said these improvements have helped increase home value in town.

“The one thing the average person ends up with is a home. Its the city’s responsibility to protect home values at all costs. If you have ordinances that make people do certain things to their homes, that’s tough, it needs to be done. That is their retirement nest egg,” Graham said.

If there is one lesson Graham has learned over the past 20 years it is to not be buried my minutia.

“You’ve got to keep your goal in sight. You can’t get distracted by diversions. I’m very goal orientated and it showed within the past three months when I was able to get the park finished. Which is unbelievable even to me,” he said. “The odds on that were slim to none, but you’ve got to keep the eye on the prize.”

Graham said O’Fallon has received plenty of assistance over the years from other elected officials.

“Back when [Ron] Stephens and [Frank] Watson were around we were good, but the redistricting killed us. Just gutted us and split us all up. But the two people that have been a big help since then have been Mark Kern and James Clayborne. Nobody else. And the Illinois Municipal League through my connections,” Graham said.

Graham said one project he’d like to have accomplished during his time is an improvement at Borchers Lane and Old Vincennes Trail.

“It’s a death trap there. It’s probably the most dangerous thing we have going there. I’m not in favor of a four way stop sign, but maybe a roundabout or a traffic light. But something needs to be done there,” Graham said. He also believes Highway 50 needs to be taken to four lanes through town.

Graham announced last year he didn’t plan to run for re-election.

“It was time to go. I’ve got grandchildren that I look forward to spending more time with,” he said.

He also believes the city needs to bring in a large business that can offer good paying, sustainable jobs.

“There are still big things that need to happen in O’Fallon. We need a commercial center out here with some of the businesses like Amazon. Those are pretty high paying jobs and we need to attract a business like that to come to town. We’ve got the space for them,” he said.

Graham said no matter what comes to O’Fallon though, he’s confident the city will run just fine over the next decade.

“Without a doubt the next ten years will be the greatest ten years in O’Fallon’s history. We are just staged to do it. The staff here, if the new mayor works with them, will help make this the largest city in the area in the next ten to 12 years. We never wanted to be the largest city, we wanted to be the best city.”

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have 20 years of great growth, because of the base and the schools and because of the safety. O’Fallon really became the business center where people knew they could come here and really get things done,” Graham said.

Graham’s time as mayor comes to an end on May 1.