The chairman of the Forsyth County Commission expressed agitation following the release of an annual economic forecast presented last week by a Gainesville real estate expert.
Other local officials reacted either with puzzlement or surprise over the report, which featured strong opinions regarding the county’s current attitude toward new business and growth in the area.
Part of Gainesville Realtor Frank Norton Jr.’s Native Intelligence Forecast — an annual look at economic and real estate trends — included a list of the top 10 events of 2017. At No. 9 on the list was a take on Forsyth County’s “anti-growth county vision with roadblocks on development, permitting and code approval.”
The report stated that the county, “once heralded as the shining star of progressive economic activity … [is] dangerously close to erasing … the ‘we can do anything, we are unstoppable boosterism’ with a ‘go home leave us alone’ rally cry.”
The report continued: “The losers are the citizens of Forsyth — the winners are the citizens of Dawson, Pickens, Hall and Gwinnett standing in line waiting to pick up the pieces.”
Todd Levent, chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, said the message was “politically charged … I think it’s just based on me being chairman and us doing our revamping of everything — trying to get our future under control and not just zoning everything out of control.”
During an interview Thursday, Norton explained that he understood that local officials would be “sensitive” to the report “and might bristle at some of my comments.”
Norton said in the 31 years his company has presented the forecasts they aim to “praise and challenge, all for the betterment of our community, and so when I am accused of criticism I view it as challenging people to do better, to wake up and look at unintended consequences.”
Added Norton: “I have been historically one of the most bullish people on Forsyth County … we’ve been in the real estate business on both sides of the lake since there was a lake, and so we have seen Forsyth County go from obscurity to notoriety to the top of the mountain, and it pains us to see some cycles where people who maybe aren’t as appreciative of the struggles Forsyth had to get to where it is today … want to reverse.”
District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said she understood where Norton was coming from, but “he’s taking the 10,000-foot view and not looking at things individually.”
She said commissioners currently are “trying to right the wrongs of the past with good planning.”
Mills went on to say that the commission is trying to help the community “become what the citizens wanted it to be and trying to help the infrastructure catch up.”
She said the county last year gave $450,000 to the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce for economic development.
“That’s not a sign of a county that’s closing the doors [on business],” Mills said. “It’s a sign of a county that’s trying to back up and look at how massive the growth has been in the past.”
Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO James McCoy said $450,000 was awarded to the chamber to manage an economic development plan for a two-year period.
McCoy said the county is already seeing the positive results of that exchange. He also said the county had $180 million in new capital investment in 2017 — the most for a single year “even prior to the recession.”
McCoy said he was “surprised to hear that level of rhetoric and opinion because I just don’t know what it’s based on beyond political hyperbole.”
Added McCoy: “I don’t know where it’s coming from … [Forsyth County] has gone from being the up-and-coming thing over the last 30 years to being the strongest player in the region, from an economic standpoint that is, and that transition is hard, and I get that, and maybe that’s actually what we’re experiencing is that transition being hard.”
Levent echoed Mills’ and McCoy’s remarks that the current board of commissioners has worked hard with the chamber to boost economic development.
“There’s never been a board of commissioners that works so well with the chamber to help get business here,” Levent said.
He said he was, overall, “disappointed” in Norton’s report “because it didn’t make sense. I would set up a debate with him any day of the week and call him out on it.”
Levent felt the opinion wasn’t statistics-based.
“The facts are this: our plan was to slow down some out-of-control growth the best we could in order to get our infrastructure in place and entice business to come here in order to balance our tax digest, because it’s astronomically off balance,” Levent said.
In an interview Thursday, Norton stood by his report and his words.
“[Forsyth County has] been the shining star county for the state of Georgia if not the southeast since the recession started. They had a downturn, but theirs was not as great as the rest of the state, and they pulled the state out. Perhaps today some of the challenges of the county are a result of this notoriety and spectacular growth they’ve had when other counties haven’t.”
Added Norton: “Their success is maybe being seen as their own undoing by certain segments of the population.”