Walton County: Change Is On The Way

Revisiting small town charm in the face of rapid growth

It’s an ironic indicator of just how much things are changing in Walton County. Last year workmen collecting fill dirt for a new truck stop adjacent to Monroe’s bustling industrial park unearthed a series of unmarked graves.

The perfectly rectangular shaped patterns of oddly colored earth were all that remained of a family that lived in the area probably more than a century ago. The discovery brought construction to a halt while local officials figured out what to do.

“We decided we were going to do things the right way,” explains Nancy Kinsey, director of the Walton County Development Authority.

The right way meant calling in an archaeologist from the University of Georgia and trying to discover the identity of this long ago pioneer family – three adults and six children. When no one claimed the family, local officials reburied them in the city cemetery, giving them a final dignified resting place – away from the paving and rumbling heavy trucks rolling in and out of the park.

While land around here may have lain undisturbed for centuries, that’s no longer the case. Change is afoot in Walton County.

The residential growth that has surged outward from Metro Atlanta is now reaching this area. Locals seem a little startled by just how much traffic now clogs their roads – particularly the main Ga. Highway 78 corridor that runs from Monroe in the east to Loganville in the west.

“US 78 … is basically our only life blood,” explains Walton County Commission Chair Kevin Little. “It’s the only four-lane really. We’ve got a little bit of I-20 down on the lower end, but 78 moving eastward from Loganville is where you see the trends of increased retail, the shopping areas beginning to pop up.”

Growth is accelerating in the northern reaches of Walton from Loganville because of its proximity to Ga. 316 and its quick access to Gwinnett County and rest of the metro area.

Little says the county recently completed a master plan to meet its transportation needs, including road expansions, lane additions and intersection improvements.

“We are under the ARC [Atlanta Regional Commission] now and everything has to be programmed through them,” he adds. “So we will submit this transportation plan to be put into the model to evaluate what our proposals are and then we’ll just be waiting on funding.”

The locations of rooftops have been largely dictated by the realities of density. Walton County doesn’t provide sewer services to its county residents. So everyone outside the city is on septic, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Infrastructure is not an issue for us,” observes Morris Jordan, chairman of the Walton County Development Authority. “Unlike Gwinnett County, that put sewers everywhere, our density is restricted [to the cities] and I don’t see that changing.”

An expanding population is reality, however, and local leaders are looking to the future. The county buys water from the city of Monroe and holds a 25 percent stake in Newton County’s Varner Reservoir. While the county is able to meet its citizens’ current water needs, impending growth could make that difficult in coming years.

That’s why construction will soon begin on a new 1,500 acre reservoir near Social Circle in the southern end of the county. Once operational, the facility will produce more than 41 million gallons a day to meet the needs of what is expected to be a much larger local population.

“It’s not needed now, but it’s a 2050 and beyond water supply for Walton County and Oconee County,” Little says.



New Activity


An early outpost of the coming flood is the western part of Walton, where Loganville sits astride the county line with a third of the city in Gwinnett.

“We’ve got an awful lot of people moving here from DeKalb, Gwinnett and out of state,” says Loganville Chamber of Commerce President Betty McCullers. “And all of these people have helped us to get a lot of new business into town.”

McCullers says the city’s population is relatively small – just 8,400. Within the larger zip code, you can find a total of 20,000.

Due to those numbers, Loganville has added a number of new restaurants along with a new Wal-Mart and Home Depot. In competition, a big, new Ace hardware store has also set up shop here.

A quick check of car tags in the parking lot of the sprawling Wal-Mart distribution center in Monroe reveals that the nearly 1,000 workers here hail from all over north Georgia. Last year the facility added another 500,000 square feet in a dry goods center to complement its 500,000 square foot cold storage facility.

Nearby, other large companies such as Tucker Door and Angel Food Ministries also occupy sites and provide destinations for a seemingly endless stream of trucks pulling in from four-lane Ga. 78.

The county is seeking to expand its industrial base by adding different kinds of companies than the typical distribution center.

“There are a lot of large distribution centers that are continuing to look,” Kinsey says. “But there are also some large data centers out there, as well as a lot of life science projects that float around the South, that Walton County has competed on.”

All this activity has rejuvenated Monroe, bringing new retail such as Home Depot and a Wal-Mart SuperCenter, as well as the city’s first major chain restaurant – Applebee’s. While securing a family restaurant like this might not seem all that significant, it represented a major victory for the city in terms of attracting more retail.

Most chains bypassed the town because demographic estimates didn’t seem to support an expansion here. However, the restaurant broke regional records during its first months of operation.

“Now what’s happening is we’re hearing about folks like Longhorn and Starbucks and a lot of things are on the brink of coming,” says Monroe City Manager Julian Jackson. “We’ve always known we could support it, but we felt like if you live in Monroe and drive up and down the commercial corridor, every restaurant is just full.”

The activity also has sparked an increase in the number of small enterprises dotting the business landscape. New shops and restaurants are opening up in downtown Monroe and elsewhere in the county.

Walton County Chamber of Commerce President Teri Wommack says the county is preparing to launch new strategies to help local small businesses get off on surer footing. In fact, the county recently won an entrepreneur-friendly designation from the Georgia Department of Economic Development. That honor will allow Walton to seek grants to set up programs aimed at teaching business skills to would be entrepreneurs, she adds.

Local leaders see the Monroe-Walton County Airport’s recent expansion as a prime asset for economic development. In fact, the project received the 2006 General Aviation Project of the Year award from the American Association of Airport Executives.

