Butts County: Unified Effort
Promoting Nature, History And Family Fun
Butts County is the epitome of Middle Georgia character – scrappy, rich in history and natural beauty, with a mix of locals and transplants working to make the best decisions for its future growth and economy.
Jackson, the county seat, feels far from the roar of Interstate 75 as it runs from Atlanta to Macon, and one senses an escape from the capital and its suburbs. “We call ourselves ‘the sweet secret in the heart of Georgia,’ and that’s why we want to build a wall around it,” jokes Frankie Willis, owner of Trucks Incorporated and Butts County Historical Society vice president and restoration director.
Willis is only half-joking; the county’s high tax rate has made it hard for Butts to compete with other “exurban” counties for residential growth. Leaders say they need taxes to pay for services that residents, who are increasingly relocating from more urban environs such as neighboring Henry County, have come to expect. Butts lacks a large industrial and commercial base to offset the cost of services such as fire protection, ambulance, animal control, parks, etc.
“Henry County has had an impact on Butts,” says County Operations Coordinator Michael Brewer. “Some think our taxes are extremely high for a county our size (population 23,500). But [Henry’s] demand on our services is extremely high.”
In time, the “leap frog” effect caused by commuters moving farther out to counties with lower millage rates like Monroe may be good for Butts. After years of building starter homes in Jackson, and with the new Griffin Technical College campus just outside the city, leaders are now planning for higher end housing.
It’s an impressive strategy: With surrounding counties having absorbed most of the single family growth, new residents will require services to create better jobs for Jackson High School and Griffin Tech students.
Irons In The Fire
Time seems to move a little slower in this part of the state, and whether these long-term solutions will survive the new wave of exurban growth is a hot topic among locals. The Georgia Department of Transportation has been instrumental in improving certain areas, but road construction has moved slowly. In response to increasing demands for infrastructure services, the cities of Jackson and Flovilla recently passed moratoriums on annexation. However, pressure from developers is intense.
But Butts County has other irons in the fire. It has water capacity to spare, and quality of life in abundance. There’s the beautiful Village at Indian Springs State Park (see story, page 80), High Falls State Park in Jenkinsburg, Dauset Trails Nature Center near Flovilla, Fresh Air Barbecue and Jackson Lake, which is planning a new marina.
The recently renovated courthouse on the square in Jackson beams tourism potential in every direction – high end restaurants and antiques shops are popping up in the town center, and the city has the property to build a deck to absorb the parking. The county’s parks and planned network of connecting trails are a marvel.
Most of all, there is new blood. “There’s a great new generation of Butts Countians, many of whom are transplants, who have fallen for Butts County, [and] see the potential for the county, and the story Indian Springs has to tell,” says Marshall Avett, publisher of the Jackson Progress-Argus. “And since we’re so far off the beaten path, it’s easier to get things done.”
Not always, though. This spring, rezoning for a proposed 3,000 unit subdivision sparked litigation – the Water & Sewer Authority is seeking to overturn the county commission’s rezoning ruling for the parcel. For the most part, however, leaders seem to be taking growth on their own terms, protecting potential tourism, retirement and convention possibilities as a partial salve to the increasing strain on services caused by residential growth.
Pathways To Education
Butts County finished its comprehensive plan in 2005, and last year Butts and Flovilla were named Signature Communities by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. A schools SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales and Use Tax) referendum passed in 2006 by 87 percent; and a massive, down to the wire $500,000-plus fund-raising effort for the Griffin Technology College Butts County Center in 2005 proved to be another significant unifier in this diverse county.
“That was a shining light that brought the whole community together,” says Brewer of the effort, which was necessary to secure a matching community development block grant from the state department of community affairs. “We raised the goal and are still getting money [a $200,000 One-Georgia grant, for example], so the building keeps getting bigger. The campus [in Griffin] is constrained by land, so we’re both high tech [fiber optic ready] and we have no constraints.” Brewer adds that he hopes the facility will make Butts more appealing to industries seeking a new home.
