A quick Saturday drive through the parking lot at the North Georgia Premium Outlets reveals a trend: at least 1 out of every 10 cars is from Hall County. At the Mall of Georgia, it's a similar scene.
Where Hall County once drew shoppers — and ultimately, tax revenue — from northern counties, experts say that's changed. Today, the county is losing more money than ever on the tails of shoppers heading to Dawson, Gwinnett and other neighboring counties.
That means not only lost tax revenue that could be building Hall County schools, roads and infrastructure, but also lost opportunities to strengthen the local business community, experts say.
"If you go out of county or out of the area to buy ... your big ticket item, those are good-paying jobs that are going to someone else's county," said state Sen. Butch Miller, who is general manager of Milton Martin Honda in Gainesville. "They're funding someone else's schools. They're funding someone else's sewer, water, roads, public safety. They're helping someone else's quality of life, not your own."
And it's no small amount the county is losing.
Approximately 40-45 percent of available spending dollars from Hall County shoppers is leaking into other counties, according to real estate executive Frank Norton Jr., who has done several studies on consumer spending.
County-to-county crossover is unavoidable, but Gwinnett County only leaks about 30-35 percent of its sales, Norton said. And the Mall of Georgia also draws shoppers from all of Northeast Georgia and beyond.
When looking at specific sectors of retail, the problem becomes more clear.
"Retail pull" measures the amount of local consumption, with numbers lower than 1 meaning lower than average consumption and above 1 meaning higher than average consumption.
In 2008, the pull for food and drink services in Hall County measured 0.78. For clothing and accessories sales, it was just 0.35.
Over time, those lost dollars can have a profound effect.
Dawson County could build an elementary school with the money it has made off Hall County purchases in the last five years, Norton said. That's thanks to the popularity of the Dawsonville outlet malls, where 15-17 percent of the shoppers are from Hall County, he said.
Many of those shoppers, he said, are from North Hall, and drawn there because of the "hassle of getting across our spider web of roads and the lack of access across the lake."
But it hasn't always been this way.
When Lakeshore Mall was first built in 1969, it was one of just two in the state and people came from all over to shop there, said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development for the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce But as Georgia became more heavily retailed and Lakeshore lost touch with shoppers, Hall County slowly became under-retailed, Evans said.
Now Hall County faces the challenge of not only keeping its residents shopping here, but once again drawing traffic from the northern counties.
"They're currently driving through Hall County to get to the Mall of Georgia," Evans said. "Those retail shoppers would shop in Gainesville if they had a reason to."
Shoppers are seeking a high-end experience Hall County doesn't offer, Evans said. But he added that there are several developments in the works, such as a 568,000-square-foot project at the corner of Limestone and Jesse Jewell parkways, which may keep shoppers in Hall County.
But the county is lacking locally owned stores as well as high-end national chains, Evans said. And small businesses are the ones that most directly support local economies and build buy-local mentalities.
Myra Meade, owner of the Hall County Book Exchange, has taken on buying local as a personal crusade. She said that when money is spent at locally owned businesses rather than national retail chains, more of it stays in the county. That, in turn, supports the community and the job market.
Lorry Schrage, owner of Saul's in downtown Gainesville, said his business wouldn't survive without the support of local shoppers.
"I make my living off of people who buy in the county," he said.
Local owners are also more likely to be active in the community, Norton said, which makes their vitality essential.
"Although the chamber has active participants out of Lowe's and the Walmart managers and the local mall manager, what we're seeing is the local shop owner on the square rolls up his sleeves and volunteers anywhere and everywhere and becomes a lasting contributor to the fabric," Norton said.
Sitting outside Inman Perk Coffee on Friday, Jared Smith admitted it doesn't often occur to him to shop locally. Convenience takes precedence, he said, so he normally heads to Buford to buy clothes.
Across the table, 17-year-old Zack Couch said he tries to shop in town so he can help small businesses, but he said most people aren't aware of the effect shopping locally can have on a community.
"They're ignorant to it," Smith added. And with a laugh, he said he falls into that category, too, "not just sometimes, but all of the time."
He said he's never heard anyone make much of a fuss about buying locally or seen a campaign supporting it.
There are some, though, who are doing just that.
Two students from Lanier Charter Career Academy are currently launching a campaign called "Buy Hall Y'all" as a way to increase local spending.
With 900 responses from a countywide survey, they found that 40 percent of respondents said they are heading elsewhere for their retail and entertainment needs.
The students are currently reaching out to local businesses who are willing to offer four to six significant discounts to be promoted on the site.
Soon, they hope to provide daily deals to Hall County residents and in turn raise awareness about the importance of supporting locally-owned stores, which in turn supports schools.
They plan to do a large recruiting push for the program at Wednesday's Buy Local Business Expo, sponsored by the chamber.
The expo is meant to offer networking opportunities and encourage businesses to buy goods and services from other local companies.
Evans said the county faces many challenges to keeping spending in the county, but he said it's going to be essential moving forward.
"Buying local not only supports education and infrastructure development locally, it also supports jobs," he said. "And those are very good reasons to be buying locally."