Jasper/Pickens County: In The Path Of Growth
Updating infrastructure, seeking knowledge-based business
About an hour north of Atlanta, I-575 becomes Highway 515 and the mountains begin. Here lies Pickens County, an area that’s looking south as it plans for the growth racing up the interstate. County officials recognize the challenges they face in dealing with the population surge and are working to ensure quality growth.
That means luring new business to help round out the tax base, and that’s a problem for Pickens, which suffers from a lack of sewer and water. “It’s hard to bring new industry when you don’t have the infrastructure,” says Pickens County Chamber of Commerce Executive President Denise Duncan.
But relief may be in sight. “We’re working with three other counties to form a water authority,” says Pickens County Sole Commissioner Robert Jones. “Our infrastructure is pretty lax. We haven’t had the time or money for it.”
The county has developed an Infrastructure Task Force, which includes retired engineers living in the area, to address the community’s needs, specifically a waste treatment facility. Other infrastructure requirements are being addressed as well. In 2005 Pickens implemented its first zoning. Upgrades to fire protection in 2007 included hiring three firefighters, the county’s first fulltimers.
In addition, a comprehensive plan, which will set forth Pickens’ longterm vision and a plan for its implementation, is due to be completed in June 2008.
Jasper, the Pickens County seat, offers sewer and water lines not currently available in the county. “We’ve been very active in the development of the 515 corridor,” says Jasper Mayor John Weaver. “We annexed the area and put in sewer and water.”
And therein lies the tradeoff for big box stores or other businesses moving into the area: They must agree to annexation of their land into the city limits to receive sewer service.
The concept of annexation hasn’t stopped Wal-Mart, which has purchased land along 515 north of the Highway 53 intersection. The company is addressing some environmental issues, Weaver says, but the plan is on track. “A lot of people don’t want box stores in the county,” he explains. “But as an elected official, I don’t want to see money going out of the county.”
Weaver maintains that the money these stores bring in allows the construction and upgrading of recreation facilities and helps pay for fire and police protection.
Downtown Jasper sits about two miles east of Highway 515 just off Highway 53. This location off the main drag (515) has allowed downtown to retain its small-town charm, which lends itself to a traditional celebration of the city’s 150th anniversary this year. “Jasper was chartered in 1857 as the county seat,” Weaver says. Events include a music festival July 19, Jasper night at the Rome Braves baseball game August 4 and an old-time fair on Main Street in September featuring music, fireworks and a street dance.
Also located on 515, south of Highway 53 and within the Jasper city limits, is Piedmont Mountainside Hospital, the largest private employer in Pickens County – and a nonprofit hospital, about which Weaver confesses he has mixed feelings. On one hand, the city misses the tax revenue of the former occupant, a for-profit hospital. On the other, Weaver admits the Piedmont name means a lot to the area.
Piedmont Healthcare had been looking for opportunities to grow beyond Metro Atlanta, when Pickens General Hospital came available. Piedmont paid $40 million for the facility in June 2004.
“Piedmont came in with excitement and enthusiasm, with a new strategy for its first acquisition,” says Ed Lovern, CEO of Piedmont Mountainside. “I think we’ve been really successful. We’ve created a level of excitement within the community and staff about Piedmont offering a higher level of care.”
The hospital has put money behind its promise of excellent healthcare, with an $8 million investment in new equipment, including a 16-slice CT scan, new technology in the operating rooms and upgraded information systems in radiology, laboratory and pharmacy. The information systems upgrade led to Piedmont Mountainside being named among the nation’s 25 most improved hospitals in 2006 by Most Wired magazine, a publication of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives.
“We’ve seen dramatic growth in the use of our services,” Lovern says. From 2004 to 2006, admissions increased more than 60 percent, surgeries rose 33 percent and the number of newborn deliveries jumped 60 percent. Lovern views this as a stamp of approval from the people of Pickens County and the surrounding area.
While the hospital building is only four years old, the increase in patients means Piedmont is already outgrowing the space. “We began construction last year on a $9.1 million expansion project that will add 20 percent to our inpatient capacity,” Lovern says. The hospital will boost the number of beds from 40 to 48. In addition, the project will enhance radiology services and expand the emergency department. It also is possible to build a third floor on the now two-story building, but Lovern says officials are waiting to see how the current, relatively modest expansion goes before considering a new floor.
He acknowledges officials’ concerns about the loss of tax revenue, but points out that Piedmont offers community education programs and takes care of uninsured patients. In fact, Lovern says, they are “being clobbered” by uninsured patients.
The previous owners showed less than $600,000 in annual uncompensated care, while Piedmont’s most recent figure was $4 million. “We’ve held ourselves out as taking care of people who can’t pay.” The hospital also has developed a relationship with the county indigent care clinic; Lovern sits on its board.
The hospital’s stated commitment to being one of the nation’s best seems to be more than just talk. The Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals named Piedmont Mountainside Small Hospital of the Year in 2006.