With the help of $4.5 million in federal, state and local funds, Monroe extended the airport’s runway from 2,700 to 5,000 feet and constructed a parallel taxi way – enough to attract corporate jet traffic that had been landing in nearby Winder.

“We knew we were going to grow, but one of the pieces of the puzzle was our airport and to expand that runway just allows us to attract more corporate travel,” explains Monroe Mayor Greg Thompson.

The city is working with the state transportation department to build a new terminal at the airport and eventually lengthen the landing strip another 1,000 feet. Doing so will allow even bigger corporate jets to land there, Thompson adds.

Later this year a new hospital will replace the aging Walton Regional Medical Center. The $105 million facility is slated for construction on Highway 10, just across from The Home Depot, in an area that has become a hotbed for development recently, with retail and office springing up along the highway corridor.

“The new hospital represents a focus on patient service here,” says Brad Jones, vice president for operations for Health Management Associates, Inc. “Our current facility is older and has all the challenges of not being able to adjust to the more modern hospital technology and processes of delivery of care.”

A new Walton Regional will no doubt amplify the hospital’s already considerable impact on the local economy – $63 million according to 2004 figures.



Planned Approaches


Of course, not every section of Walton has been overwhelmed by new growth and, as far as Walton Grove Mayor Don Cannon is concerned, that’s good. Not that he’s opposed to seeing new residents and business in the small crossroads southeast of Loganville. But the lack of activity – so far – has afforded the city a chance to carefully plan the kind of growth it wants.

“The impact has not been really great on us at this point, except in our efforts to plan for it coming here,” Cannon says. “We are a small city that does not have a waste water system and that is something that we are working extremely hard to provide.”

Last year, Walton Grove asked the University of Georgia’s School of Environmental Design to step in and help with a formalized planning process. The school staged a series of planning sessions for officials and local residents that led to a document laying out a pattern and footprint for future development.

Locals decided they needed to install a sewer system to attract new business and residents – houses are currently on septic – and they wanted downtown storefronts to have a 19th century feel. That look will be reflected in two new projects slated to get under way in the city: A Waffle House will be serving up eggs and bacon to locals, while nearby an 11 acre mixed use development will feature offices fronting a development of single family homes.

Cannon says the city also is in the midst of developing the Walton Grove Parkway that “will help provide some growth areas as well as connect Highway 138 and 81 and different locations other than the crossroad we currently have.”

Perhaps no area of Walton faces more impending growth than tiny Social Circle in the south. Situated just off Interstate 20, the small town, with its carefully preserved historic downtown, is struggling with change. Locals already see it in the form of a 1.3 million-square-foot SOLO Cup Co. distribution plant that attracts a steady stream of big trucks to its gates.

To deal with the trucks, the city built the first leg of a bypass highway where Ga. 11 comes into town and runs east to connect with the industrial park.

“We’ve had tremendous traffic with 18-wheelers coming through town,” says Social Circle Mayor Jim Burgess. “We knew that if we were going to preserve the downtown area we needed to divert traffic away from our downtown.”

Work is scheduled to begin on the last 2.8 miles of the semi-circle. The $12.7 million project will also allow the city to channel industrial and commercial development along the road and away from the less developed southern end of town.

Just on the other side of I-20 in Newton County, Georgia Perimeter College has built a new campus expected to accommodate 5,000 students. Mixed use developments in the area – known as Mount Pleasant – are expected to follow, and that’s likely to spark even more interest in this small town.

In 10 years population figures will reach 15,000, before surging to more than 50,000 by 2037. That’s sobering news for officials charged with providing basic services such as education, because Social Circle is one of just a handful of city school systems.

“Word is getting out that we’re a pretty good place to live and that’s good news and bad news,” says Hal Dally, chairman of the Social Circle School Board and the Downtown Development Authority. “You like the people moving in. You like the recognition of having a quality lifestyle, but when you have to start funding the infrastructure and provide the facilities for the increased growth, it makes it tough.”

The board is already planning to build a new elementary school to complement a recently completed high school and middle school. The system has grown by more than 400 in just four years to reach 1,800 students.

“Having an independent school system is a big selling point for us,” Burgess says. “We’re small enough to operate somewhat like a private school is, with lots of hands on attention.”

To keep up with that population and perhaps help balance the tax base, Social Circle recently annexed a section of land to the south extending from Highway 11 to the Highway 278 exit on I-20, deep in Newton County. Property owners wanted to build mixed use developments, but weren’t able to do so because of county zoning regulations. They found a more receptive ear in Social Circle.

Newton commissioners weren’t so pleased with this intrusion into their county and took the city to court. Burgess expects a favorable settlement that will leave the expansion intact.

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that Social Circle, like the rest of Walton County is changing – and quickly.

“It used to be that you knew everyone who went up and down the road,” says Jamie Peterson, director of Social Circle’s Better Hometowns program. “Now we might have to wait five or 10 minutes to get out onto the highway at times. We still have just one traffic light in town, but that’s going to be changing before long.”



Walton County At-A-Glance



Population


(2006)


79,388



Municipalities


Monroe, 13,374; Loganville, 5,435; Social Circle, 3,379; Walnut Grove, 1,241; Good Hope, 210; Jersey, 163; Between, 148



Per Capita Income


(2005)


$21,785



Unemployment


(May 2007)


Walton County, 4.2 percent, Georgia 4.1 percent



Top 5 employers


Wal-Mart Distribution, 975; Walton Regional Medical Center, 355; Standridge Color Corp., 347; Leggett & Platt, 304; Goodyear Tire & Rubber, 237



Sources


Georgia Dept. of Labor,

U.S. Census Bureau, Walton County Development Authority



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