Henry County: Surging Ahead
Industrial and retail developments are on the way
South of the sprawling Metro Atlanta area, Henry County is a community on the verge of change. Once rural and secluded, it’s being dragged — sometimes unwillingly — into urbanization, with all the problems and promises that rapid development entails.
From the slow moving traffic that clogs its many two lane roads to an army of new industrial buildings erected by optimistic developers, the fast growing county is on the cusp of a new surge of business — both industrial and retail.
Henry County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kay Pippin is direct about the attractions her county holds for the thousands who have moved here to live and to open new businesses.
“One of those is obviously location, location, location,” she declares. “We have eight exits on interstate highways including seven on I-75 — one of the busiest corridors in America. Plus, we have an exit off [Interstate] 675 as well. As the crow flies from our county courthouse to the southernmost runway at Hartsfield is less than 15 miles. We are very convenient [if] you are looking for a suburban community to live in and commute downtown for employment.”
The number of new rooftops sprouting on the Henry landscape has been growing at a dizzying pace for the past several years. Henry, currently fourth in the nation in new housing starts, has snagged the number one spot more than once.
An increasing number of people with money in their pockets agree with Pippin’s view of Henry County. Its industrial parks are filling up with distribution centers from which trucks come and go carrying loads of freight of every sort.
Sitting astride both interstate highways and rail lines, Henry has long been attractive to companies seeking locations for distribution warehouses. Firms as diverse as Ford, The Sports Authority, Tyco Healthcare and Ken’s Steakhouse occupy massive logistical facilities. New arrivals include The Home Depot, which came looking for 1 million square feet under one roof, and found it in Henry. Easy access by rail and highway to the bustling Port of Savannah made Henry a perfect location. The prospect of more companies moving in to serve the thriving Southeast has also led to the building of a host of new warehouses in parks near I-75.
The county has nearly 5 million square feet of new warehouse space and another 1 million square feet in second generation space that has come available, says Bob White, executive director of the Henry County Economic Development Authority.
”The fact that developers are willing to build so many spec buildings is a good indication that the economy is returning to a healthy level of activity,” he says.
Local officials hope that by attracting more business and industry they can stem the daily tide of more than 70 percent of the working population that leaves for jobs in other parts of Metro Atlanta.
Along with more industry, Henry also is attracting its share of retail. In fact, there’s probably no better example of Henry’s entrance into the ranks of the urban metro than the mixed-use development now taking shape just across I-75 on Bruton Smith Parkway near McDonough.
When complete, South Point is expected to offer nearly 700,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, 500,000 square feet of office and 1,000 residential units. Groundbreaking and site clearing for the retail component began this summer. Developers expect to complete the buildout by 2007.
The project, a regional retail center that would serve nearly half a million people, is projected to earn about $171 million in annual sales, according to builder North American Properties, Inc. It will serve an area including Hampton, Stockbridge, McDonough and Locust Grove as well as communities in Fayette, Clayton, Spalding and Butts Counties.
The company selected McDonough for its rapid growth and its accessibility to Ga. Highways 81 and 20 and Interstate 75. In the last decade, Henry transformed itself into a desirable address for executive living with average new home sale prices topping $200,000 in subdivisions like Eagle’s Brooke, Heron Bay and Crystal Lake Plantation.
South Point sits along Ga. 20, newly widened to four lanes, which local officials say is becoming the gateway to one of the county’s biggest attractions — the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton. This sprawling 870-acre complex of buildings, luxury condos and grandstands fronting a 1.54-mile quad-oval track is a magnet drawing thousands of fans annually to watch the speed and thunder of high-octane racers.
Anticipating rapid growth along this stretch of road, the county has moved to set standards for the look and feel of development along Ga. 20. “We’ve been trying to develop this design overlay district to put in some access management principles and some aesthetic standards as far as the different facade, roof pitches and colors and landscaping,” explains Stacey Jordan, executive assistant to the Henry County Commission for planning and economic development.
These rules govern four distinct areas with different kinds of development. The area around I-75 and South Point will permit heavier, more urban development with walking paths and street designs that encourage walking. The plan emphasizes landscaping along the road, coupled with a 10-foot-wide jogging and bike path.
Development along the highway between McDonough and Hampton will seek to retain the area’s rural character, with buildings set back from the street. But where the road nears the Speedway, the look will become more reminiscent of downtown Hampton with structures sporting masonry materials and a more urban feel.
While the Speedway lies partially within the Hampton city limits, the thousands of race fans haven’t brought much economic prosperity to the community. Local leaders hope that the South Point development will spark new business farther west. So far that hasn’t happened.
“We have nothing new going on as far as development; as far as houses we have a lot going on,” says Mayor R.W. Coley. “Our biggest problem right now is getting more sewage for Hampton.”
Two large subdivisions and a number of smaller ones are under construction and people are flocking to find good homes at reasonable prices. Yet, when it comes to business, residents are still waiting for the local job market to catch fire. The city must decide soon whether it’s worth the cost to build new water and sewage plants or contract for the services with Henry County. The crush of new residents is already placing a strain on the infrastructure here as it has elsewhere.
Hampton has high hopes for its downtown area. Later this year, a new Streetscapes project gets under way to freshen up the city center and perhaps make it more attractive for new business.
For small town shops, a large commercial mall with plenty of parking and national chain stores can be a death knell. In order to prosper, says Wayne Sisco, president of real estate firm New Urban Solutions, the city has to develop the right kind of business to attract the new influx of residents.
“We can’t compete with commercial centers that are in place and that are coming; but we can be a very attractive oasis of residential development with some pedestrian-scale shops,” says Sisco, who also chairs the Hampton Downtown Development Authority.
