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‘A lot of money being spent somewhere:’ Commissioners hear from economic experts at meeting in Atlanta
Commercial developments, affordable housing included in challenges facing the county

Forsyth County Commissioners recently took a field trip to Atlanta to discuss local and state economic issues.

At a special-called meeting of the Forsyth County Commissioners on Wednesday, Sept. 1, members of the board discussed economic figures and goals with officials from the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Georgia Power Community and Economic Development and others at the Georgia Experience Center in Atlanta.

Looking at data across all Georgia counties for economic development, education, health and opportunity, Forsyth ranked as “strong,” the highest of five ratings, for all four.

“This is the part where I have to say, Forsyth County, take a deep breath and say, ‘We did pretty good,’” said Rope Roberts, Georgia Power’s community development manager for the northeast region.

Breaking down the rankings, Forsyth County’s school system, high graduation rates, high home values and high-earning residents, were among factors lifting the grades.

“You’re still strong in all of these categories, that’s the point I want you to take away as we go forward is, you’ve got this, now where, in the next 20 years, do you as commissioners look to take this?” Roberts said.

Tracey Ussery, a research analyst with Georgia Power, said education can be an important component for a company choosing to expand or relocate.

“One of the things we look at consistently, each year, a survey comes out from corporate decision-makers [asking], what are the issues you’re looking at when expanding at a new location or existing locations, and very consistency, availability of skilled labor is toward the top,” she said.

Other factors like energy availability, fiber and internet speeds and quality-of-life are also considerations for expansions, even above things like existing buildings, sites and infrastructure

“Another interesting thing that we have noticed is the quality-of-life issue,” Ussery said.  “They used to say … we’re not focusing on that, but it keeps cropping up. People are very interested in moving and working in a place they want to be, and, gosh, you have an abundance of that.”

Along with the positive outcomes, certain economic development challenges facing the county were also discussed.

In recent years, county officials have pushed to increase the number of commercial properties in the county, and steps to achieve that goal were discussed in the meeting.

Laura Semanson, Forsyth County’s District 5 commissioner, said for years Forsyth had been a bedroom community sending workers to other counties, focusing on growing commercial could reverse the trend.

“I think for such a long time, we were that housing outlet for the rest, we were supplying Atlanta with employees that were residing in Forsyth,” Semanson said. “We’ve grown so much that, from the standpoint of being a sustainable model, you’ve got to start getting commercial in there and pushing back against the residential.”

Roberts said that Forsyth’s high population and the comparatively low number of businesses meant there was “a lot of money being spent somewhere” other than the county.

County leaders said that residential property taxes comprise about 76% of the county’s tax base, which leaders have hopped to lower by increasing the number of commercial properties in the county.

Where Forsyth County residents work and where employees working in Forsyth County live were also a topic in the discussion.

According to census data shown at the meeting, for employees working or living in Forsyth County, about 83,000 of workers live in Forsyth and leave the county for work, about 24,000 live and work in Forsyth County and 52,000 work in Forsyth but live outside the county.

Among workers living in Forsyth County, nearly 33% go to Fulton County, 23% also work in Forsyth and 13% work in Gwinnett.

Land-use, particularly land prices and housing options, were also discussed among factors to help bring commercial development to the county.

Commission Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills said higher property values are typically a positive but when it comes to attracting businesses, Forsyth is a bit of a victim of “the success that our land prices are so high.”

“If they’re a company that is so big that people are clamoring for, first of all, you can’t control the land price because that is market-driven and what the property owner has control of” she said. “… We can’t be in the category to get some of these large corporations because of that.”

Roberts pointed to neighboring Gwinnett County where leaders were having similar issues and had begun opting for higher buildings for expansions over expanding horizontally.

During the meeting, officials ranked Forsyth as among the highest home values in the state though did not have as much affordable housing.

“When we say affordable, we’re not talking about government-subsidized, we’re talking about entry-level market rates, an entry-level tech kid out of school, teachers, so-on and so-forth,” said Brooke Perez, Georgia Power’s community and economic development manager for the Metro North region,

Roberts said while Forsyth County had a large number of houses for families, he felt like options such as adding more mid-level housing options, like duplexes, townhomes, courtyard, mixed-use and others, could attract more workers to the community.

“You’re really good with … single-family detached homes,” Roberts said. “You’re good, you’re strong. What you’re trying to build is some of that in the middle.”