Metro South: Building On The Momentum

Atlanta's Southside is ready for transit-related growth

There’s a renaissance brewing on Metro Atlanta’s Southside, and a palpable sense that this region’s time may have come. The fifth runway at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is set to open next month, and the long-awaited commuter rail from Atlanta to Lovejoy is several steps closer to reality.

Metro South, an alliance of six counties south of Interstate 20, including the southern part of Fulton, plus Clayton, Henry, Spalding, Coweta and Fayette, is working to capitalize on the momentum – and to minimize the effects of some sobering news about three large employers.

“We believe commuter rail will have a tremendous impact, from Atlanta to Macon, when the line is completed,” says Metro South board member David Luckie, who is also Spalding County’s economic development director. If all goes well, rail service could begin in 2008.

There’s been plenty of growth already in counties such as Henry, where the Eagle’s Landing Parkway Bridge has been expanded from two lanes to 11. Other counties, such as Spalding, are seeing a more moderate rise in population; but all are taking pains to prepare for more residents. An expanding higher education and industrial community helps soften and smarten the growth, and the Lovejoy line – which could eventually extend to Hampton, Griffin and Macon – promises an economic windfall to a region aching for some good news.

Three of the Metro South region’s biggest employers are closing or scaling back: Delta Air Lines has filed for bankruptcy and is reducing its workforce by the thousands, and the shuttering of Ford Motor Company’s Hapeville plant (by 2008) will put 2,000 out of work. Fort Gillem in Forest Park, which will close, is Clayton County’s third largest employer. It’s hard to guess the real impact of these announcements; the culture shock may shake the state.

Still, the mood at this year’s South Metro Development Outlook, a forum presented by The Collaborative Firm in College Park this January, was upbeat. Many believe a unique combination of undiscovered charm and easier urban access positions the Southside for a better economy as Metro Atlanta, Macon and “MacLanta” – the area in-between the two metropolitan areas – continue to attract new residents.

Ask Bob White, director of the Henry County Development Authority and user of the “MacLanta” phrase. “We have about 4 million square feet of new industrial spec buildings, from less than 400,000 to more than 800,000 square feet,” he says. “That’s a very good sign, and signals confidence among the development community that the economy is back to full strength. It continues to point to Henry as very attractive to developers as well as corporate tenants.”

With seven exits along Interstate 75 between Atlanta and Macon, Henry, one of the nation’s fastest growing counties, has proven irresistible to industrial developers. Home Depot, for instance, recently located a large distribution center at Greenwood, a ProLogis industrial park, with plans to fill more than 1 million square feet and hire 200 employees. Greenwood started as a 500,000 square-foot speculative building and expanded to become the first with more than a million square feet in Henry.

“It was a good strategic move [for ProLogis],” White says. “When Home Depot came looking, there were virtually no buildings available that could fill the bill. Now ProLogis is building another 867,000 square-foot building adjacent to that one, so they continue to be bullish on the market.”

Henry is also expanding its selection of higher education offerings. A Mercer Satellite Campus that opened in 2003 has grown to more than 600 students, and the city of Locust Grove has offered 200 acres of land to the Board of Regents as a satellite campus for Clayton State University. “Our real goal is for you to not have to leave Henry for a quality job, quality education or quality lifestyle,” White says. Retail has mushroomed along Jonesboro Road, and McDonough’s South Point Mall will be another commercial relief to the county’s resident-heavy culture.

Henry officials would like to see the proposed commuter rail come to their county and have lobbied the governor to extend the line beyond Lovejoy to Hampton. Rep. Steve Davis of McDonough, however, has introduced legislation that would require local referenda to approve funding for the line’s operational costs. “It’s been surprisingly contentious here,” White says.

If House Bill 1033 passes, some $80 million in federal funding earmarked for the project would be placed at risk, says Dana Lemon, 13th District Georgia Department of Transportation Board member (and McDonough resident). “If you don’t use it for what it’s earmarked for, it’s hard to get it back,” Lemon says. “It’s unfortunate some can’t see the vision and opportunity of commuter rail.”

