Hartwell/Hart County: Angling For Opportunity

A prime natural feature powers economic growth

Ruth and John Skelton, innkeepers at the historic Skelton House Bed and Breakfast, have watched the changing face of Hartwell and Hart County over the past decade.

“The first three or four years we got only corporate guests,” recalls Ruth, whose family has long owned the stately circa 1896 two story home just off the town square.

A few years ago, the production lines at local manufacturers were humming. Then the inn saw a steady stream of out of town travelers arriving for business. That was before the wave of layoffs and downsizing as business fled to low wage countries.

Since then the Skeltons have broadened their guest lists and their business just as Hart County has had to do in the face of a changing economy. They’ve contracted with the local school board to house visiting consultants and they play host to an out of town physician who visits periodically to practice. While most of the guests are here on business of one sort or another, there’s the beginnings of a tourist trade as well. For example, a group of women from Macon passes through twice a year on its way to South Carolina and stops for the night here. They’ve become regulars.

The Skeltons’ restaurant quality kitchen also offers catering for special events. These days, you have to create business where you can find it.

Located in Northeast Georgia, Hart is a rural county of rolling hills and woodlands, rich soil and a sparse population. It’s long been predominately rural and agricultural. Dairy farms once dotted the countryside, but nowadays poultry is the chief industry, representing almost half the county’s $200 million in agricultural production.

While textile and other manufacturing plants have provided higher paying jobs for the community, Hart hasn’t escaped the pressures and the pain of a changing global economy. Locals were shaken by the recent loss of more than 700 jobs at three local plants. In a county with a population of just 24,000, those losses hurt. In fact, they pushed the local unemployment rate up to 6.7 percent last August, compared to the Georgia average of 5.4 percent.

Springs Industries laid off 280 workers, while Tenneco Automotive-Monroe let go 127 from its strut and shock plant. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Products provided the biggest shock by letting go of 304 jobs when it closed its manufacturing facility in nearby Royston. Local startup Pharma Tech Industries provided some relief when it acquired the plant from J&J and retained 150 workers.

More bright news came with the relocation of TI Automotive to the recently opened Gateway Industrial Park just off Interstate 85. They just put 130 new employees to work making automobile gas tanks in a new 150,000-square-foot building.

“The downsizing by Tenneco was the one that shocked us the most because this TI Automotive is auto parts also,” says Bob Evans, director of economic development for the Hart County Industrial Development Authority. “TI makes gas tanks for BMW, but they’re making them out of plastic and Monroe is making shock absorbers out of steel. They say the price of Chinese steel is forcing them to go where the labor costs aren’t so much. So they’re moving to Mexico.”

As manufacturing has faded, Hart is turning more and more to its great natural resource as a source of economic growth. The county is dominated by 56,000-acre Lake Hartwell, which separates this northeast section of Georgia from South Carolina. Increasingly, this vast, man-made body of water is seen as an engine for jobs and economic development that simply can’t be outsourced.

County Commissioner Dan Reyen says that during 2003 -the last year for which he has figures -the lake attracted 13 million visitors. That’s a million more than popular Myrtle Beach in South Carolina drew during the same period.

“Tourism is big and important,” Reyen declares. “In a county where we just lost 750 jobs in the last nine months, we need anything we can get that’s going to generate economic activity.”

While they may be service jobs in the tourism industry as opposed to those on an assembly line, when it comes to a paycheck, he asks, “Do you really care where it comes from?”

Water Mark

Lake Hartwell has fully recovered from a drought that dropped water levels 14 feet below normal on its 962-mile shoreline. That period saw a drop in tourism and sales of lakefront lots and dealt a body blow to the local economy, officials say.

One 2001 study, Reyen says, found that every foot the water fell below normal cost the local area $135 million in lost economic activity. “The lake is a huge economic engine up here, but I don’t think Hart County is using it as much as it could,” he adds.

He and other leaders want to transform Lake Hartwell into a destination for those seeking the lifestyle and recreational amenities offered by a large body of water. In particular they want to make it home for the wide variety of fishing tournaments that bring hardcore anglers to bodies of water across America.

Officials crafted a plan to build a multipurpose recreational facility on the lake. It will include a mega ramp for launching large numbers of boats as well as stands for spectators sufficient to attract a major fishing tournament such as the Wal-Mart FLW Series.

“The economic impact comes from those ramps, and we’re hoping to attract the more lucrative fishing tournaments,” says Doug Cleveland, manager of the Hartwell branch of Pinnacle Bank and president of the Hart County Chamber of Commerce. “We already have a number of smaller tournaments that are held on the lake, but the major ones require multiple launch facilities.”

Locating the facility close to the city of Hartwell, officials hope, will assure that the influx of fishermen and their fans generates new business for everyone. In fact, Reyen notes, preliminary studies say it could bring in three to five new hotels and more than double the number of rooms in town.

