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Our Views: Progress update shows better days ahead
Area businesses, governments may be coming out of the recession doldrums
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

 

Judging our yearly progress was easier at one time.

As Hall County and other communities in Northeast Georgia were growing through the 1990s and early 2000s, the rise in residential population was matched by a expanding commercial base, leading to more schools, more recreational options, more everything.

Then the recession hit in late 2008. Since then, our progress nearly became "regress." Jobs were lost, businesses shuttered and commerce stymied. The housing market collapsed, hitting both the construction and real estate sectors. As more people struggled to find work and get by, government revenues dropped, schools faced major cutbacks and public sector services were sliced.

Yet as spring dawns in 2012, that picture is beginning to slowly brighten. Building permits are on the uptick, a sign that developers are beginning to plan more residential and commercial projects. The local jobless rate has dropped back below 8 percent after topping out at more than 10 percent a few years ago. Consumers are buying cars and other goods at an increased pace, raising hope that better times are on the way.

As more money changes hands in the free market, the extra tax money generated may keep governments from making more austere cuts to balance budgets. That's particularly good news for schools that have tried to make do with less while maintaining a high level of instruction.

We're happy to enter the year's second quarter with a much sunnier future to report in our annual Progress sections, included in today's print editions. In them, we look at where we've come and where we're going in Education and Government, Healthy and Safety, Arts and Community, Sports and Leisure, Business and Industry and Poultry.

Such measuring sticks remain hard to gauge. Some areas have rebounded more slowly than others.

Many industries, for instance, are regaining their footing after a few years of staggering from the economic downturn. But while unemployment is down, the number of jobless remains high. One reason is that many businesses forced to downsize to stay afloat have learned to get by with smaller workforces. And some folks have given up trying to find new jobs or have settled for lower-paying positions than they are qualified for.

In addition, governments are still trying to stay out of the red ink even as tax revenues creep back up. As the economy rebounds, there will be some lag time.

Hall County still is working to balance residential and commercial growth that will move us toward the goals set in the Vision 2030 project. Several metro Atlanta counties provide a negative example of what can happen when growth is unchecked and unmanaged, creating tax disparity, overcrowded schools and roads and an infrastructure unable to keep up with the swelling population.

Yet area growth continues, albeit a bit slower than before. Subdivisions that were planned and partially built, and later abandoned during the recession, finally may be able to build out in the coming years. As banks and financial institutions become more solvent, developers will be able to secure the loan capital needed to finish their projects.

The county's top growth field for some time has been in health care, in and around the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. The planned new hospital campus in Braselton will extend its reach to the southern part of the county and create more retail and commercial growth in that area.

Local schools have weathered the blow of falling tax revenues, though layoffs, furloughs and other cutbacks have taken their toll. But local districts remain in the hands of strong leaders who embrace innovation and creative learning methods even as budgets remain a challenge. With Georgia opting out of the No Child Left Behind standards, newer and better ways of measuring student success are being devised to lift schools to the next level.

Colleges and universities also have kept education standards high. Now, North Georgia College & State University and Gainesville State College, are working their way through the challenge of a state-mandated merger, their goal to create one outstanding school from two high quality institutions.

Meanwhile, our region's quality of life remains high. Hall County's government, though forced to cut back on some services, is moving ahead with SPLOST-funded plans for new parks and libraries. Thankfully, we have not become the kind of bedroom community where no one stays to eat, shop or play. Thriving arts organizations, museums and cultural events at colleges and universities have kept the area vibrant even in lean times. There still are plenty of places to hike, run, golf, bike, swim and take in the beauty of Northeast Georgia.

All in all, the glass is more than half full even as challenges and opportunities await. With the worst of the economic slump seemingly behind us, the hunkering down and belt-tightening now can give way to the wise long-range planning that will keep us growing in the right direction to meet what awaits over the horizon.

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