Each year at the end of March, we offer our annual Progress sections, included in today’s paper. The sections take our community’s temperature along six separate topics — Education and Government, Health and Safety, Business and Industry, Sports and Leisure, Arts and Community and Poultry — over the last calendar year.
In recent years, our Progress sections have included a combination of good news and bad, with hopes the economic downturn that began in late 2008 would give way to better days. Even as the recession hit both private and public sectors, we awaited a recovery we knew would come, a hope fed by our region’s economic diversity and resiliency.
Now we’re happy to report that in 2014, the news is largely good and our business and government economies are back on a successful track.
Today’s sections reveal this with a cross-section of stories on an economic engine that is gaining strength in all sectors. Here’s a short summary of why the future looks brighter:
Business expansion: Last year, 2,137 businesses were operating in Gainesville, 244 more than in 2012; in Hall County, 31 new companies started up. Meanwhile, the value of commercial building permits in the county jumped to $156 million last year, up $142 million from the previous year.
New development hubs are sprouting up as anchors of commercial growth. In south Hall, the Northeast Georgia Health System’s new 100-bed hospital in Braselton is scheduled to be completed by February and will be ready to open by this time next year.
The $187.4 million project will do more than provide a health option for residents of South Hall and West Jackson counties; the clinics, businesses and other development expected to follow in the hospital’s wake should lure commerce and create jobs.
On the north end of county is the Gateway Centre, a 518-acre industrial park north of White Sulphur Road. Its first tenant will be the new Georgia Poultry Laboratory Network headquarters, set for completion in July despite setbacks from a cold, wet winter. The state expects to move into the new facility this fall from its 50-year-old home in Oakwood.
The 38,000-square-foot building on 10 acres will feature the latest high-tech equipment at a total cost of $9.6 million, offering key support for the state’s poultry industry.
Another growth hub is the New Holland area of Gainesville, home to the state’s largest Kroger supermarket that opened this month on Jesse Jewell Parkway as part of a 68-acre, 400,000-square-foot commercial development. Coming soon will be an additional 200,000 square feet of office and multifamily housing units.
Tourism: One of our region’s top industries continues to grow. It helps that Lake Lanier, which lures some 8 million visitors a year, is back at full pool and able to welcome boaters, swimmers, anglers and skiers as the weather turns warm.
Two other new developments will lure visitors' dollars. One is Don Carter State Park, Hall County’s first state park, which opened last fall in North Hall. The 1,316-acre park overlooking the Chattahoochee River arm of Lake Lanier offers camping, boat ramps, fishing, picnicking, playgrounds, hiking and a large swimming beach, as well as eight rental cabins. Coming soon will be kayak rentals along with new trails, campsites and cottages.
This fall, we anticipate the opening of Smithgall Woodland Garden, a 168-acre site donated in 2002 by Gainesville resident Lessie Smithgall and her late husband, Charles Smithgall, founders of The Times. It will offer botanical displays as an extension of the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The $21 million project will include a visitors center, 2,000-seat amphitheater and 5 acres of display gardens, with more exhibits planned down the road.
Housing: Residential growth is coming to the Mundy Mill corridor across town, 604 acres planned years ago but waylaid by the recession, and the Cresswind at Lake Lanier community off Browns Bridge Road, 950 planned homes on 76 acres.
The rebound of the housing market is credited with that growth. After the housing bubble’s collapse drove the market into years of foreclosures and red numbers, the sector is rebounding with solid gains. Prices have stabilized and evened out inventories to better balance the market for buyers and sellers.
Higher education: Local colleges keep growing. The University of North Georgia, formed from the merger of campuses in Dahlonega, Oakwood, Oconee and Cumming, has expanded its degree offerings and seen student enrollment rise to nearly 15,500.
Brenau University also is drawing new students, 2,850 overall and nearly 900 for the women’s college. The school is expanding physically as well, adding the Brenau Downtown Center, formerly the Georgia Mountains Center leased from Gainesville. It has been renovated to house the university’s planned doctoral physical therapy program, undergraduate classes and education and theater classes. The school’s fundraising gala was held there Saturday.
The university’s athletics program will get a new home in the growing New Holland area on 16.8 acres donated from South Carolina-based Pacolet Milliken Enterprises. The $4.4 million project will include facilities for softball, soccer and track and field.
Lanier Technical College continues to grow, fueled in part by the restoration of the state’s HOPE Grant program to help students better afford tuition. Rising enrollment has led the college to seek a new 66,000-square-foot building for its allied health program in Oakwood. The college’s 3,630 students, up nearly 400 from last year, also study on campuses in Forsyth, Dawson, Barrow and Jackson counties.
Governments: As businesses create more jobs and tax revenues, local governments have been able to ease up on harsh budget cuts made necessary by the recession. That also means layoffs, furloughs and tax hikes appear to be in the rear-view mirror for now.
Revenue projections for Hall County and Gainesville budgets will allow for increases to fund projects that were put on hold during leaner times.
“We feel like we’re coming out of the woods a little bit now,” said Gainesville City Manager Kip Padgett.
Businesses, housing, health, governments and colleges — all are surging again, bringing jobs, learning and prosperity to our region, improving quality of life and restoring the sunny optimism that has always marked the local character. Our progress is again easy to measure, and the days to come should be even brighter.