The lake is also proving more attractive to those who want to stay either full- or part-time. Real estate sales are picking up as more and more people have come to see Lake Hartwell as an unspoiled alternative to the smaller, but busier and more congested Lake Lanier.

“We’ve had tremendous activity not only by people coming up here for primary residences but secondary homes as well,” says Tammy Mobley, owner and broker at Anchor All Realty and Mortgage, Inc. “You see people coming up to buy investment lots, too. They want to go ahead and make a purchase, work a couple of years trying to pay it off and then build later on.”

Mobley herself was attracted to Hartwell after growing weary of the busy water traffic on Lake Lanier where her parents owned a home. A lifelong Atlanta resident, she was at first a bit wary of moving so far away from the city – particularly to a town where she didn’t know anyone. In addition, there were already more than a dozen real estate offices in the area when she opened her own. Since then however, there has been business enough for everyone – particularly after the drought ended.

Many of the new arrivals are – like Mobley – from the Metro Atlanta counties of Gwinnett and DeKalb. An increasing number are also escaping busier areas where they already have second homes. “I grew up on Lanier and the overcrowdeness there and the water quality – or really lack of it – is what pushed me over to this lake,” she says.

Mobley first came looking for a lakefront lot during the drought years, but now she’s glad she took the plunge and bought in. Hartwell is more affordable than other more developed locations and you can get a bigger home for less, she says. Housing prices now range from a weekender for just $250,000 to $1 million on the upper end. The $400,000 home she bought four years ago would sell in today’s market for about $550,000 to $600,000, she estimates.

“Some people have homes elsewhere, maybe in the Carolinas or Florida, and they said maybe a central location would be good,” Mobley explains. “So they’re downsizing from a couple of different homes to one location while still traveling around.”

Approximately 17 percent of the county population is retirees, says Michele Dipert of the Hart County Chamber of Commerce.

“A lot of retirees are coming up here who maybe have gotten tired of other areas and want a little bit more calm and quiet,” she explains. “So we get a lot of people who are from the Atlanta area who decide to move up here.”

Unlike some other counties in North Georgia, Hart doesn’t have a regular season. The population doesn’t swell in the summer with part timers then drop as they return to homes in Florida or elsewhere.

Downtown Resurgence

The center of life in Hart County is in Hartwell, which has also been enjoying a resurgence of late. While a number of new businesses, including a Wal-Mart Supercenter, have sprung up on Highway 29 just outside town, new interest has been kindled in the historic downtown.

This area is in the midst of a spruce-up, via a $2.5-million streetscapes project that has brought new lights, greenery and other amenities to the town while hiding power lines and installing new gas mains. After the first of the year, the town will be investing another $1.5 million in local beautification.

The town is experiencing an unusually high turnover rate as old businesses close and new ones take their place, observes Pat Fritz, executive director of the Hartwell Downtown Development Authority.

“I think that’s part of the economic climate,” she says. “It was very static here for a number of years and everything kind of was very stable and you didn’t see a lot of turnover in the downtown, but [that changed] starting in 2000, and five years later we’re still looking at a very unstable economic climate in Northeast Georgia.”

Fritz hopes new development is a signal of better days to come -particularly in light of those 700 layoffs. One of the biggest new projects is the impending relocation of CVS Pharmacy to the square. An entire block will become a new 11,000-square-foot store coupled with a new parking lot.

While the move will stir development, locals admit to some trepidation regarding changes to the historic downtown. Long negotiations with the developer succeeded in saving a famous service station -Willie’s Pure Oil Station, which is on the national historic register, Fritz says. “It will be incorporated into the CVS property and be available to be leased,” she notes.

The pharmacy also agreed to allow the city to try to move a former movie theater that sits at the end of the purchased block. Made from a World War II era surplus Quonset hut, the low-slung building is one of only two such theaters still in existence -the other is in California. This one’s projectors went dark a number of years ago when it was occupied by an Ace Hardware Store.

City leaders also hope to begin redevelopment of the burned out Haley Building that has long been a local eyesore. “We’ve been trying for several years to get it into private hands to reconstruct,” says Mayor Matt Beasley. “We’ve had two bids for mixed use including commercial, perhaps restaurant type business downstairs and office facilities on the second or third floors -maybe with loft apartments.”

As this development begins to take shape, it will join three other buildings that feature retail at street level and office and residential above. Like many larger cities, Hartwell sees the city’s health linked to creation of a vibrant downtown area.

On Depot Street, just off the square, you can hear the twangy strains of music from the Bluegrass Express. Flanked by new restaurants and retail and even a professional office or two, the area is Hartwell’s closest approximation of nightlife.

Tammy Mobley says that one thing holding back more development is the area’s lack of a pouring license. Only the Cateechee Golf Club, which qualifies as a convention center, is permitted to serve liquor. In the meantime, establishments such as Rios Mexican Cafe on Depot have to make margaritas with wine, not tequila.

Categories: Northeast