The economy is getting better, but the rate of recovery in the Northeast Georgia area directly depends on what residents do to help, a North Georgia College & State University speaker said Wednesday.
During a midyear update for his Native Intelligence forecast, Frank Norton Jr. discussed how tourism and local spending are key to getting back to normal.
"We should reach the position where no one needs to leave this area for employment," Norton said while describing his childhood in Gainesville, college and work experience in Atlanta, and then the eventual move back to Gainesville to raise his family. "We can't rely on Washington for our stimulus. It starts here in this room. Local spending is the stimulus that will pull us out."
Norton, president of The Norton Agency, a regional insurance and real estate firm based in Gainesville, identified several benchmarks — growth trends, population changes, unemployment rates, household incomes and home prices — to point where growth and population may shift by 2050.
"North Georgia should be considered like a grandma's quilt. Each piece is carefully sown together with other pieces that provide warmth," he said. "We may have clusters of cities with different areas of complexions and colors, but it must work and look like a grandma's quilt. What happens in White County affects Lumpkin County as much as what happens in Dawson County affects Hall County."
Norton's 32-county quilt includes Fannin County down to Cherokee County, across to Jackson County and up to Rabun County. He mentioned that Rabun County is devising new ways to use its closed Fruit of the Loom industrial building, which cost 1,300 residents their jobs.
"They're going to make it into a business park to attract major industry and jobs back into the plant, and they can offer the cheapest industrial space in the area," he said. "We have to be sure we're watching our neighbors. We have to look way outside the box and watch other communities so we can attract business as well."
For economic recovery, Norton pointed out that communities need housing for multiple price points, especially below $250,000. Those are the homes currently selling.
"You need mobile homes, rental housing, first time home buying and a few mansions on the mountains or mansions on the lake," he said. "Communities in Dawson County and Lumpkin County that have multiple price opportunities will become important because they provide something for the labor base who work there."
Norton mentioned other areas that must see investment to help the economy's recovery: education, quality of life and second home development.
"Some communities are searching for the Holy Grail of a big industry coming in, but that's not going to happen," he said. "We have to look at transportation and where the growth is going and some of the second home renovations in the mountains. People are starting to live there year-round. Stay vacations are the new norm."
Under the quilt method, communities should develop a unified marketing strategy to promote tourism across the region as it has done with the wine highway and lakes.
"We're seeing a recovery with the staycation and tourism, and there's the blueprint for housing recovery. We're at the bottom and heading for a recovery, and I'm looking at this as a benchmark," Norton said. "I want to encourage more conversation about North Georgia and how we can make ourselves better. Understanding the fundamentals is the first step."