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Norton predicts stability for area economy
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Frank Norton predicts the economic future at the annual Norton Native Intelligence Forecast on Thursday at the Gainesville Civic Center. - photo by NAT GURLEY

It should come as no surprise to those paying attention that his economic forecast is distinctly calm, with volatile times in the rearview mirror, Frank Norton Jr. said.

“I think this year has been one of the most challenging years for us to write and compose the forecast. The shock is that there’s no shock,” Norton said. “In the past we have seen wild fluctuation, and while there’s still pain out there, things have largely settled.”

“We’ve experienced so much fast boom and fast bust. I think that this is our 27th forecast that we’ve written for the North Georgia community, and I think it’s been 20 years since it’s been this settled.”

The Norton Agency president gave his annual economic forecast Thursday evening at the Gainesville Civic Center. Norton and his team compile and present the report to attempt to convey to business leaders and public officials the pulse of the Northeast Georgia economy and real estate market.

The event was less spectacular than in years past, which have featured live animals, although the affair included an epic soundtrack and hundreds of laser pointers for a live survey of the audience.

“Our market is settling into this period, which we’ll call ‘normal.’ There’s lots of bright spots, but there’s not a major uplift around the corner,” Norton told the crowd. “It’s business as usual.”

Perhaps the most pressing unknown, he said, will be the longevity of the economic recovery, versus a premature regression.

But Norton began his presentation by highlighting his pride for Northeast Georgia, urging business leaders to embrace its natural beauty and community roots, rather than forgo small-town values in pursuit of “growth for the sake of growth.”

“People who live out here like trees, flora and fauna, not some Stepford, reforested version of the same,” he said.

Such developments, in the vein of an Atlanta live/work/play density, have not reflected “a shred of reality of what the buying public actually wanted,” Norton said.

Not known for his subtlety, Norton was blunt and colorful in his assessments.

“We must heed the lessons of our past and temper our enthusiasm for the glittery, shiny appeal of anything brand new,” which veered into “boosterism on steroids,” he said,

Norton said there has been opportunity in the rubble of the recession, and although the “low-hanging fruit” is largely picked, opportunities to capitalize are “far from over,” with the best options local.

“Small towns like ours have the greatest opportunity — Demorest, Gainesville, Gillsville, Oakwood, Flowery Branch — that’s where the gems still are, and we can spot the gems the finest and the fastest,” he said. “If we open up our eyes, we will capitalize on the remaining cleanup in our area.”

Norton said 2014 is not likely to see a surge in foreclosures, although more could be done to promote more home ownership.

“We will not see a major construction boom until regulators relax guidelines for our banking friends,” Norton said. “Without the supply, good, quality houses will not remain on the market very long.”

Norton said the rhetoric of rich versus poor and income inequality would drive down flashiness and luxury.

“It’s our opinion that wealth will go stealth,” he said.

The superwealthy, he said, are searching for invisibility, “living in private compounds behind gated communities.”

“As divided America continues to fracture, we see more and more middle- and upper-middle successful Americans seek out a cloak of invisibility,” he said.

In addition, “the tax man cometh,” he said.

“Our national sources are telling us to expect taxes, fees and government whatever to accelerate 15 to 20 percent over the next 20 years,” he said. “Passing on family business and personal wealth from one generation to another will be increasingly challenging.”

Not to neglect issues of perpetual importance, Norton said securing water access remains urgent.

“We’ve spoken 25 times in 27 years about water. We think the next gold rush is going to be liquid — water,” he said, later adding, “Except without gold, you’re broke. Without water, you’re dust.”

States that plan water access the best — through reservoirs, rainwater and even harvesting morning dew — will have a competitive advantage and happier populace than others.

The water wars are a “frontal assault” on Georgia’s supply, and government leaders aren’t moving fast enough to secure it.

“Atlanta is now 6.2 million people regionally. When we started this, we were 3.2 (million),” he said. “Water is liquid gold — don’t let it flow through our fingertips.”

Americans are now more cautious, he said, with personal slush funds a now common financial coffer side-by-side with education, retirement and leisure.

“We’ve become a more conservative people, laser focused on what to spend and where to spend it,” he said. “We are hoarding cash, some $14 trillion as a nation.”

Businesses have become similarly conservative, he said.

“Businesses are laser focused, with less employees and more productivity per person. We’re working harder than ever before, but finding the fun is returning,” he said. “Our adaptation to this new day has made us resilient and more determined than ever to succeed.”

Norton stressed there are both unknowns and bad mixed with the good.

“We still have 92 million people not working in this country,” he said.

And an impact that few leaders have tried to understand is how national health care reform will affect local economies.

“The wild card in our sustained recovery is the rampant uncertainty over what is called Obamacare,” Norton said. “No one knows what’s going to happen, and everybody cares.”

Norton said participants should feel empowered to make their own opinions based on his statistics and projections, and that understanding the fundamentals of the local markets is key in targeting the opportunities.

Matt Strohmeyer, of Forsyth County, went to the event with an eye toward local insight for his startup business.

“I sell software right now, and we’re starting an LED business,” SubtractEnergy, he said, with business partner Ryan Sawyer.

He’s happy to hear a forecast of steady growth and stability, adding that he is a new homeowner.

“It looks like it’s going to be quite an even year, really, which is good for me. I just bought a house in Forsyth County last year,” he said. “We bought down there specifically for the schools.”