Sisco envisions downtown Hampton streets lined with one-of-a-kind shops topped by newly renovated loft apartments. He points out that the 20-unit Hampton Lofts, which occupies a converted sewing mill, is sold out. Other historic buildings are on the market, awaiting the right investors to convert them to more productive uses.
”I think the overwhelming use of downtown Hampton should be residential,” Sisco says. “Right now you’ve got about 30 people living downtown, which is 30 more than there were six years ago.”
He sees a number of people who visit and “kick the tires and get excited and talk a good line but then they go away. In terms of the real mixed use players and in terms of the real mixed use live/work scenarios, there is not a lot of that out there, I don’t believe.”
Small Town Experience
On the eastern side of I-75, McDonough is gearing up to become the epicenter of new growth. City fathers annexed land to the west and then worked diligently to snare South Point as the first truly regional retail center on the south side.
A large auto dealership has relocated to the area along with a bank and smaller businesses, while residential development is also getting started nearby. While most officials beam when they talk about the work, some, like McDonough Mayor Bill Copeland, wonder about the long-term effects of such fast growth.
“I am kind of troubled by that aspect of it because I am just not sure that our new citizens will participate in our community here like you would if you lived in the core of the town,” Copeland worries. “They will get on 75, go to Atlanta and go south to Macon; and I don’t know whether they will ever experience small town America or not, and that is troubling to me.”
As an historic city, McDonough is working hard to maintain its small town look and feel. The downtown area is under development with new shops and restaurants opening alongside the area’s traditional complement of antiques shops. The city recently launched wireless Internet access throughout a two-block area of downtown.
Farther south on I-75, the little town of Locust Grove is getting ready not to be so little any more. Tanger Outlet Mall, which sits within sight of the interstate, draws more than 4 million shoppers a year.
While most visitors never drive the short distance down Bill Gardner Parkway to the city center, more and more people are finding it a good place to live.
In the last seven years, the city has grown from 2,322 to more than 5,000 today with the population expected to reach 18,000 in the next five years. By 2025 it will be boasting a whopping 46,000 residents, says longtime Mayor Lorene Lindsey.
As people flock here, the town wants to make sure it doesn’t lose its small town look and feel and is getting ready to spruce up its own downtown with a $500,000 grant.
”We’ll use this grant to do the facades [of buildings], put in some new sidewalks, new streetscape is what we are looking at,” Lindsey says. “We are going to restore Locust Grove and make it a nice little, comfortable looking homey town.”
The mayor says her primary goal is to lure industry to town that will keep more residents within the county rather than commuting to jobs in other areas. Right now, Henry’s biggest employers are education and medicine. The school system has expanded dramatically to accommodate a growing number of students.
At the county’s northern end, the city of Stockbridge is poised to engage in a decidedly urban approach to growth — up, rather than out. Local officials are trying to launch a public/private redevelopment effort downtown that includes a new city hall, a parking deck and a host of new three and four-story buildings with retail at street level and offices and residential above.
The project, which was held up earlier this year by a property owner’s lawsuit, is long overdue, city officials say.
“I wouldn’t say it is a slum area, because that is a bad word, but it had gone without any upkeep mostly for a lot of years and it really had gotten kind of run down,” says Mayor R.G. Kelley. “It looked bad, there wasn’t anything going on with it and so we think if we get this going that it will help the downtown area because the downtown area of Stockbridge is pretty well dead.”
He hopes the new city facilities will spur developers to construct three and four-story buildings — the city’s first taste of vertical growth — and that will in turn attract new business and more residents to the stagnant downtown core.
The city already has bonds in place to build the public portion of the project and they hope to soon get the private section moving as well.
In the meantime, growth continues to accelerate as the city’s population has soared from 3,359 in 1993 to more than 20,510 in 2005. Those numbers should reach nearly 70,000 by 2030, says city manger Ted Strickland.
As part of an industry often immune to economic ups and downs, Henry Medical Center has been the catalyst for a rapid expansion of health care. Since its founding in 1979 as a 99-bed community hospital, it has boosted its in-patient capacity to 215.
The recently completed 220,000-square-foot, five-story north tower expansion will house a new, comprehensive Women and Children’s Center including labor and delivery, a well baby nursery, neonatal intensive care services, pediatrics as well as general wellness and diagnostics to provide a continuum of care for women — all in one place.
The expansion will ease conditions for a hospital that seems to have every bed filled. “We have been above capacity for so long now it almost seems like it is routine. Our census is usually, on a daily basis, up to 150 to 160 patients and we’ve done a lot of different things in our current space to try to add rooms and add spaces to put patients,” says Donna Braddy, director of marketing and public relations.
Because of the hospital’s growth, the local physician community has expanded, with nearly 500 doctors on staff. “More physicians have been attracted and we have virtually every specialty with the exception of cardiac surgery, because we don’t do open heart surgery; but most all of the other specialties are represented on our staff,” explains Dr. Joseph Blissit, M.D., the medical center’s acting president and CEO.
Much like the county at large, Henry Medical is seeing the effects of fast and seemingly unending growth. As Metro Atlanta’s population expands in search of affordable housing and a less crowded lifestyle, Henry County is on the radar.
Henry County At-A-Glance
Municipalities: Stockbridge, 20,510; McDonough, 15,523; Locust Grove, 5,000; Hampton, 4,743
Unemployment: 4.3 percent; Georgia: 5.1 percent (July 2006)
Per Capita Income: $30,106
Top Employers: Henry County Board of Education, 3,784; Henry Medical Center, 1,287; Henry County Government, 1,260; SunTrust Service Corporation, 700; Federal Aviation Administration, 533; Wal-Mart Stores, 500; Snapper Power Equipment, 457
Sources: City of Stockbridge, Henry County Chamber of Commerce, Henry County Development Authority, Georgia Department of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau.