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Commissioners hear update to economic development plan, move ahead with new ordinance
FCN Forsyth County Administration Building

After members of the Forsyth County Development Authority approved it last week, Forsyth County Commissioners had a chance to hear about a new economic development plan and ordinance.

Commissioners held the special called meeting on Thursday afternoon and were joined by members of the development authority and the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, who presented the plan.

“Our partnership with the development authority and the county has never been stronger,” said James McCoy, president of the chamber. “The work that we are doing among the three entities – and I would throw into that the school system, the university and the technical school system – in my time here, we have never had [that level of support.]”

Commissioners decided not to approve the proposed plan at the meeting and chose to delay the approval for a few weeks to allow commissioners and staff to look over the plan.

The Plan and Background

The plan, which is available at the chamber’s website (CummingForsythChamber.org), is broken down into three goals – identity and marketing, business development and real estate development and placemaking – and each has priority actions.

For the identity and marketing, the plan looks to conduct surveys in and outside of the county on the partnership, hold annual economic development summits, engage young professionals, engage with the real estate community and rechristen the Chamber’s economic development division as the Forsyth County Partnership.

For business development, the plan will form an education task force, engage the county’s youth to either stay in or return to the county after graduation, align Chamber and county resources and explore new incentive tools.

Some priority action for real estate and placemaking are promoting mixed-use developments, promoting a more efficient regulatory process, creating an airport task force and developing and enhancing amenities and infrastructure, among other projects.

TIP Strategies, the firm hired by the chamber to form the plan, identified strengths and weakness currently in the county.

Strengths included strong public-private partnerships, natural assets and scenic appeal, competitive incentives from the state, available land, proximity to Atlanta, the location of Ga. 400 and talent availability and growth.

There were also challenges, such as unfocused growth, an imbalanced tax base, no interstate, rail or regional airport, a shortage of diverse housing, lack of transportation alternatives and lingering external perceptions of the county.

To tackle some of those issues, the firm previously recommended developing industrial sites for new business, creating a convention center and hotel development, looking at multi-family zoning categories, expanding development in north Forsyth and around Lake Lanier, creating a group to look at a possible regional airport and designating Ga. 400 as an interstate highway, possibly I-485.

The plan also sets out a number of targeted industries, including e-commerce and distribution, data services, advanced manufacturing, technology and research and development, professional services and headquarters and healthcare.

What has changed and what could still change

Since a draft was shown to commissioners in October, several changes have been made to the plan, such as a new “highly detailed implementation matrix and timeline,” removing a reference to relocating a business, establishing wage rates in metrics in the plan, clarifying language in the retail portion of mixed-use developments and eliminating a reference to an executive airport exclusive to Forsyth County.

For the airport portion of the plan, a task force will be created to find where it should go. The aim is to give executives and other business officials a faster way to fly into the county than Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills, who said she would fight against having it in north Forsyth, said she had had conversations with officials in Dawsonville and has spoken with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, who owns a private airfield in the city which is attempting to expand on Hwy. 183.

Per the Dawson County News, in a joint meeting of the Dawson County Board of Commissioners and the Dawsonville City Council in October, both parties discussed plans for the city to take over the facility as a non-commercial airport.

Mills said she was told the process had been slowed by the federal government shutdown.

Commissioners asked the county attorney to draft language in support of the executive airport.

Another possible change to economic development is the Forsyth County Board of Education could get involved in development projects. While no changes have been made, McCoy said there had been conversations.

“Part of what is changing the dynamic of that conversation is, if we are doing our job correctly, we are a revenue source. There is a measurable return on that investment,” McCoy said. “The school system was not previously looking at their engagement in economic development in that way. That has changed. The whole process in the last two years has changed that enormously.”

New ordinance

Along with a new plan, the county’s economic development ordinance is also getting an overhaul, and commissioners approved sending the ordinance to the public hearing process.

Vivian Vakili, the county’s economic development director, said the ordinance would be shorter, sets a schedule of criteria and would clean up what inducements the county can offer.

“We wanted this document to be accessible,” she said, “not only to the people that are implementing it but to stakeholders, to [commissioners] and anyone that would just want to pick it up and look at how we do economic development here.”

Under the new ordinance, the county economic director will assist with the plan, coordinate with the Chamber and development authority on projects, offer inducements – after approval from the county manager and commission – to targeted businesses and other actions.

Inducements available under the plan are total or partial waives of impact fees, a fee credit for steps in the county’s planning process and acceleration of some of those processes.

The Chamber will prepare a schedule of requirements for the businesses, including minimum job numbers, percentage of salary above the county average and fiscal impacts.

The county may also consider infrastructure, traffic, sewage and other factors.