Frank McGowan saw the tall weeds and empty streets in the abandoned Flowery Branch subdivision — a casualty from the Great Recession a few years earlier — and saw an opportunity to revive housing in the South Hall city.
He ended up developing the site, which would become Harbour Lights subdivision off Lights Ferry Road, but he hasn’t stopped there.
McGowan, a local resident himself, is now hoping to start building 55 homes off East Main Street in the spring.
“There’s a good bit of industry and job growth here,” he said. “And those people are looking for housing.”
New homes and craftsman-style cottages, as well as fashionable, rehabilitated ones, are popping up or on the horizon around downtown Flowery Branch in an otherwise aging area known by locals as “Old Town.”
“There is a lot coming on board,” said Rich Atkinson, the city’s community development director.
Also in the works is a 94-home development between East Main Street and Phil Niekro Boulevard.
The proposal, discussed at Thursday’s City Council meeting, calls for 63 townhomes and 31 single-family homes on 18.4 acres across from McGowan’s 55-home project.
The developer in that project is Chris Hill, a builder who worked with McGowan on Harbour Lights.
“I see Flowery Branch as the last untouched city that has opportunity to grow,” Hill said. “It hasn’t developed yet. And the city’s doing a really good job of revitalizing downtown (overall). Those things don’t happen overnight.”
Mayor Mike Miller said other residential growth is also starting to bubble to the surface.
“There’s at least two other (developments) that could be coming up for council approval in the next four, five months,” he said. “Within a half-mile of downtown, (there is the) potential for about 800 new homes in the next four years.”
Factor in another 900 homes yet to be built in Flowery Branch’s Sterling on the Lake community several miles from downtown and the city could have a housing explosion.
“At 2 1/2 people per home, on average, our population could increase by 50 percent of what it is now,” Miller said.
He said he believes Flowery Branch “could up around 12,000 people” before his four-year term, which began Jan. 1, ends.
According to the U.S. Census, the city’s population as of July 1, 2016, was 7,073.
“I’ve been saying it since (becoming mayor in) 2010 that the growth was coming and we’ve got to be ready for it,” Miller said. “I didn’t anticipate this much growth.”
He believes the burst in housing is the result of a “perfect storm.”
“We’ve got a good economy and a great location — proximity to Atlanta, shopping at the Mall of Georgia (in nearby Gwinnett County),” Miller said. “We’ve got the mountains to the north ... and the lake (Lanier) next door.
“We’re kind of in that perfect spot to have it all, and we don’t have the hustle and bustle you get in a Gwinnett or a South Forsyth area.”
With growth comes challenges, however.
“I’ve always heard since getting into (office) that homes ... require more resources than commercial or retail,” Miller said.
More people could mean more police officers and more attention to public works and infrastructure, such as roads and sewer. Plus, there’s the issue of not placing more of the tax burden on residents.
Other development, such as retail and industrial, must come into play, Miller said. And it has to some extent recently, with the annexation of SKF USA off McEver and Radford roads.
The city also has plenty of undeveloped land, most notably Hall Creek Village off Thurmon Tanner Parkway and Phil Niekro Boulevard. The site, which also is near busy Interstate 985 and has a sign advertising available lots, has been vacant for decades.
Grading is underway for a potential commercial site on 7 1/2 acres in Sterling, or at the well-traveled corner of Spout Springs and Capitola Farm roads. Another 4.17 Sterling acres at Spout Springs and Lake Sterling Boulevard also is being marketed for commercial purposes.
And there’s a downtown business revival that has taken place as well, with a site off Main Street being graded for a building to house a pizzeria and craft beer shop.
Also, a new downtown street — an extension of Pine Street from Church Street to Railroad Avenue — is being built as part of the new City Hall slated to open in February. That’s also expected to create more shops and potential outdoor dining.
Hill, for one, is excited about the potential for balanced growth.
“You need the rooftops to support what’s happening (commercially) downtown,” Hill said. “We’re starting to see that.”