During Frank Norton Jr.’s annual Native Intelligence report Thursday night, the Gainesville real estate executive touched on a diverse range of topics. Among the issues, he discussed the lack of affordable housing, urged residents to embrace the area’s diversity and criticized what he described as over-regulation by local government.
“Sometimes, we feel we’re the lone cry in the wilderness,” Norton told the group of hundreds at the Gainesville Civic Center. “For 10 years, Norton Native Intelligence has been sounding warnings of over-regulations, excessive impact and utility fees and an anti-business mindset amongst state, city and county governments … the unintended consequence is that it is driving businesses away and frustrates the hell out of those that stay.”
At the local level, Norton specifically mentioned Gainesville’s proposed “rain tax” to fund stormwater infrastructure upgrades.
“How about simply slashing regulations? Streamline paperwork. Think cause and effect when proposing new regulation. Let’s unshackle government and make the counties in our region the most business sensitive and business friendly in the state, if not the Southeast,” Norton said.
Ward 3 Gainesville City Council member Barbara Brooks was in attendance. Brooks, who was sworn into office earlier this month, said she had not yet formed an opinion on Gainesville’s rain tax.
“I know it’s something that’s really important to the business community,” Brooks said. “But, I don’t have the background to speak on it … I’m going to have to find out more about it. I really enjoyed (the event) tonight, though. I got a lot of information and a lot of education.”
Andy Stewart, vice president of commercial lending at Peach State Bank & Trust, said he’s been coming to the presentation of the annual Native Intelligence report for nearly a decade.
“Frank (Norton) is a master at studying the analytics and trends,” Stewart said. “I think this is the equivalent of a local economic state of the union, and anybody with a vested interest in our community needs to see the trends as well as the reviews that Frank provides in this forum.”
Other topics addressed during the event included the lack of affordable housing.
“Perhaps one of the most serious issues facing us today … for us in America and northeast Georgia, is a rapidly diminishing stock of affordable housing,” Norton said. “The absence of affordable, livable, personal-owned homes would create further disparity between the haves and the have nots.”
He cited American homeownership rates which he said peaked in 2006 at 67 percent that now have dropped to 63 percent, “meaning 4 million people have moved in this country from homeowner to tenant.”
According to the report, North Georgia’s “affordable and habitable stick-built homes that are priced under $175,000 could evaporate by 2020,” while condos and multifamily townhomes in that price range for purchase “will evaporate by 2023.”
Norton later touched on “admitting the realities of our diversity and embracing them.”
Citing Hall County’s 2010 census numbers showing it is 39 percent multicultural, with 27.5 percent of the population being Hispanic, Norton Native Intelligence’s private demographic study found another 20,000 Hispanics were not counted, having “illegal or uncertain status.”
Norton estimated that the Hispanic community in Hall County has a $497 million consumer effect today and a 2030 projection of $1 billion.
“Because of this economic engine composite and the concentration of rental housing, Hall has become the Hispanic trade and job epicenter for an entire region,” Norton said.
“These folks are here, gainfully employed, creating a new life for themselves and their families. They are, as a labor force and consumers, the backbone of our economy.”
In addition, Norton discussed at length the importance of investing in the Millennial generation and the prospect of one day living in a county with 500,000 people.
Other aspects of the report included the mention of several milestones over the past year for the northeast Georgia area. Among them: Northeast Georgia Health System’s expansion to Dawsonville and Braselton; the growth of the Mundy Mill Homes community; the opening of Academy Sports and Hobby Lobby on Dawsonville Highway; and Lanier Technical College’s plan to move to property off Ga. 365.
In closing, Norton said “we are all in this together. There should not be division amongst race, religion or economic strata. It is about living in North Georgia and living well in North Georgia. The real story of America is about people taking risks, trying new options, failing, succeeding and doing it all over again.”