Drawing A Card

In Clayton County, the promise of commuter rail has become “a drawing card for the area,” says Kathryn Lookofsky, Jonesboro Downtown Development and Historical Preservation director. “People who wouldn’t have considered Jonesboro before are starting to pay attention. We’ve been off the radar for some time, but there is a lot of potential here.” The city has approved plans for a new neighborhood in walking distance to the rail stop and is using an LCI (Livable Centers Initiative) grant to improve downtown and draw mixed-use development.

Morrow’s station would be near I-75 and Clayton State University. As a result, the city is already swimming in new development: Twinn Creeks at Southlake is a $200 million entertainment complex with a National Museum of Commercial Aviation (featuring six full-sized aircraft) and a 70,000-square-foot semipro ice rink; the Global Trade Market is a $100 million international trade district going up adjacent to Twinn Creeks. These are expected to draw high-rise development in the 10- to 12-story range, says Grant Wainscott, Morrow Economic Development Director. Gateway Village, which includes the National and State Archives, CSU and the Commuter Rail Station, adds another $200 million in investment to the mix.

“It’s actually difficult to measure,” Wainscott says of the investment pumping into the city. “But it’s around half a billion right now, with $140 million already in the ground.” The city is also planning a new park and parking deck, to draw “six-story mixed use around the station,” he adds. And the city is instituting a series of golf cart paths, in a nod to Peachtree City’s successful path network.

“These are the amenities people want,” Wainscott says. “As a city, we’re big believers in all sorts of transportation alternatives. We want park- and transit-minded, mixed-use-enjoying residents around the University – you know, that kind of artistic, educational environment.” As to whether Morrow can afford the operating cost of commuter rail, “there’s not a doubt in our mind.”

Negotiations relating to the Lovejoy line’s impact on the CSX line to Hapeville have delayed the commuter line’s construction; Ford’s announcement may alter the picture. “CSX had asked us to double the track from Hapeville to downtown, to block the disruption in traffic due to commuter rail, and it wasn’t in our budget,” Lemon explains. “But they may not need it, now that the Ford Plant is closing. That was one of the biggest holdups in finalizing our agreements with Norfolk Southern to use their track for commuter rail.”

Nor do Hapeville city leaders seem particularly traumatized over the Ford plant closing. “I’m optimistic,” says Robin Howarth, the city’s director of economic development. “If we offered incentives for Ford to stay, then we would lose $1 million in taxes. But if we start with a clean slate, we could see as much as $2 billion in redevelopment. The 100-acre site could accommodate as many as 6,000 people. That’s a lot of economic impact.”

Howarth says his hometown of Liverpool, England, went through a similar process. “Twenty years ago, the docks were dead, and related industry was dead. There were thousands of union dockworkers out of work, and when they rebuilt the docks they required less manpower. Some 15,000 acres of dockland were thus reinvented for uses such as leisure and tourism: television studios, a museum, offices, residences, and retail. Now, it’s a booming city. On a micro-scale, that’s what’s happening here.”

Hapeville is off to a good start, with a new 35-acre mixed use project in partnership with Main Street LLC in the heart of the city that could bring $300 to $500 million in new development. Connecting to the city at Virginia Place, and eventually to include condos, lofts, single-family homes, and small- to big-box retail, this project represents a rebirth along Virginia that could have an impact on the scale of what’s happening in Morrow. “Even if it’s only a fraction of the retail at Atlantic Station, you’re looking at $10 to $15 million into Hapeville alone,” Howarth says.

Absorbing, Adjusting

There is no shortage of industry to absorb displaced workers, thanks to the region’s network of industrial locales and training centers like Griffin Tech. This is one area where the Metro South alliance has paid off, says David Luckie. “Three of the Metro South counties [Henry, Clayton and Fayette] assisted in our recruitment of Caterpillar in 1998. That was unheard of at the time.” The company recently announced it would double its logistics facility.

