In recent years, Forsyth County’s population growth has exploded, transforming the perception of the area from a rural county north of Atlanta to one of the metro area’s most notable bedroom communities.
That population growth, however, did not bring with it jobs, as the majority of residents make their way out of the county go to work — That’s something local officials want to change.
On Tuesday, Forsyth County Commissioners held a special called meeting to review a proposed new economic development plan for the county put together with work from the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce and Austin-based TIP Strategies.
“As you may know, currently about 70 percent of our tax digest is being paid by residential taxpayers, the remaining approximately 30 percent by businesses,” James McCoy, president and CEO of the Chamber. “As the community continues to grow and the needs of the community continue to change, we know that unless the business portion of the tax digest grows, the increasing proportion will fall on the homeowners.”
McCoy said the county could either raise taxes or grow local business and leaders had gone with the latter.
He said he asked the firm to think big when it came to ways to improve the local economy and they came back with some “heavy lifts.”
“They will require some real work, some real cooperation, but they are transformative,” McCoy said. “They are the kinds of things that we can do as a community that will really transform our economy for the future.”
Jon Roberts, with TIP, said part of the plan meant going for quality over quantity of jobs.
“It’s not just about how many jobs you create,” Roberts said, “it’s also about the wages those jobs pay and how sustainable they are.”
Some of those industries are advanced manufacturing, data services, technology and research and development, blockchain, financial technology, e-commerce and corporate and regional headquarters for businesses.
Along with growing business, part of the plan involves the perception of the county by working toward a future as a diverse knowledge, based economy with managed growth and a strong identity and value proposition.
“You are no longer rural. You don’t have the luxury of being rural either in the south part of the north part of the county. You are no longer food processing dependent,” said Aston Allison, with TIP. “You are no longer going to be a bedroom community. Alpharetta showed that 10 years ago. And finally, the risk of unfocused growth is among your biggest risks.”
The plan also breaks down three goals for business growth: identity and marketing through creating a strong local identity for audience at the state, national and international levels; business development to expanding business attraction, expansion retention and entrepreneurial advancement in the county and real estate development; and placing by encouraging development in certain corridors, accelerating mixed-use project and supporting development of quality amenities.
TIP also 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.
Allison said there were also challenges, such as unfocused growth, an imbalanced tax base, no interstate, rail or regional airport, shortage of diverse housing, lack of transportation alternatives and lingering external perception of the county.
To tackle some of those issues, the firm 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 proposed plan isn’t official yet, and McCoy said he would be reaching out to commissioners for feedback before moving ahead with the plan.
“The intent of the meeting today was to let [commissioners] hear it, see it. Of course, it’s a large document to digest,” he said. “The next step for us is to talk about implementation. We’ll include feedback and direction on that, and then once we have the details of that, we’ll come back for another presentation for your consideration.”
Commission Chairman Todd Levent directed county staff to put meeting’s video online at the county’s website so the community could watch it and reach out with their suggestions. The video is available at Forsythco.com.
“They need to understand the efforts we’ve been making for a long time,” Levent said. “It may also help us get some input back before we make our final decisions, as well.”