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Norton sees light at end of the tunnel
Annual Native Intelligence summary highlights local economys bright spots in year ahead
0122Norton
Frank Norton Jr. delivers his annual Native Intelligence business report Thursday at the Georgia Mountains Center. Now in its 23rd year, Norton’s economic forecast also focused on the top 10 trends, leaders and events of the decade.

Norton’s top 10 events
Top 10 significant events of the decade, according to Norton Native Intelligence:
1: The opening of the Mall of Georgia and the launch of the region’s biggest economic catalyst.
2: Toyota locating a parts manufacturing facility on 150 acres in the Valentine Farm Industrial Park in Jackson County.
3: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental mandated cap on the number of boat docks. The ceiling was reached in 2009.
4: The acquisition of a second Northeast Georgia Healthcare System campus in southeast Hall County.
5: Wal-Mart’s nearly completed expansion and retail category domination throughout North Georgia.
6: Relocation of the Atlanta Falcons football headquarters to Flowery Branch.
7: The new city of Johns Creek, covering Forsyth, Gwinnett and North Fulton counties.
8: Del Webb’s purchase and development of The Village at Deaton Creek.
9: The master planning and initial rezoning of part of Glades Farm.
10: Sewer extension up Ga. 400 and into North Forsyth opening up the next frontier of development.

Norton’s top 10 ‘giants’
Top 10 local economic figures of the decade, selected and with comments by Norton Native Intelligence.
Wayne Mason: Gwinnett County land investor who “has stimulated and pushed the urbanization of the North Georgia region.”
Jimmy Tallent: President of the United Community Bank Inc. who has, “assembled a powerful network of community oriented banks.”
Pat Graham: Former mayor of Braselton, “created the foundation for what will be I-85’s largest city circa 2050.”
Randall Pugh, Jackson County: President and CEO of Jackson Electric Membership Corporation; as leader of a rural electric membership corporation, “created a powerful urban economic business recruitment program.”
Jim Walters: Hall County businessman, political supporter, developer, banker and philanthropist whose “roots run deep with strong extended branch foliage.”
Jackie Joseph: President of the Lake Lanier Association. “We best call her Queen of the Lake.”
Paula Gault: former superintendent of Forsyth County school system, “architect, engineer and contractor for the new Forsyth school system.”
Philip Wilheit: owner of Wilheith packaging, “a one-man army for strong economic expansion, business development and community vibrancy.”
Philip Beard: Buford commission chairman, whose single-mindedness and vision “propelled Buford from rough manufacturing to a powerhouse business center.”
Sonny Perdue and Casey Cagle: Georgia’s governor and lieutenant governor who have “transformed Georgia politics from a one-horse to a two-horse race.”

During his annual Native Intelligence report, Gainesville real estate executive Frank Norton, Jr. urged his audience to focus on the bright spots that he promised will come in the region’s economic future.

As a reminder, Norton gave key-chain flashlights to each of those who filled the seats in the Georgia Mountains Center arena Thursday to hear his 23rd annual presentation.

While he urged his audience to focus on the bright spots, Norton’s 2010 forecast had little good news for area contractors. Norton, president of the Norton Agency in Gainesville, projected that new construction on residential homes will be "limited" for the next three years. But the limits on construction should help normalize apartment occupancy in 2011, 2012 and 2013, he said.

"New home construction has dropped like a rock," Norton said.

But Norton said the problems with the real estate market have changed the rules of the industry, bringing in what he called "hawk buyers," who are ready to swoop down and snatch up vulnerable properties.

"If you are a vulture, it’s time to eat," he said.

Too many mountain and second home lots built during a housing boom in the last decade could take another 10 years to sell off, leaving little need for newly-constructed vacation homes, Norton said.

But Norton said buyers of second homes will be more likely to purchase lakeside real estate if the lake holds at its full pool level. Sellers who had taken their homes off the market during the drought flooded the market again when the lake returned to full pool last fall, he said.

As for the areas foreclosure rates, Norton said foreclosures for single-family homes have begun to slow, but foreclosure rates have yet to hit their peak for retail properties.

"Expect foreclosure fever to hit small, unanchored retail built largely by amateur developers with high pro forma rents," Norton said.

And on the subject of water, Norton said a deal reconciling the decades-long tri-state water wars that has Gainesville and most of metro Atlanta’s water supply in jeopardy, would be a last-minute "herculean" resolution that keeps the general public "on pins and needles as to whether or not they can take a bath the next day."

Norton called for a longer term solution: a 100-year water plan for the region.

"While water in 2012 is crucial and water in 2020 and 2030 is nice, we need to think longer term — 2100," Norton said.

And though the region is seemingly released from the grips of a 100-year drought, Norton said the stream of charitable giving to charities and nonprofits may be dry for at least 10 years.

"Charity, philanthropy and giving has been hit hard, and in our opinion, could suffer a 10-year drought," Norton said.

But Norton used the example of the 1970s television show "The Six Million Dollar Man" to exemplify how the area’s battered economy will recover. He offered hope that the economy could already be improving, noting that Norton’s residential sales in 2009 were 15 percent ahead of 2008 sales.

"We can rebuild it better, stronger, faster than before," Norton said. "Whether it’s your business, your community infrastructure or your personal portfolio, with hard work, reinvention or tenacity of the human spirit, we can build it bigger, better, stronger, faster than before."

Regional events