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A look ahead: Hall makes plans to support growth
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A look ahead

 In a series that runs through Saturday, The Times will explore issues and trends that could shape our lives and key areas of the community during 2008.

The year 2008 looks as if it might go down in the history books as a pivotal year for Hall County.

With road construction, sewer expansions and tax allocation districts filling local government agendas for the upcoming year, Hall County, Flowery Branch and Oakwood officials will stay busy priming municipalities to support the population growth and burgeoning development expected in the area as the new year unfolds.

"This community is truly in a transitional state because we’re moving out of an agrarian economy and moving into more urbanization," said Hall County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver.

"We need to prepare ourselves as we move forward," Oliver said. "We’re not a small community anymore. We’re going to see development coming out of Atlanta, coming north, so we want to make sure that we protect our identity ... and that we don’t become a bedroom to Atlanta."

Oliver said that in order to maintain the county’s current standard of living, county officials aim to augment public infrastructure to accommodate more than 170,000 Hall County residents. A slew of road widening projects are under way in Hall County, and construction will continue throughout the year.

Most notably, the $74 million interchange reconstruction project at the Oakwood exit on Interstate 985 is more than halfway complete. Scheduled to be finished by February 2010, the Georgia Department of Transportation project allows for the often congested Mundy Mill Road to be widened from four lanes to six. In conjunction with the interchange reconstruction, Atlanta Highway will be expanded from two lanes to four from Frontage Road to south of Blackshear Place Baptist Church. The Atlanta Highway ramp is expected to open within the next few months.

Over the next year, Hall County officials will also work toward expanding sewer infrastructure to provide wastewater services to the Mulberry Creek and Calvary Church Road areas. A new trunk line will be built down Winder Highway from Gainesville’s Flat Creek treatment plant and will cost about $30 million.

In addition to the continuation of infrastructure projects, Oliver said county officials, including a new Hall County commission chairman, will be forced to face many difficult issues in 2008.

"Water is going to be a challenge ... as we decide how we develop, what we do develop and what we don’t develop," Oliver said. "How we protect our natural resources is going to be a challenge, as well as how we protect our environment and how to provide jobs."

Flowery Branch and Oakwood officials will not only plan similar road and sewer expansions as the county, but they will also spend much of 2008 implementing tax allocation districts in both municipalities.

The city governments will meet with Hall County government and the school board early in the year to negotiate the terms of the two tax allocation districts. The districts will be used in both cities as a tool to spur economic growth and development.

Upon the county’s approval to forego the incremental tax revenue expected to accompany potential rising property values within the districts as new development occurs, the cities will begin to channel those funds into revitalizing downtown areas and expanding sewer capacities.

The Flowery Branch tax allocation district could be sufficient to finance roughly $11.2 million in future TAD bonds over a period of up to 30 years.

Flowery Branch City Manager Bill Andrew said approximately $8 million of the district’s proceeds could be used to double the city’s sewer capacity to 2 million gallons.

"First we have to get the TAD approved by the county and school board, but if it does happen, I think we’ll go forward immediately with plans for the expansion of the sewer plant," Flowery Branch Mayor Diane Hirling said.

Another big chunk of the district-generated funds will be used to revitalize the downtown area of Flowery Branch on Main Street. Hirling said plans are in the works to develop the downtown area into a flourishing retail center with restaurants, shops and perhaps town homes.

She added that the funds could be used to re-open Pine Street to facilitate the development of a $12 million establishment in the area owned by Hortman and Dobbs LLC. There are no definite plans for the building yet, but Hirling said once plans are finalized, construction could begin as early as March.

The first phase of the downtown streetscape project will be completed upon the addition of the streetlights in early February. Hirling said the city already has the ball rolling in obtaining the funding to complete the second block of the streetscape make-over.

"Flowery Branch is making history right now," Hirling said. "Nothing’s been done for so long, and now, all of a sudden, the city’s turning around."

The growing city will ring in the new year with two new city council members, Craig Lutz and Chris Fetterman, both Sterling on the Lake residents, who will be sworn in at Wednesday’s city council meeting.

The mayor added that new stores will open this spring at the Stonebridge Village shopping center. Target is slated to open in March, she said, while PetSmart and OfficeMax will open before this spring. T.J. Maxx, Ross, Chick-fil-A and Chili’s Grill and Bar will likely open their doors for business sometime after the spring.

Oakwood shares a similar outlook for 2008.

If the county agrees to forego the incremental tax revenue associated with the Oakwood tax allocation district, the district could generate $9.95 million in future bonds for the city. Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown said the funds will be used primarily to establish an Oakwood downtown center.

Brown said the district will also help fund the city’s sewer connection to the Braselton wastewater treatment plant as well as the extension of Thurmon Tanner Parkway to Mundy Mill Road. Brown added that construction on the Thurmon Tanner extension could begin in April, and will link the parkway with the I-985 interchange project.

Like Flowery Branch, the spring also holds changes for Oakwood.

Sam’s Club will open next door to the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Mundy Mill Road in upcoming months. And in March, construction will begin on a 3,000-foot addition to Oakwood City Hall that will house more engineering, public works and planning offices. Brown said the addition should be complete by Labor Day of this year.