Tri-Village News

DeGraw marks his 30th year -- more or less -- at city's service

Third-term mayor first named to city zoning board in 1983

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RYAN M.L. YOUNG/THISWEEKNEWS
Grandview Mayor Ray DeGraw and the city were prepared to celebrate his 30th year of city service this month - until they discovered it's actually been 31 years since his first board appointment.
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Grandview Heights Mayor Ray DeGraw thought this month marked his 30th anniversary of public service.

After so many years, it's easy to lose track of time.

"We all thought it was 30 years this August," he said.

But when administrative secretary Debbie Nicodemus researched DeGraw's past positions, it turned out his service actually began in August 1983, when he was appointed to the city's Board of Zoning Appeals.

"We're celebrating one year too late," he said, laughing.

DeGraw, 66, has served nonstop since that board appointment, with stints on the city's planning commission, City Council (including tenure as council president) and as mayor, now in his third term.

After serving an initial stint on council from 1987-95, DeGraw said, he thought he was finished with elected office.

"I thought I had served my time, but I stayed involved on planning commission," he said.

But after he retired in 1999, and with his children growing older, DeGraw decided to run again for City Council in 2000.

"We were heading into some interesting times and I had time to give to the city," he said. "Over the years, I always had the support of my family. If you don't have the support of your family and their willingness to have you serve, it would be rough. But they've always supported my decision to run."

So he was back in elected office -- but becoming mayor wasn't initially on his radar.

"I thought (former council member) Maureen Damiani was going to run for mayor, but when she told me she wasn't, she encouraged me to run instead," he said.

He did, and defeated incumbent Mayor Colleen Sexton in 2003.

DeGraw said he knows his legacy as mayor rests with the Grandview Yard development.

"When I became mayor, we were starting to see some real tough financial times," he said. "Big Bear was already phasing out and they closed their doors a month or so after I took office.

"We had to do some drastic cuts, so we cut the budget and reduced our personnel by 15 percent, mainly through buyouts," DeGraw said. "We didn't have to lay off anybody and so we were able to maintain our level of service."

Times got even tougher as the state declared the city economically distressed in 2005-06.

The approval of a levy in 2005 and its renewal a few years later kept the city afloat during those lean times, DeGraw said, adding he is grateful the community stepped up when it did.

The levy bought the city some time until the right developer -- Nationwide Realty Investors -- came forward with the right proposal for redeveloping the Big Bear property and its surrounding area, he said.

"Years before Big Bear left, we knew a mixed-use district was needed for that area," DeGraw said.

That was part of the vision in the community plan that Patrik Bowman, now the city's director of administration, helped craft when he was hired in 1997 as by Mayor John Leutz to work as a consultant on a community plan for what was then known as the Commerce District, he said.

"We always were looking at about 5,000 jobs for that district, but the retail market slowed down and so the Grandview Yard project slowed," DeGraw said.

With the recent announcement that Nationwide Insurance would move its corporate campus and 3,000 jobs to the Yard, "it's now going to be more of a office park rather than a retail park," he said.

It isn't only the southeast portion of the city that's changed over 30 years, DeGraw said.

"It's funny when you look back and remember that Grandview Avenue in the 1980s was nothing like it is today," he said. "There was a stationery store and a large sporting-goods store, nothing like the trendy place it is now."

But that started to change when chef Hubert Seifert presented his concept for Spagio in the 1980s.

"That changed the whole atmosphere of Grandview Avenue," DeGraw said.

As for his tenure as mayor, DeGraw said, he is pleased that the quality of the city's housing stock is being maintained with the improved building code and the hiring of a code-enforcement officer.

The improving financial situation is allowing the city to finally complete many overdue improvement projects, he said.

"I think the thing I'm most proud of is that I've been able to attract quality people to come work here," DeGraw said. "I'd put our directors, administrators and staff versus any staff in the area."

Over his 31 years, DeGraw said, he has worked with five mayors and more than 100 council members.

"I've had the chance to work with a lot of dedicated people who put in a lot of hours" on behalf of the community, he said.

Except for a short period, he and his wife, Linda, have lived in Grandview since the mid-1970s.

"We both come from the East Coast and went to OSU and we knew this was the community we wanted to raise our family in," he said. "We fell in love with Grandview."

DeGraw said he is not sure if he will run in 2015.

"It's an exciting time right now with everything that is going on in the city," he said. "It's a lot of work, but it still is a lot of fun. You look at what will be happening in the next few years and it's going to be a great time for the city."

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