Dawsonville/Dawson County: Racing Toward Prosperity

New life, new growth, new challenges

Internal combustion has been the definitive way of life in Dawson County for more than half a century.

First it was the rumrunners, cool-headed drivers steering Fords and Chevys and Dodges on a mad dash across dirt tracks through a gauntlet of trees and lawmen. They risked everything to transport homemade liquor, and invented stock car racing in the process.

Today’s speedsters aren’t as cool-headed, generally speaking, as they race up and down busy Georgia 400, commuters driving to and from their $400,000 foothill or lake homes, or to Dawsonville’s North Georgia Premium Outlets.

All these people are sparking another kind of internal combustion, the explosive growth that has taken hold in this semirural community 60 miles north of Atlanta, where the population (about 20,000) has more than doubled since 1990. The racing and moonshine, however, have all but disappeared.

“Racing has just about gone,” says Ernie Elliott, older brother of NASCAR superstar Bill Elliott, whose family is the nearest thing there is to racing royalty. Ernie, one of the top engine builders in NASCAR, owns and operates Ernie Elliott, Inc. in Dawsonville.

“One thing I’m really proud of is, they can talk about Charlotte [as a major racing hotbed], but right here in Dawsonville we have basically won it all,” says Ernie, former crew chief for Bill. “We’ve won 34, 35 races from out of here, Busch races, truck series races, the Cup championship, two Daytona 500s. There hasn’t been much in NASCAR that the people working out of this facility haven’t accomplished. If you’re from this area and you can’t look at all this and take pride in it, something is wrong.”

Dawsonville has tried to wear that pride on its sleeve for years. The famous Dawsonville Pool Room has long been a Mecca for racing fans, with its collection of motorsports memorabilia. A short sprint from the poolroom is the impressive edifice that once housed ThunderRoad USA, a $12 million motorsports museum that sputtered to bankruptcy after barely a year of operation. Backers had predicted about 250,000 visitors a year. It drew 48,000, and sank $10 million into debt.

“I think the timing was just wrong,” says Dawson County Chamber of Commerce President Linda Williams. “It opened months after 9/11. The economy was in awful shape and tourism was down.” Local funding also was cut. In the end, Williams says, hindsight is always better than foresight.

But there is new life at the building, with its gigantic blue and white Shelby racing hood for a roof. It is now Dawsonville City Hall. Elements of the museum remain. The lobby area still looks like a Dawsonville alley from the 1940s, right down to the faux oil-stained floors and bricks. A number of artifacts and photos are on display, and though the racing simulators and gift shop are long gone, the diner remains open and the building will continue to house the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.

“When we committed to buying the building [and six acres], we also committed to saving the Hall of Fame,” says Dawsonville Mayor Joe Lane Cox, who was once Dawson County’s sole commissioner and judge of the probate court.

Accordingly, whenever someone is inducted into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, his or her likeness will be on display at the museum.

The new city complex is a parcel of more than 35 acres. When ThunderRoad went into foreclosure, the property was purchased for $5.5 million by a local partnership calling itself Phoenix One, which also has possession of the 30-plus acres contiguous to the city complex. If all goes as planned, say Cox and Dawsonville Planning Director Steve Holder, that parcel will be transformed into a development.

With help from the Georgia Mountains Regional Development Center, the city has come up with zoning guidelines that will foster the growth of a mini-city, with townhomes, shops, greenspace. Meanwhile, the old ThunderRoad and its parking lot get regular use as a meeting place for local groups like the American Legion, a motorcycle school, monthly car shows and the annual Moonshine Festival.

The Path Of Progress

For the past decade or so, Dawson has appeared on the list of Georgia’s fastest growing counties. A short drive from Atlanta, Dawson has held fast to its rural appeal. Shaped like a giant Scotty dog, the county is flanked by Forsyth County to the south and Lake Lanier to the Southeast, where the wagging tail would be; and up by the eyes and ears is Amicalola Falls, the tallest waterfall in the east, plunging 729 feet in seven cascades. Mountains rule the northern part of the county, where the Appalachian Trail begins its 2,159-mile northward trek to Maine.

There’s that, and plenty more to protect, for the environmentally conscious in Dawson County, but the development up 400 is bound to change the landscape somewhat. “We can’t stop growth, we know that, but we don’t want to be a dumping ground, either,” says Lake Gibson, chairman of the Dawson County Development Authority. “We have too much natural beauty and a great quality of life. So we’re looking at the type of growth we want in Dawson County.”

Along those lines, the authority recently devised a set of goals for the immediate future: “We’re looking to bring more doctors, more medical facilities here, because there’s a real shortage,” Gibson says. “We want to hire a fulltime director of economic development, which we hope to do within the next few months, and we want to find a permanent home for the development authority.”

New residents are finding permanent homes in developments off and along 400, and the county is working on ways to meet the cost of infrastructure and service. Through September 2005, Dawson issued 508 building permits for houses, vs. 428 for the same period in 2004, and residential development is far outpacing commercial, which is supporting the skewed 80-20 residential to commercial tax base.

According to County Planning Director Lynn Tully, commercial development has increased as the county tries to move toward a more balanced tax base. Dawson just finished the first step in its long-range land use plan. It includes higher growth densities than ever before, concentrated mainly along the 400 corridor, with greenbelt buffers.

