Fannin County: Reinventing The Economy

The focus is on tourism, retirement and service

Louis Schubert says Atlanta traffic was driving him nuts. “If you weren’t home by quarter to five, you were in serious trouble,” says Schubert, who lived with his wife Sandy off Chamblee-Dunwoody Road near I-285. “We’d get home and hibernate while the traffic happened.”

So they semi-retired, left the city, moved to rural Fannin County, just outside the Blue Ridge city limits, about 13 miles from where Sandy lived as a girl in McCaysville. They’ve started small home-based businesses -she’s a dance instructor and graphic designer who creates Web sites, he runs a recording studio in the basement of their home.

“Now we’re in position to do what we like doing,” Louis says. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

June Slusser was managing one of Coldwell Banker’s largest offices, in Marietta. “Finally, I said ‘enough is enough.’ I moved to God’s country,” says Slusser, who quit her job and turned the weekend mountain getaway into a permanent home. She bought the Coldwell Banker office in Blue Ridge and hasn’t looked back.

While Slusser was selling houses in Cobb County, Cindy Trimble-Kelly, an Atlanta- based interior designer, collected frequent flyer miles, commuting across the country to design bank branches. After 20-odd years in the frenetic skies, Trimble-Kelly landed in Fannin County, where she now runs an award-winning design firm, Trimble-Kelly Studios, which caters to the flourishing housing market that helps keep June Slusser busy and prosperous.

Three different families, not from around here, each of them representing a slice of the Fannin County mindset. This is an ancient place nestled in the world’s oldest mountain range, on the northern edge of Georgia, where the southeast corner of Tennessee meets the southwest corner of North Carolina. It’s a county that’s almost half National Forest land, drawing newcomers who are immersing themselves into the community and helping to lead a new phase in the area’s economic development.”

Several years ago we had three major plants close, putting almost 1,000 people out of work,” says Dr. Richard Vollrath, chairman of the three-person Fannin County Board of Commissioners. “To determine where our citizens wanted to go with the future of the county I got the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to help with the visioning process.”

The county wanted to recover from the rapid-fire loss of Levi-Strauss, American Uniform and Shaw Carpet, all within a year of one another. So county leadership, citizens and the TVA formed the Fannin Future initiative, and Georgia Tech conducted an economic feasibility study. Multiple meetings were held to gather public opinions about where Fannin needed to be in another 20 years. Naturally, opinions were widely varied.”

Some people wanted factories, but the study showed that it wasn’t the way this county needed to go,” Vollrath says.”

Our topography doesn’t lend itself to big, 200,000-square-foot buildings,” adds Bill Prather, chairman of the Fannin County Development Authority.

Focusing primarily on tourism, the second home and retirement home markets and the service infrastructure to support them -restaurants, stores, health care facilities and other accommodations -was Fannin’s best bet for future economic vitality, the studies showed. The county was already heading in that direction. The opening of the Zell Miller Parkway in 1993 meant little Blue Ridge (pop. 1,200) is just 90 minutes away from Atlanta. The mountains, trees, trails and rivers always had been popular attractions for visitors, and the addition of the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway in 1998 only expanded the tourist appeal.

Building Blocks

Fannin still has a small but vital industrial base. Following the manufacturing exodus of 2002, there was some timely investment from other firms. Kismet Rubber Products expanded and moved into the vacated Levi-Strauss facility. Whitepath Fabtech, which manufactures HVAC parts, moved into Kismet’s former facility. Fannin also has a vibrant water bottling industry, including companies like Georgia Mountain Water, Clear Blue Springs, Nature’s Purest, and Georgia Crown Distributing, which has a bottling facility set amid five springs on 60 acres.

In addition to tourism and second homes, the Georgia Tech study suggested a greater emphasis on smaller businesses, Prather says. “They recommended we recruit smaller, high tech industries. Instead of one plant that employs 500, you try for 10 plants with 50 people each.”

A few years ago a plan was floating around that could eventually lead to a small technology park in Fannin County. TVA and the development authority discussed building a hotel-conference center on 3,290-acre Lake Blue Ridge, with both private housing and assisted living components. The idea, Prather says, would call for TVA (the lake is a TVA reservoir) to deed the required land to the development authority, which would sell the land to a competent developer, then use those funds to build a technology park. It hasn’t happened yet, but Prather adds, “That’s still our plan if we can work it all out.”

Meanwhile, the re-maining woods of Fannin hum with wild-life, hammers and bulldozers. “I’d say that construction, especially home building, is our most active industry,” says Doyle Carder, who helps run Sisson Log Homes, a locally-owned family business that ships its ready-to-assemble product all over the world.

The company produces about 400 homes a year for shipment. And, operating as the Sisson Company, it builds homes and subdivisions close to home. It’s currently building in 15 local subdivisions and has just started two more. In one, Cherry Lake, it has built more than 600 homes. Prices range from $150,000 to $300,000, says Carder, and 70 percent of what’s built are seasonal homes and investment rental properties.

Fannin has a roster of some 1,000 cabins for vacation rental, about double the number from three years ago. The county has been tabbed as one of the best places in the nation to buy a vacation home, which means Fannin has thousands of absentee owners. The county’s population hovers around 22,000, many of them part-time residents.

The good thing is, the part-timers pay full-time property taxes and don’t drain the county services they’re paying for. But not having a handle on the exact number of residents at any one time presents a challenge for the marketing efforts of the Fannin County Chamber of Commerce and Development Authority.

“When we try to bring in big retailers, we have to show the purchasing power of the area,” says Kristin Gunia, the development authority’s executive director. “That’s the biggest challenge.”

Once you get your first major retailer, chamber president Jan Hackett adds, it becomes a bit easier to recruit more. Fannin got its first big one last year with the opening of a Home Depot in Blue Ridge. Now there’s talk of Wal-Mart coming to town.”

