Northwest: Road To Everywhere
Bringing Jobs And Residents
A couple of decades ago, a history professor at Dalton College and State University told his students that some day northwest Georgia would be one long continuous city along Interstate 75 from Atlanta to Chattanooga.
For anyone who has made the trip lately, the professor’s prediction seems to have come true and then some. Cartersville is booming, fed by suburban Atlanta’s sprawling growth as well as its own diversity. Development and traffic have multiplied for miles around every exit north to the Tennessee line – Rome, Fairmont, Calhoun, Dalton all the way up to Ringgold, the once sleepy little town that now promotes itself as a bedroom community seamlessly connected to neighboring Chattanooga. To the west of I-75, towns such as Tallapoosa and Cedartown have benefited from their own brand of growth in jobs and residents. And off the beaten path of I-75, towns to the east – Chatsworth and Ellijay – and to the west – Summerville, Trenton and Trion – have found themselves popular with retirees and tourists.
Along the way the many towns and communities in the Appalachian foothills of northwest Georgia – which have spawned world-famous in-dustries from rugs to Rock City – have retained their own character, charm and appeal.
Take Cartersville, for example, the first stop in northwest Georgia on I-75 headed north – about half an hour from Atlanta in light traffic, rare as that would be. Despite its relatively close connection to the bigger city, Cartersville has a diverse economy.
“Bartow County is in a unique position,” says Kay Read, president and CEO of the Cartersville-Bartow Cham-ber of Commerce. “It’s the target of growth, and has been particularly over the past five to seven years. But it’s also able to control the growth in a positive way so it’s not overtaking the county.” She credits community leadership for smart growth and a land use plan.
She considers growth management to be possibly the biggest challenge to the region. “Northwest Georgia has become a whole lot of bedrooms,” she says. “That’s a huge burden if you don’t have a business and industrial base to support that. We do have a strong industrial base. What we have is a great mix of housing and industrial opportunities.”
The Booth Western Art Museum is expanding. Another attraction is being added, the Tellus Museum, which will include science exhibits and a planetarium. Last year, voters approved a SPLOST renewal that will fund a $20 million civic and convention center. The coming year will see two new hotels open in Cartersville, both at the Main Street exit of I-75: a Fairfield Inn and a Hilton Garden Inn, Read says.
Access to I-75 isn’t quite as convenient for Polk County just to the west of Cartersville, but it will soon improve. Work is under way to widen Highway 113 to four lanes all the way from Rockmart through Bartow to I-75 at Red Top Mountain just south of Cartersville, says Polk County Chamber of Commerce President Karolyn Hutcheson. Improvements have already been made for other main routes – 278 and 27.
Polk also has added to its job base. The two large employers – Engineered Fa-brics Corp. in the old Good-year plant and The Hon Company, an office furniture manufacturer – expanded last year, adding a total of about 400 jobs, Hutcheson says.
Just south of Polk and also bordering Alabama is Haralson County, home of Bremen, Buchanan, Tallapoosa and Waco. Haralson is continuing to benefit from the growth of two major employers, Honda Lock and Honda Precision Parts, says Jennie English, president of the Haralson County Chamber of Commerce.
Another major development is under way in Haralson. The World Children’s Center will include homes, schools, healthcare and recreational facilities for 500 children from around the world who have lost their parents. The center will employ hundreds of people at a 710-acre facility. “The most important thing about it is the value it adds to the lives of children,” English says.
To the north of Haralson and Polk, in Floyd County, the Floyd County College and Career Academy is under development, says Albert Hodge, president and CEO of the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce. The state has devoted $3.2 million to the charter high school.
The restoration trend for downtown Rome is continuing. Advanced Physical Therapy Co. has restored a building there as its headquarters for 17 locations around Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
“We have continued to have good, solid population growth,” Hodge says.
Heading back to I-75 and to the north is Gordon County, where Calhoun has been nicknamed “Chattlanta” as the central point in between the two larger cities. It’s a name that Gordon County Commission Chairman Alvin Long embraces with a laugh. “We’re 45 minutes from Atlanta and Chattanooga – depending on traffic,” he says. “We’ve got more interstate exits than any other county in the state of Georgia – five and we’re about to get a sixth.”
Just north of Calhoun is Whitfield County and Dalton. The “carpet capital of the world” is feeling the housing slump but working on diversification, says Melanie Suggs, director of economic development for the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce. Among the success stories: a Korean maker of glues and resins used in countertops and a manufacturer of door frames and auto parts for Japanese cars.
Like Dalton, neighboring Murray County to a large extent rises and falls on the fortunes of the global carpet industry. The three biggest employers are also the three biggest carpet makers: Mohawk, Shaw and Beaulieu, says Dinah Rowe, president of the Murray County Chamber of Commerce. There have been layoffs recently, although they are expected to be temporary, she says.
Meanwhile, Murray has experienced residential, retail and tourism growth, Rowe says. She and her husband live in an apartment above a law office in a renovated downtown building. It’s an easy walk to work at the chamber office as well as to the historic red brick courthouse.
Just north of Dalton on I-75 and just short of the Tennessee line is Ringgold, which has benefited from its bedroom location next to Chattanooga. “But,” says Joe Barger, 78, mayor of Ringgold since 1975, “now we’ve got to get jobs for all these people.”
Ringgold is courting industrial development and has upgraded its sewer infrastructure. But many residents commute to work in Chattanooga, Dalton or other nearby towns. Access to I-75 and quality schools have drawn residential development like a magnet. “It’s growing fast in this area,” Barger says. “It’s hard to keep up with the services.”
Walker, Dade and Chattooga counties have joined forces with the Northwest Georgia Joint Develop-ment Authority, whose slogan is “positioned to be the next big thing.”
The area is challenged to some extent because it’s a bit off the I-75 corridor. Unlike Ringgold, Dalton and Calhoun, which everyone must pass through on the way from Atlanta to Chattanooga, for example, “you have to want to get to Summerville,” jokes David Tidmore, executive director of the Chattooga County Chamber of Commerce. As a result, the I-75 counties are growing faster. But Chattooga has seen some residential growth with mini-farms because of relatively economical land prices, Tidmore says. Tourism has been boosted by a steam operated locomotive that makes trips from Chattanooga to Summerville, bringing visitors and helping support festivals.
But when it comes to tourists in northwest Georgia, Walker County has cornered the market. Walker County, Georgia – not Chattanooga – is home to the world famous Rock City, located on the Georgia side of Lookout Mountain. “Rock City was our small business of the year for 2007,” says Stacy Mauer, president of the Walker County Chamber of Commerce.
Mauer says the hot spot in Walker right now is Rock Spring, a centrally located unincorporated area. The chamber has moved its offices there. It’s also home to a new bank and a new mixed-use residential and retail development.
Dade County is courting retirees with a school tax break for residents over 65, says Trenton Better Home-town Manager Peter Cervelli, himself a retiree from New Jersey. “A lot of people have come up from Florida and bought land,” he says.
Ellijay is a popular spot for retirees, weekenders and telecommuters, says Mark Chastain, a Gilmer County Commissioner and owner of Chastain & Associates, a civil engineering and land surveying business. “In my business, I deal with people from all over the country who have invested in real estate here,” he says.
Accessibility is a challenge for Gilmer because of the surrounding mountains. So the county has invested $4.2 million to expand its airport and add more runway, Chastain says. Also, with its new $2.5 million library open, Ellijay has ambitious plans for its old library downtown. It will serve as a branch campus for Dalton College and State University. With $800,000 in local funds invested in the renovation, core curriculum classes are set to start in fall of 2008.