FORSYTH COUNTY — Forsyth County is leading the resurgence of the metro Atlanta area’s real estate market.
That was one of the main messages of Frank Norton Jr. on Tuesday during the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce’s annual Economic Outlook Breakfast.
“You’re selling as much housing and real estate and commercial as you did in 2004,” Norton said. “We haven’t peaked back to the 2006 and 2007 numbers, but … you’re the only county in the 22 counties [of north Georgia] getting close.”
The talk by Norton, president of the Gainesville-based Norton Agency real estate and insurance firm, drew a crowd of about 250 to the Lanier Technical College Forsyth Conference Center. Chamber leaders have said the event is one of their most popular.
“And I would say that this was probably the most successful [one],” said Laura Stewart, director of communications and events for the organization.
Among those in attendance was Doug Krentz, who said he comes every year and also travels to other counties to hear Norton, who is considered an expert on the north Georgia market.
“He’s so knowledgeable about the area,” Krentz said. “He can deliver statistics and data that all of us in the business community want to see and hear.”
Every year, Norton authors Native Intelligence, an economic forecast that provides data on a range of topics, including housing and job markets. He cited data and other information from the report Tuesday.
According to Norton, Forsyth — as it has for the past several years — is leading economic development in the region. During his visit in 2013, he noted that Forsyth had surpassed neighboring Gwinnett County in new home permits.
“You fall off, unfortunately, in 2013. You were surpassed by the giant gorilla next door called Gwinnett,” he said. “The sleeping, giant gorilla woke up a little bit and they permitted 2,500 single family houses and you permitted 2,400.
“Gwinnett with a population of 800,000 people only exceeded your number of permits by 100. That’s a huge achievement for this county.”
Norton went on to comment on the pricing and inventory of homes available.
The average house price in Forsyth, he said, exceeds that of Gwinnett by $40,000. He added that the average price of a new home in Forsyth is $330,000, while it’s $510,000 in north Fulton.
“And you have a better school system; and you have a better, stronger quality of life; and your tax rates, wow,” he said. “You’ve been able to build what you’ve built by maintaining a reasonable tax structure for this county and that’s the grand attractor.”
Norton pointed to Ga. 400 as “a power axis” that will continue to help Forsyth be successful.
“Ga. 400 is still the future,” he said. “Look around you and see the amount of vacant land that is in between the developed pieces.”
Norton also pointed to the importance of retail development.
“Your true power, in my opinion, is the 190,000 people who live here at the family income rate that they have and the consumable disposable income that they have that is leaking out of this county.
“We must capture the retail that is lost and we have to have a focus on not only getting the business but also the shopping for the consumables and the luxury items.”
Despite the success of the county, Norton raised a couple of areas of advice moving forward. Among them was what he called developing the county’s “underground economy,” or infrastructure such as water and sewer lines, as the county swells to an estimated population of 650,000 in 30 years.
“We have to support the things that we really don’t want to support because we’re actually building for our children and our children’s children.”
Norton also said the county could work on providing more housing at lower price points.
“Are we going to be an importer of labor at the same time as an exporter of labor? And you are today,” he said. “We are building and attracting great industry, but where are our secretaries going to live? Where are our firemen going to live? Where are our teachers going to live?
“We have to balance out the beautiful houses on millionaire row with good solid housing stock at multiple price point levels. If we don’t, we are going to be simply an importer and we’re going to be relying on the surrounding counties to support what we offer.”
Above all, he said protecting the community’s sense of identity is vital.
“The efforts in this room protect the community and build that community soul,” he said. “The heritage is that this community was only 25,000 people in about 1970 and today you’re 190,000 give or take … How we grow is what’s next. Are we prepared?”
Attendees seemed focused on Norton’s message.
“Forsyth County has a very powerful future with the way we’re going to interconnect with the surrounding counties and metro Atlanta,” said Scott Hall. “The future is bright.”