You know, it’s a little unnerving to think of our quiet little community growing so rapidly, but progress is inevitable,” says Sandra Mercier, who was born and raised in Fannin County and now is superintendent of the school system, one of the few things that isn’t seeing skyrocketing growth. That’s because most of the newcomers are empty nesters.

But Fannin’s schools aren’t languishing, either. In the past year they’ve added a 900-seat performing arts center and a gym that seats 2,000. The recently approved $20 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) will add classrooms to meet reduced class size requirements and build a needed technology hub for the entire system.

Making It Work

When she isn’t managing the local school system, Sandra Mercier helps her husband Tim operate the family apple orchard. Tim Mercier grew up on the orchard his father Bill, who was the county extension agent, took over in 1943. Today, Mercier runs the largest orchard in Georgia, with more than 45 apple varieties growing on more than 100,000 trees spread among 200 acres.

They also grow peaches, blueberries, sweet cherries and nectarines and run a busy bakery and deli and an expanding gift shop. The orchard, located between Blue Ridge and McCaysville, has become one of Fannin’s leading tourist attractions, annually drawing thousands of visitors to pick apples, shop or picnic in the orchard. Now a third generation of the family helps run the business.

The Merciers are homegrown entrepreneurs. But Fannin has become an ideal setting for a flood of transplanted entrepreneurs who have brought new energy to the region. This is most evident in downtown Blue Ridge. Main Street is brimming with art galleries, antiques and collectibles shops and restaurants. There isn’t a vacancy downtown.

A busy array of shops sits across the street from the century-old depot (home of the Blue Ridge Scenic Railroad) and the city park that is home to regular gatherings, such as Arts in the Park and outdoor concerts. The park also is home to a free-ranging chicken with her own chicken crossing sign posted on Main Street.

One of the galleries, Turning Leaf Wood Art, owned and operated by Sherry Darling, hosts the work of regional artists, some world-renowned. Like so many of her neighbors, Darling moved to Blue Ridge from Florida. Her shop offers the kind of art that would fit tastefully into the designs Cindy Trimble-Kelly is turning out for the rustic-looking homes that sell so fast in Fannin.

Trimble-Kelly has been in business in Blue Ridge for four years. The first year she had 15 clients. Since then, she’s added about 300 more and her studio’s revenue is approaching $1 million a year. “I didn’t know a thing about log cabins,” she says. “I went to shows, seminars, subscribed to all of the magazines. After a while, I realized no other design firms were doing what I’m doing.”

Blue Ridge’s most active entrepreneur is Bo Chance, formerly sales manager for a software company. He and his wife Deena left Atlanta’s bustling Virginia-Highland neighborhood for what Bo calls, “a breath of fresh air, an entrepreneurial Wild West. I had a big sales monkey on my back every month, and always tried to figure out a way to escape that. Well, I’ve rolled the dice and this is it.”

Chance bought a neglected building in downtown Blue Ridge 10 years ago and renovated it, turning it into an art gallery. The Chances sold the business, but kept the property, then did it again: Fixed up an old building, started a business, kept the property, sold the business.

The Chances, who live just outside the Cohutta Wilderness in the northwest corner of Fannin, own 10 downtown properties they’ve restored. Bo is in the process of his biggest renovation yet, a 5,300-square-foot 1895 corner building. For the first time, he’s the contractor, not the building’s owner. His clients are June and George Slusser, who are moving the Coldwell Banker offices to the 110-year-old structure, which has had many lives: drug store, funeral home, hospital, law office and electric company office among them.

“That building speaks to me,” June says. “I can’t tell you how many people have stopped by to share stories about that building, and the role it played in the lives of their parents or grandparents.”

To say nothing of the role it will play in the growth of the county. When Slusser bought her real estate business in 2003, its sales volume was $60 million a year. In 2005 it was $149 million. In 2003, about 70 percent of the company’s business came from Metro Atlantans building second homes, about 20 percent from Florida retirees.

Today, Floridians make up almost 80 percent of Slusser’s business. Before you can ask why, she has an answer: “Hurricanes. They’re escaping the hurricanes, and the prices in Florida that have gotten so high. We’re seeing the retirement market explode.”

They come for the rural lifestyle, but also the fabulous arts and other cultural offerings (the Blue Ridge Mountains Arts Association and the Blue Ridge Community Theater). And to these newcomers, the escalating price of mountain real estate isn’t a deterrent.

Prather, who grew up in Fannin County and, with his partner, runs the downtown pharmacy their fathers used to run, had a chance to buy a lot on 3,300-acre Lake Blue Ridge about 15 years ago for $45,000. “Instead, another fella bought it and built a house. He sold it a couple of months ago for $1.3 million.”

So far, developers Peter Knutzen and Gordon Waters are having little trouble finding buyers willing to pay premium prices for mountain living. They sold $21 million in property last year and expect to do $60 million over the next year. Their two projects under way could dramatically alter the county’s housing inventory.

Blue Ridge Golf & River Club will be the county’s first golf community, a $300 million project with homes that will cost from $400,000 into the million-dollar range. On the Fannin-Gilmer county border is The Reserve at Wilson Creek. Surrounded on three sides by the Chattahoochee National Forest, this development will feature a 1,500-acre hunting preserve.

From manufacturing to mountain cabins to mountain mansions, the old place is changing. It’s the same old challenge, planning for inevitable progress while trying to preserve the things that make the place so desirable to begin with. There’s no turning back.”

You look at the progress and think it would be easy to turn your back and say, ‘no way.’ But it’s gonna happen whether you want it or not,” Sandra Mercier says. “We’ll just have to remember our heritage, save part of the past for future generations. Meanwhile, we can embrace change and make it work for us.”

Categories: Northeast