“This land use plan will be a Bible for us,” says Mike Berg, chairman of the county commission, a retired Georgia Power executive and former Gwinnett County commissioner. “It’s a derivation of a California plan, with phase-ins over five-year increments, defining areas appropriate for specific uses.”

To help alleviate costly growing pains and soften the burden on residents, the county is considering impact fees on new development. Berg has discussed creation of a 400-corridor tax allocation district (TAD), an idea that has worked well in Atlanta. TADs apply increased property taxes in a defined area to infrastructure projects within that area. “It’s one way to afford the infrastructure without taxing citizens who don’t live in that area,” Berg says.

Another way is the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), which Dawson County voters have approved four times, the last for $25.5 million. Most of that sales tax money will continue to be generated at the outlets, which had more than 5 million visitors last year. In past years, the outlets provided almost 90 percent of the county’s sales tax. It’s still pretty high, but Tom French, general manager of North Georgia Premium Outlets, won’t venture a guess.

“It’s still relatively high, but look at the growth in this area,” he says. “We’ve added a Home Depot, Kroger, Ingles, a number of restaurants. What I can tell you is we’re experiencing double digit increases in traffic this year.” Adding to the mix will be a Wal-Mart Supercenter, at a development across the street from the outlets, near the Home Depot.

Voters also have approved a $29 million ELOST (replace “education” for “special purpose”) to build two new schools for a system that adds 200 students a year on average.

The education buffet in Dawson has grown in other ways also. In 2005, Lanier Technical College opened a satellite campus in downtown Dawsonville, in an old middle school. Also in 2005, Southern Catholic College opened its doors to 72 students who make up the school’s first class of freshmen.

Originally scheduled to open in 2003, the private liberal arts college’s founders had purchased 300 acres to build a campus north of Dawsonville. But a sour economy and inherent fund raising difficulties forced them to dump that parcel in favor of a 100-acre piece of land adjoining Golf Creek Golf Club, where a former conference center serves as a college campus and student housing. The college has spent about $16 million getting to where it is today.

“What I’ve found is, our students were in search of an institution where they could get a good education within a spiritual environment,” says Southern Catholic’s President, Jerry Ashcroft, former president of East Georgia College and a 29-year veteran of the University System of Georgia.

Diverse Commercial Base

Ernie Elliott would like to see Dawson County position itself for growth in the motorsports, automobile or aerospace sectors. But he isn’t holding his breath. “I don’t think there’s a lot of interest in it, or understanding of the economic impact that could be gained by courting this type of industry,” he says. “Basically, it boils down to what you want to go after.”

While Dawsonville and Dawson County leaders consider their options and continue laying out plans for the types of industry they want to encourage, a diverse array of companies is growing or already bearing healthy economic fruit.

For example, Impulse Manufacturing (sheet metal fabrication) is planning a 50,000-square-foot, $2 million addition to its Dawsonville building, with $6 million in additional equipment, expanding its employee base from 120 to more than 150.

One of the newer players is Gold Creek Foods, part of the Agora Foods company founded by Dawson native Mark Sosebee. It ships about a million pounds of food to grocery stores and schools every week.

Sosebee, 37, started Agora Foods five years ago in the back of a grocery store. Gold Creek Foods, a further processor of poultry, has been around for two years and now occupies a renovated 50,000-square-foot building, a former textile mill where his mother used to work.

“My mother likes to say, ‘Only in America can I go from being a seamstress to being the mother of the guy who owns the building,'” says Sosebee, who has big plans for the company, which employs 200.

“In the next five years, we plan to employ over 1,000,” says Sosebee, whose hero is rebel billionaire Richard Branson and who, like Branson, eschews the suit and tie look. On the drawing board: new or expanded facility, new freezer(s). “I leveraged every dollar I had, used credit cards, but we timed everything right. I knew we’d grow, and we’ll continue that trend.”

On State Route 53, which links Georgia 400 to downtown Dawsonville, a few miles from Sosebee’s budding food empire, Dr. Gary Berliner and partner Dan Francis have invented a new health care trend at the Chestatee Emergent Medical Care clinic. Berliner sees patients seven days a week, clients who pay a flat $500 annual fee for unlimited visits.

These types of clinics, usually called boutique clinics, have offered flat fee care for years to affluent patients who can afford to pay thousands of dollars annually. But Berliner and Francis are trying to start a trend that could help underserved communities.

“Look, I became a doctor to practice medicine, not to become a banker,” says Berliner, disgusted with the third-party payer system of health coverage that he says has destroyed access to care. “This is a return to the doctor-patient relationship.”

Berliner and Francis, who call their concept and their corporation My Private Doctor (MPD), are opening a similar clinic down 400, in Cumming, and have plans to open another in Dahlonega, north of Dawsonville, and several other locations throughout north Georgia. Another part of the plan includes a service that would overlay the concept on other existing practices.

“The main challenge is changing the mindset that has been indoctrinated in doctors since they were students,” Francis says.

Berliner and Francis are trying to succeed in business by putting patient care in the hands of physicians, an old concept gaining new ground. The clinic has been open for almost four years. A steady stream of clients walks in unannounced for checkups, X-rays, tests, even minor surgery. They have about 1,000 patient visits a month, and they’re turning a profit. The concept is working in Dawsonville.

Dawson County, where they’re figuring out ways to blend 21st century growth and sensibilities with the area’s rustic roots, sounds like the perfect place to launch a health care revolution using newfangled methods to achieve an old-fashioned ideal.

Categories: Northeast