In a recent meeting thick with people complaining of traffic, one resident stood up and proclaimed, “It’s coming. I’ve said for a long time that Hall County is going to become the next Gwinnett County.”
The man’s worries about too much development is not a lone one, especially as it concerns the rapidly growing South Hall.
Others have expressed similar worries about the area, with one resident telling Flowery Branch City Council in a March 1 meeting she was concerned about dense subdivisions planned or popping up around the city.
The question for many is, with the way the area is growing, is South Hall becoming just a collection of subdivisions, road projects and cities with their own development plans?
“I see South Hall as really the gateway to North Georgia,” Braselton Mayor Bill Orr said.
And the main artery, Interstate 985, which becomes Ga. 365 in North Hall as it pushes farther north, “is just a beautiful, scenic place to be,” he said. “It pulls a lot of people out of Atlanta and other places.”
The South Hall area is diverse in its landscape. From Lake Lanier on the far west to Braselton on the east, it features I-985 and major east-west roads like Lanier Islands Parkway/Friendship Road and Winder Highway/Ga. 53.
Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton lies off Friendship Road near another busy road, Old Winder Highway/Ga. 211. Since its opening, the surrounding area has boomed, creating a community of commercial and medical developments on the Gwinnett-Hall border.
In between are the bustling cities of Buford, Flowery Branch, Oakwood and Braselton — each having high growth within their own boundaries. Braselton has flourished largely because of its sitting on Interstate 85.
Another potential game-changer is the fall 2019 completion of Exit 14, a new I-985 interchange between Flowery Branch and Oakwood.
“The same type of growth in South Hall is what we see (in Braselton),” Orr said. “It’s because you have an interstate and you have a lot of businesses that have located north of Atlanta.”
Oakwood, which has hopes to develop its downtown according to its Oakwood 2030 plans, has recently pushed to bring in more residents. The town is largely known for its industries, such as those off Thurmon Tanner Parkway, and a large commercial presence on Mundy Mill Road.
“We are seeing an influx of housing requests,” City Manager Stan Brown said.
One of those is a 255-home subdivision proposed off McEver Road. It’s part of a 62-acre mixed-use development that includes room for a shopping center.
With a thicket of homes, retail and industries, South Hall could struggle with forging an identity, Brown said.
“That’s a challenge,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to pursue our Oakwood 2030 downtown plan, and we’re continuing to seek out (private) partners for us to create a sense of place for us. That’s one of the things we’re really lacking right now.”
Flowery Branch is a city in major transformation.
Hundreds of homes are either under construction or proposed, with a residential presence especially taking place near downtown. Some 400 homes in two separate developments are being considered off McEver Road between Radford Road and Lights Ferry Road.
But the city also is trying to create a distinct look for its downtown.
Once just a gaggle of aging buildings and worn-out sidewalks, the downtown has become a destination over the years. Along with updated infrastructure have come new and flourishing businesses.
And Flowery Branch hopes to open a new city hall early this year off Church Street and Railroad Avenue, a project that includes extending Pine Street from Church to Railroad.
Officials have said they hope the project will continue to trigger growth that’s been happening downtown. Plans are underway for a new building housing a pizzeria and craft beer shop off Main and Mitchell streets.
With a “little push,” the city could have “the cool downtown” in South Hall, Duluth City Manager James Riker told Flowery Branch City Council and other officials during a city government retreat on Feb. 17.
“Flowery Branch has the pieces here, and you’ve been good and strategic about collecting those pieces,” he said. “It’s just about how to position them and take the time to complement what you’re already doing.”
Stacey Dickson, president of the Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau, said, “we’re seeing those South Hall cities turning a corner in wanting to do more as far as (programs) that bigger cities would have.”
Kathy Cooper, who represents South Hall on the Hall County Board of Commissioners, said she sees South Hall as largely several communities of “tight-knit groups of people” spread out across the region.
Chestnut Mountain and Friendship communities don’t have formal boundaries, for example, but they have residents who closely identify with those communities.
She also hears the chatter about becoming like Gwinnett.
“We don’t want the mistakes that they’ve made, but you can’t really make (the growth) go away,” Cooper said. “I think people have gotten a little wiser to we can’t stop it, but we can be part of a solution as to what makes more sense for us.”