Last year, Forsyth County and the city of Cumming joined the Atlanta Regional Commission, and recently, locals got a chance to hear from ARC officials’ projections about the area’s economic future.
On Tuesday, Feb. 15, the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce hosted the 2022 Economic Outlook Meeting, where Mike Alexander, senior director of the ARC’s Center for Livable Communities, and Malika Wilkins, senior director of the commission’s Center for Strategic Relations to discuss trends and predictions for the local, state and federal economy.
“When you think about companies that decide to move here, whether its Siemens, Scientific Games, etc., they are looking at our area from a regional perspective,” Wilkins said. “So, it important, that we do just that… and we also know the importance of regions because our issues go across county lines. When you think about our natural resources, when you think about transportation, all of those things cut across county lines for our residents, for our constituents in this region.”
In 2021, Forsyth County and the city of Cumming moved to the ARC from the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.
The bodies are two of the state’s 12 regional commissions, or public agencies set up to “assist local governments on a regional basis and to develop, promote and assist in establishing coordinated and comprehensive planning in the state.”
Along with Forsyth, ARC represents Henry, Cobb, Rockdale, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Douglas, Cherokee, Fulton and Fayette counties, municipalities in those counties and the city of Atlanta.
County officials previously said they favored moving to the ARC due to issues such as growth, economic development, transportation and others that are more similar to metro Atlanta counties than those in the northeast corner of the state.
In her presentation, Wilkins said Forsyth County, which had about 250,000 residents in 2020, was expected to see a great deal of growth in the coming decades and was projected to have a population of nearly 435,000 by 2050.
Alexander said from 2010 to 2020, Forsyth County was the sixth-fastest growing county with a population above 100,000.
Though Forsyth has been one of the fastest-growing counties in the country for decades, Alexander said 2020 was the lowest population growth in U.S. history.
“The reality is - and this is a global issue - really we are not adding people anymore almost anywhere in the developed world due to natural increase, all of our fertility rates are below replacement birth level,” he said. “What that means is 70% of the economy is based on people consuming things, and if you’re not adding people, that’s going to set a marker for future growth.”
Population growth will also mean building new places for future residents to live.
Wilkins said home and rent prices were an issue in Forsyth County and across the region, which led ARC leadership to create Metro Atlanta Housing Strategy to look at needs in the area.
“Don’t feel bad, because it’s an issue across the country and some would say it’s a crisis across the country,” she said. “The good news is that ARC and so many partners across the region are doing something about it. We’re working together, we’re collaborating.”
According to a slide in Wilkins’ presentation, Forsyth County contains areas within four submarkets as identified within the plan: higher-priced rural areas; suburban neighborhoods with moderate-to-higher-priced housing; suburban neighborhoods along employment corridors with moderate-to-higher-priced mix of single and multifamily housing; and suburban neighborhoods with lower-to-moderate priced housing.
Alexander said demographic changes, types of housing and where homes are available have led to issues for first-time buyers.
“What we’re really seeing is you have a generation - the millennials - who are almost at peak buying period [ages] but the supply really isn’t there for them because we haven’t added to that supply,” he said. “When you think about people living longer, the example I use is East Cobb. When the baby boomers moved to East Cobb in the 1970s, that was relatively approximate to the major employment centers that were active at that time.
“A millennial today doesn’t have that option. If you look at a Fayette County where you have a lot of aging in place, that turnover in the housing stock just isn’t there.”
Meanwhile, Alexander’s said wages in the metro area had not risen at the same level as inflation.
During a question-and-answer portion of the meeting, Alexander expanded on an earlier point that the economy could be back to pre-pandemic unemployment levels by the end of the year, which he said was based on a report by Moody’s.
“Now, if I’m being, honest, there’s some big headwinds on this. Acknowledging inflation, there’s a lot of work that’s going to happen at the national level,” Alexander said. “Getting back to… the money supply and how we’re going to figure that out, find a way to get inflation under control is maybe the indeterminant thing that will be something that I’m sure all of you will be following every month to make sure that they are hitting those targets.”
Earlier in his presentation, Alexander said that metro Atlanta had the fourth-best pandemic recovery in terms of recovering job losses, following only other metro areas like Austin, Dallas and Denver.
Wilkins said those figures would need to factor in what workplaces will look like as the economy recovers.
“I would say, yes it will recover, but not without some conscious change from our companies and communities and governments,” she said. “When you think about office space, remaining that space, a lot of our companies have gone back to a hybrid work scenario where they’re teleworking and working from home and working in the office, many of our companies are just not doing the five days a week in office.”