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Our Views: Rebounding in time for fall
Back to school shopping push another sign that regions economy is slowly improving
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

Students, welcome to your last day of summer.

The back-to-school shopping frenzy has ended, parents loading up on supplies, clothes and computers, many enjoying the tax-free holiday Friday and Saturday.

Some say the tax exemption is a bit too costly for governments, some $89 million in lost revenue statewide. Others argue the buying frenzy is good for the economy by stimulating sales and helping retailers, who look to back-to-school as a mini-holiday burst to boost their bottom lines.

Both are right, but the increased spending can’t help but have a positive impact for businesses who are beginning to see the light at the end of a very long tunnel.

For five years, the economy has wobbled through a recession, housing collapse and financial downturn. Jobs were lost, businesses closed and governments forced to cut back workers and services to balance budgets.

This weekend’s buying spree reminds us that while we have a ways to go, and while many individuals and businesses still are struggling, the worst days may be behind us.

The evidence can be seen across the board in many sectors. We can look first to the financial markets, where the major stock indexes have reached record highs. The Dow Jones topped 15,000 for the first time in late July, twice what it was in 2009.

Bank failures have slowed to a trickle since their mid-recession peak and lenders are again providing capital to fuel business expansion.

One key component is the slow rebound of the housing market after the bubble burst in 2008-09. Local real estate executives now say there is a demand for housing in Hall County and foreclosures have fallen by 20 percent this year. Property values are headed back up, especially for Lake Lanier homes, making for a stronger market for sellers.

After a few years of stalled subdivision development, new homes are set to go up in Cresswind at Lanier, Mundy Mill, Sterling on the Lake and Village at Deaton Creek, among others. Much of that is being driven by the demand for senior/active adult communities as baby boomers retire and look for new digs. New rental properties are planned as well, an apartment complex on the way north of Gainesville.

Business growth continues to fuel the local economy. A report earlier this year from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis showed Gainesville and Hall County ranking 59th nationally in gross domestic product growth and third in Georgia.

Manufacturing continues to relocate and expand here, evidenced by ZF’s new plant in Oakwood and Kubota’s in Jefferson, among others, bringing new jobs.

Retail growth is seen in plans for New Holland Market, expansion along Thurmon Tanner parkway, new restaurants along Ga. 53/Dawsonville Highway and Lakeshore Mall’s expansion, including the new Dick’s Sporting Goods under construction and a renovated J.C. Penney. Just this weekend, the new Limestone Place Market opened in Gainesville with six new businesses, part of more retail expansion coming in that area of town.

The biggest boost may come with the planned new $11 million Georgia Poultry Lab Network headquarters, part of the Gateway Industrial Centre coming to Ga. 365 in North Hall.

Hall’s biggest private employer is growing, too. Northeast Georgia Medical Center opened its $180 million North Tower on its Gainesville campus, and work has begun on its Braselton hospital scheduled to open in April 2015.

Tourism remains strong, thanks to a full Lake Lanier after a year of rain. That could bode well this fall when Atlanta visitors head up the highway to see fall leaves in the Georgia mountains. Two new attractions will bring visitors in years to come: Don Carter State Park in North Hall along Lake Lanier, which opened in July, and the Smithgall Woodland Garden in Gainesville, set to debut next summer.

Unemployment in Hall County remains too high at 7.6 percent after dipping below 7 percent over the spring, though it’s down from a year ago. Many have given up looking for jobs after years of tight employment markets. Some of that is the result of businesses who were forced to cut back during the recession learning to get by with fewer workers.

One factor keeping businesses from hiring more workers is the impending implementation of the national health care law that will add new mandates to employers and individuals. The impact of the law remains unclear, and business doesn’t like uncertainty. Job growth could be stifled until the plan kicks in this fall and the effects can be gauged.

Nevertheless, the rise in consumer spending and business growth is helping governments restore lost revenues. Increased tax digests have allowed local leaders to cut back on employee and teacher furloughs. Deficits have been cut, surpluses created and some services restored, though many local jurisdictions won’t go back to the kind of spending seen prior to the economic slump, nor should they.

Like many businesses, governments made austere cuts to get their budgets in line with the new reality. With tax revenues rising, that money can go where it is needed most: Schools, infrastructure and public safety, with the hope that any new flush of cash won’t again be wasted on needless expenditures.

Of course, any uptick in the economy remains fragile and subject to change based on events outside of our control: a major hurricane, a terrorist attack or misguided federal policies. But as long as the arrow is moving in the right direction, there is hope those kids starting school tomorrow with a backpack full of notebooks will have brighter prospects when they exit school and enter the job market in years to come.

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