Butts has another edge: the greenspace plan, a legacy of former Gov. Roy Barnes’ effort to encourage local investment in greenspace with matching funds. In 2004, the County Parks and Recreation Department used the funds to purchase 5.7 acres in Jackson to complete a “Pathway of Learning” to be developed in partnership with the city, schools, private developers and local businesses. The path would connect Jackson High School, Henderson Middle School, the library, fairgrounds, athletic facility and Jackson Elementary School, among other destinations, with trails adjacent to the square.
“There is an excellent joint use agreement between the schools and parks,” says Parks and Recreation Director Jim Herbert, who helped develop the county’s new Pathway project. “Through use of their gymnasiums, we are maximizing the use of our resources.”
“Our summer schools program, which we do in conjunction with the parks and rec department, is one of the top in the state,” adds School Superintendent Lynda White. Two new schools are currently under construction using SPLOST funds, with a third on the way, she says.
“Currently our capacity for [elementary school] students is around 600,” White says, “and the new schools will raise our capacity to 1,000, with room to grow.”
Butts County’s quality of life also benefits from other local efforts to reach out to children. The library system received a grant recently from the Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy, which provides free books and literacy initiatives for children up to grade 5; and field trips to Indian Springs have proven a popular way to excite kids about learning.
The Butts County Arts Council and church groups have further boosted civic engagement. “There’s been a reawakening of the arts in Butts County,” Brewer says. “Our community has a long history of volunteerism and can-do-it-iveness,” adds Janie Carmichael, former schools superintendent.
Another economic strong suit is the health community: Butts’ 25-bed Sylvan Grove Hospital has an impressive track record and is looking to grow. “We see patients from nine counties,” says Sylvan Administrator Edward Whitehouse.
The work of Sylvan’s staff has received national attention. One Sylvan patient was recently featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Surgery Saved My Life,” Whitehouse reports, and therapist Savannah Reeves was flown to Dallas, where she received Tenet Healthcare’s Caregiver of the Year for 2006.
Other efforts to boost the local infrastructure are afoot. To address traffic, Butts has joined forces with neighboring Jones and Monroe Counties to create a Multi-County Transportation Plan. “We’re trying a regional effort to learn from mistakes that have been made,” says the county’s Community Dev-elopment Director Stephen Lease, who also sits on the Rural Development Council Board of Directors along with Flovilla Mayor Harvey Norris, who says the cooperation helps.
“Highways 36, 16, and 42 all dead end downtown,” says Jackson Mayor Charlie Brown. “There’s talk about relocating State Route 36 to move traffic better through town, with one way pairs just like in McDonough and Zebulon. When that happens, there will be a lot of redevelopment. It won’t divert traffic but it will make it easier for trucks to get through. Homes down the stretch will turn commercial, and help us a lot.”
Either way, the county seat is changing fast as the agricultural community continues to dwindle in presence. “We pray a lot,” Brown says.
Some county leaders are seeking urban solutions to offset the traffic. “Highway 16 will be expanded to four lanes from I-75 to Jackson, and the area around the ramps is currently all zoned commercial,” Lease notes. “But we now think the I-75/Highway 16 area is more appropriate for higher density that would allow for mixed use.”
“We’ll stay at half-acre lot sizes,” Brown says. “Our concern today is not the size of the lot, but the size of the homes. We’ve had very aggressive zoning for starter homes in the $100,000 to $120,000 range, and apartments, townhomes, and condos; even high density – four [homes] to an acre – any kind of housing you want in city. Now, we’re changing gears, to attract higher end homes priced at $200,000 and up. We want to slow down subdivision growth. We don’t want six or seven subdivisions and the city full – or 25 percent of a dozen subdivisions full. If we land one big name, the rest will fall like dominoes. For it to really take off, the development needs to pay the way.”
“The county is working on financing the shortfalls [of rapid residential development]. We’re [developing] impact fees and updating our regulations to address aesthetic issues. Some of the developments we’ve had come in the past are not exactly what we anticipated [in terms of zoning outcomes],” Lease says.
Jackson has five new major subdivisions and recently placed a moratorium on annexations to allow time to rebuild sewer lines. “It isn’t so much strain, but you have to look at the lack of commercial and industrial development. We’re trying to protect our water and sewer supply,” Brown says.