The Piedmont name is one of a slew of attractions drawing people to the area. Devereaux Designs, a small business that manufactures fiberglass columns, moved to Pickens County from Cherokee County in January. “It’s affordable,” Sherry Devereaux says. She and her husband Tom own the company and daughter Rebecca works with them. “You can’t buy a building and land like this in Canton.”
The Devereauxs bought manufacturing space in the Pickens County Industrial Park. With 16 employees, Tom says – including four new local hires – the company ships columns and other decorative items all over the country for new banks and new homes and also for renovations. “We’ve had no problems. Everything’s real nice,” Sherry pauses and smiles. “Except you can’t find inkjet cartridges. There’s no office supply store. We should open one here.” After a few minutes of watching busy operations at the million-dollar company, an observer would likely conclude that she doesn’t have time.
“We expect to go to $2 million in Jasper. We have more room, and we’re looking to expand sales,” Sherry says. She and her family plan to relocate from Canton, to be closer to the business and the friendly, laid-back people. “We really like Jasper,” she adds. “So far, it hasn’t done anything wrong.”
Economic Development Director Larry Toney worked with the Devereauxs to find just the right property. With the projected population growth for Pickens County, he anticipates many other business people to work with as well.
Pickens County was home to 30,859 people in 2006, Toney says. The Regional Development Center projects 62,000 in 2025 and 165,000 in 2050. “Looking at Cherokee County, I became a believer,” Toney says. “We’re in the path of population growth. I’m one of the luckiest economic development directors in the state.”
Part of the boom can be attributed to Big Canoe, an 8,000-acre residential development that straddles the Pickens-Dawson county line. Founded in 1972, Big Canoe now encompasses 2,300 homes and estimates build-out at 4,750 homes.
“We try to let the market drive us and what we build,” says Mike Rhodes, vice president of sales for Big Canoe Co. In response to market conditions, Big Canoe has just opened Choctaw Village, featuring cottage-style homes starting in the low $400s and mountain-style homes starting in the mid $500s. In addition, lots for custom homes have been selling in The Bluffs at Ridgeview, featuring 53 homesites with long-range views, some of the Atlanta skyline.
Future development at Big Canoe includes the Potts Mountain area, a change from previous neighborhoods within the community. Potts Mountain will be outside the gates of Big Canoe and completely within Pickens County, Rhodes says. The neighborhood will feature a live-work community, with businesses downstairs, living space above and a traditional town center.
While much of the rest of the state and even the country has been experiencing a slowing housing market, the downturn hasn’t made it up the mountains to Big Canoe. “The last two years have been the best years we’ve had, and this year started off great,” Rhodes says. Between 260 and 300 real estate transactions occurred at Big Canoe in 2006, including 100 new homes and more than $80 million in total sales revenue.
Big Canoe has been able to continue development because the community maintains much of its own infrastructure, including water, sewer, fire department and animal rescue.
For those Big Canoe residents who can’t imagine ever leaving or who have aging parents they’d like to bring close by, a continuing care retirement community is in the planning stages, Toney says.
“The county is very happy to have Big Canoe here,” Toney says. “Its citizens pour out of the mountain to help with county ventures and work in philanthropic efforts.”
The demographics of Big Canoe and other new developments in the area are changing. Until recently most of the new homes were being bought as second homes. Now more than 50 percent of Big Canoe’s residents are fulltime and many have children, which means changes to the schools.
“The school system isn’t growing as fast as the general population,” Pickens County School System Superintendent Mike Ballew says. “But we have 90 to 100 new students per year.” The school system serves 4,300 students, with seven schools and more than 350 teachers.
“We’re getting ready to add classroom space to the high school,” Ballew says. Plans call for a new fine arts building and a new gym. “We have good people who care about education. Education is important to the citizens of Pickens County.”
Education is important to Toney, too, as he tries to lure “knowledge-based businesses” to Pickens. “We see ourselves as a bedroom community, which will attract commercial growth. My role is to attract nonresidential, noncommercial industries.”
Currently under development is Airport Technology Park, which Toney hopes will become home to knowledge-based businesses. The park will occupy 68 acres adjacent to the airport, which is being expanded and modernized to the tune of $17 million over the next seven to 10 years, he says.
“We aspire to be the home of quality growth,” Toney says. “Growth for growth’s sake doesn’t mean anything.”
County, 28,442; Jasper, 2,700; Nelson*, 600; Talking Rock, 46
Pickens County, 3.5 percent; Georgia, 4.1 percent
Pickens County Schools, 720; Piedmont Mountainside Hospital, 377; Pickens County Government, 310;
Lexington Insulators, 280;
Big Canoe Property Owners Association, 170
Pickens County Economic Development Office, Piedmont Mountainside Hospital, U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia Dept. of Labor
* Total population; Nelson straddles Pickens and Cherokee counties