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Study: Forsyth top county for local economy investment

For the second year in a row, financial technology company SmartAsset has named Forsyth County the top county in the state for incoming investment.

The company recently completed its second annual study, which examines areas receiving the greatest amount of investment in their local economies.

The county also ranked first in the state for new building permits issued: 52.2 per 1,000 homes in 2016. Last year’s number came in at 39.1 per 1,000 homes.

Nationwide, counties were ranked according to local business establishment growth, gross domestic product growth, new building permits issued and municipal bond investment.

This year, Forsyth County ranked ninth nationally, falling two spots from last year.

The county has still seen tremendous development.

In the past year, Forsyth County’s business growth jumped more than 8 percent; in 2015, county growth was at 6.6 percent and in 2016, the number had increased to 14.7 percent.

James McCoy, president and CEO of the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, credited this to strategies the Chamber has been pursuing for a number of years, specifically its “Business First” initiative.

The strategy looks at the primary areas Forsyth County should focus on and where it can improve the local economy in order to drive greater investment.

“We have dozens upon dozens of initiatives,” McCoy said. “But the No. 1 issue we have tried to address is that for many years, we have had fully-occupied office and advanced manufacturing space.”

As McCoy emphasized at a planning commission public hearing last month, the county is at 98 percent occupancy when it comes to office and industrial space.

Although this has slowed Forsyth’s potential growth, in the last four to five years, the Chamber has focused on bringing in new, private investors who will build office and manufacturing buildings, McCoy said.

So far, the Chamber’s plan seems to be working.

In the last year alone, McCoy said, four new buildings have been approved, adding nearly 1 million square feet of commercial space, and there are more buildings in the pipeline.

McCoy said there is still more to do.

“It’s not [as easy as] just saying, ‘hey let’s build new buildings,’” he said. “It’s working one-on-one with the developers to get their business and tax revenue coming in.

“The challenge we face [though] is that land prices are extremely high in Forsyth County. Commercial ventures are finding it difficult to pay those prices and make it back in 20-30 years.”

Still, as shown by the SmartAsset report, Forsyth County is increasingly becoming one of the top in the state.

From 2015 to 2016, its GDP grew by nearly $150 million, reaching $580 million this year.

Though the number is still behind Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb and Chatham counties, McCoy said these counties are significantly larger than Forsyth.

“Gwinnett is at least four times the size, DeKalb at least six times and Fulton maybe more than that,” he said. “If you break it out per capita, [you see] that if we’re not No. 1, we’re close behind — certainly in the top two or three [statewide.]

“There is a remarkable story of commercial growth, and that’s what is driving a lot of the GDP growth slice of the pie.”