With three plants, the Butts County Water Authority has 4 million gallons of capacity a day (permitting is approved to expand to 10 million; two additional plants are in reserve and can be brought online as needed). Current water usage hovers around 2.2 million. And while 90 percent of the county is served by county water, the county does not provide residential sewer service. It does, however, serve both industrial parks and the undeveloped interchange at exit 205 on I-75. “Ours isn’t a problem of capacity – it’s infrastructure,” Brown says.
Mayor Norris says growth is also coming to Flovilla, which just saw a 63-home subdivision created near the city limits. “We’d like to have people develop in stages – some residential, some commercial,” he says. “They all want residential first; but then we’ll have to pay.”
Change is also coming to Jackson Lake, a popular retreat just east of the city. “Atlantans with second homes on the lake are now rebuilding them as their retirement homes,” Brewer says. “All the fishing shacks are disappearing and being replaced by high dollar homes.” Many of the residents, he adds, are “halfbacks,” people who relocated to Florida from the northeast and have now moved “halfway back home,” landing in Georgia.
To lessen the impact of lakefront turnover, the Jackson Lake Homeowner Association was formed – allowing Newton, Jasper and Butts Counties, to work closely with Georgia Power to guide redevelopment. “They have quarterly meetings,” Brewer says.
“Runoff, buffer and stormwater quality are the biggest issues. It brings a lot of people together,” says Historical Society President and lakeside homeowner Sheri Hudson. “My 401(k) is my lake property!”
The Edge Of A Good Thing
In terms of industrial potential, Butts has two exits on I-75 (a third is under consideration); and there is room for spillover warehouse growth coming down from Henry. “We’ve got 298 acres of land on Riverview Business Park 36 (near I-75), with some left at our South Industrial Park on Highway 42, which is served by rail,” Brewer says.
Tenants at South Industrial include cabinet maker American Woodmark, which has grown three times since 1995, and Toga Manufacturing, Inc., which makes stainless steel products. Tenants at Riverview include Ready Pac (a prepackaged salad company) and the logistics center for Auscat LLC, an Australian products catalog company. “We also have the private Midway Industrial Park, with a million square feet available for warehousing and logistics,” Lease says. The park is still under development, awaiting Highway 16 improvements, but is expected to open this October.
“Interstate 75 is the busiest corridor going into Florida,” says David Lyons, executive director of the Butts County Industrial Development Authority, which owns 299 acres of land at the intersection of I-75 and Highway 36. “There’s not that many big pieces of land left on 75. There have been different estimates, but one predicted that eight different buildings on the site could create up to 1,200 jobs.”
The property is so big, in fact, that Butts has banded with the Lamar and Monroe County IDAs to market the site to a private developer.
“We think industry is more appropriate for outside the city limits – we’re more interested in becoming a commercial hub,” Brown says. Since refurbishing the square and courthouse, the city is now moving outward in the next phase of streetscaping and façade renovation. Brown says there also is a 300-acre tract in private hands that he hopes will become a mixed use development with a grocery store in Jackson.
However Butts County grows in the next several years, it will always be Butts County. WJGA, the same radio station that raised the money for Butts’ Griffin Tech campus, campaigned to change the county name several years ago, but was overruled by locals proud of the history and legacy of Capt. Samuel Butts, a member of the Georgia Militia who perished at the hands of the Creeks in the War of 1812.
“We’re on the edge of a good thing,” Willis says. “If we can plan better, tourism can become a resource to improve our employable population. The timing is right for us to unify our marketing efforts – nature, history, and family fun – to create a clean industry: tourism.”
Butts County At-A-Glance
Unemployment (Feb. 2007)
Georgia, 4.4 percent
Per Capita Income (2004)
Top Five Non-Public Employers
American Woodmark, 625; Williams Brothers Lumber, 350; Trucks Incorporated, 350; Ready Pac, 225; Scott Hyponex, 125
Butts County Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Dept. of Labor, Georgia Dept. of Community Affairs