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Great Recession’s impact lingers in Hall 10 years later
Economy, housing industry have recovered, but also ‘hard lessons’ learned
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New development at Sterling on The Lake in Flowery Branch at Capitola Farm and Spout Springs Roads includes a retail spot near the intersection in addition to new homes. - photo by Scott Rogers

Talk about bad timing.

Phil Bonelli graduated from college in May 2007 and went into a 6-month banking training program.

He then embarked on his banking career in December 2007, just as the worst national economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s was starting.

“Obviously, nobody said, ‘Hey, the Great Recession started,’ because we hadn’t decided that yet,” Bonelli said.

He would go on to build a career in banking and is now a commercial lender with Wells Fargo in Gainesville.

The downturn has other survivors, but few emerged unscathed. In the two-year recession that resonated long after, businesses were forced to trim payrolls and reset expectations. Workers lost jobs and homes. Hammers went silent as new subdivisions were taken over by banks.

Even today, as Hall County seems to be thriving, with housing and retail growth springing up in all corners, “there were hard lessons learned ... that a lot of small business owners still remember very vividly,” said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development for the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.

“One of the things we learned was how important it is to have a very diversified economy. Where we probably caught a bad cold, some other communities had severe flu.”

Not that a bad cold was an easy pass.

“It was a tough few years, for sure,” said Brian Daniel of Carroll Daniel Construction.

His firm deals in commercial construction, such as the recently opened Valhalla Resort Hotel in Helen, a sector that typically lags behind residential building in terms of economic trends.

“2008, at the time, was the best year we had ever had,” Daniel recalled. “We’d go home every night and turn on the TV and know that (the recession) was coming.

“We were last to go in, last to go out. And as the company got back on its feet, we began to crawl our way back to health.”

He remembers during that time that “people would say we would all be better off because of this (downturn). It got to the point I didn’t want to hear that ... from one more person.”

However, “there was some truth to that in that we were forced to become a leaner company and think out of the box. There were aspects that we did look at in a new way, and it helped us springboard out of difficult times.”

These are much better times for his company, which is planning on building a $12 million, 60,000-square-foot mixed-use development off Jesse Jewell Parkway and Main Street in Gainesville next year.

Daniel has said the company has outgrown its headquarters at 921 Athens St. and will occupy about 23,000 square feet at the new building.

“It’s incredible to see how much activity is going on right now in this community,” he said at the May 2 announcement of the downtown project.

Before the recession, subdivisions were starting to emerge in several areas of the county. But as the country became overextended on housing debt, the housing bubble burst and caused a rippling effect through other sectors.

Housing was especially crushed, with real estate values dropping like a stone.

The recession’s full impact made a roaring statement in 2010, when Gainesville issued just one housing permit.

“We have had a strong rebound from the recession, beginning in 2012,” said Rusty Ligon, the city’s community development director, in an email last week.

Through Nov. 30, 400 housing permits have been issued this year.

During the recession, developers couldn’t continue financing housing construction, so banks took over subdivisions and put them back on the real estate market.

Developers left behind “pipe farms” — acres of exposed plumbing, as well as roads and light poles that had been installed and abandoned.

Sterling on the Lake, with an ambitious plan to put 2,000 homes on 1,000 acres off Spout Springs Road in Flowery Branch, also took a hit.

To adjust, developer Newland Communities “worked closely with our builder partners and community (homeowners association), staying fully engaged to ensure the community vision for Sterling on the Lake was maintained throughout the housing recession,” said Jennifer Landers, the company’s vice president of operations.

“New builders were introduced and home offerings were adjusted to meet the changing needs of consumers.”

Also, Newland used the downtown as an opportunity to add amenities, including a 4«-acre park, a second clubhouse, a third pool and a bocce ball court.

“As a result, Sterling saw a steady increase in sales despite the challenging market,” Landers said.

Today, Newland has seven home builders and more than 1,100 families living in Sterling, “with the future phases of development in process,” she said.

Frank Norton Jr. of The Norton Agency said a longtime consultant told him in March 2007 that the recession on its way.

“He was seeing some pretty ugly signs in California,” he said. “Before it got here, we had downsized in the spring and summer of 2007 and (otherwise) battened down the hatches.”

While the recession “was longer and deeper than we ever anticipated, our firm was able to thrive from an expense standpoint and retooling by going after stressed properties,” Norton said.

As a real estate market watcher, Norton said he believes the downturn is “clearly over” in Georgia’s urban areas, but “there is still a struggle ... in parts of Northeast Georgia. Land is still trading at recession levels and not in tremendous demand. New construction is happening but not to the extent it was 11 years ago.”

Evans said the one sure economic reality is that another recession will happen.

“We don’t know when ... but, being as diversified as we are, it’s only going to put us in good stead,” he said. “While some sectors might be hit harder, we’ve got enough other businesses and industry to help carry the local economy through the worst of days.”

Bonelli agrees on the recession forecast.

“Bad things happen, and they’re going to happen again,” he said.

He’s planning to present a Jan. 9 seminar at the chamber on that very topic: “Surviving and Thriving Difficulty and Change in Your Business.”

His advice for those storms is “be committed to succeeding regardless. There are strategies for doing that. You’ve got to know where you are so you can figure out where you want to be.

“You’ve got to embrace reality and that what is, is.”