Spalding County also recently recruited Seabach, an Italian portable toilet manufacturer, and was chosen by Pulte Homes for Sun City Peachtree, a retirement development of some 3,400 residences. “This is probably the largest development we’ve had here,” Luckie says. “It’s a windfall for the school system.”

Spalding County passed a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) last year to expand the University of Georgia Griffin Campus – which offers degree courses for educators – and create a more college-town feel. “We’ve created an overlay district that will hopefully result in more campus-oriented, mixed-use development,” says Spalding County Community Development Director Charles Taylor, including hotels, conference centers, light industrial and retail uses. “We think that when potential industrial developers are looking for where to locate, having a college in town helps us market ourselves,” he adds.

Coweta County also will absorb displaced workers. The county has announced five recruitments in the last 20 months totaling $100 million in investment, including a southeastern distribution center for PetSmart. “Over the next two years, we’ll add around 700 jobs,” says William Harrison, executive director of the Coweta County Development Authority. “It’s been a pretty good year.”

Coweta is the westernmost county in Metro South, with five exits along Interstate 85 and a great infrastructure for industrial parks near those exits. “We’re just getting cranked up here,” Harrison says. “We’re opening a new 800-acre industrial park developed by Patillo, and we’re looking at others up and down [Interstate] 85.” Coweta has grown its existing industry while revving up for even bigger recruits. “When I came here two years ago, Yamaha employed 900, and now they’re up to 1,300. That’s a pretty substantial gain,” Harrison says. In addition, “we’ve seen a lot of retail, high quailty stores and big boxes,” creating hundreds of jobs, he says.

“I’m sure a number of people who live here will be affected by both Ford and Delta,” Harrison says. “The closings will put some stress on them, and on us. But so far, we seem to have been able to absorb and adjust. We’re doing OK.”

Growth in existing industry has also been good for Fayette County, where Panasonic added 70 jobs in November, World Airways added 75 jobs since locating there in 2000 and Hella lighting is in the process of hiring 20 new engineers. “The jobs are high paying, which is exactly what we want,” says Brian Cardoza, president and CEO of the Fayette County Development Authority and chairman of Metro South.

“We’ve also expanded Rinnai tankless water heaters to grow their network as well as their Peachtree City facility. They’ll hire about 30 employees. What we hope is that in the next few years they’ll bring more manufacturing, then double that with distribution, for an expansion in the $3 million range.”

Fayette, which recently surpassed the 100,000 population mark, has become famous for its innovative smart growth measures. Peachtree City’s 87 miles of golf cart paths have become a national symbol of local efforts to subvert traffic congestion – and a magnet for smart, high quality residential and commercial growth. “The paths have helped create a lot of attention,” says Virginia Gibbs, president of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve had a lot of wonderful focus on that.”

And it isn’t just paths: the county has passed a $65 million bond referendum for the school system, and Piedmont Fayette Hospital’s $40 million expansion will include a neonatal unit and an additional 1,000 parking spaces. “Our medical base is going up left and right,” Cardoza says. Money magazine ranked Peachtree City the 8th best place to live in the country in 2005, and in 2004 American City Business Journals ranked Fayette County 18th.

Its reputation has also made Fayette County a natural for tourism-oriented development. The county has aggressively preserved many buildings and homes, and for the second time will host the Tour de Georgia this year. Cardoza notes that Metro South helped Fayette get on the tour and also has helped coordinate and promote other tourism options. “It’s a different kind of economic opportunity,” Cardoza says. “Fayetteville has a Main Street Program, and Peachtree City has a Tourism Association. We’re recognizing that more and more people are coming to visit.”

With Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s new International Terminal in Clayton County, and the long-awaited commuter rail offering an easy route to the Tara Museum or the Georgia and National Archives, the entire Southside is a natural for tourism. “We’re rebranding ourselves as a city toward family reunions,” says Wainscott. “Twinn Creeks is probably our best bet for immediate economic diversification. It’s seven miles from the world’s busiest airport, and the [commercial aviation] musuem will be a big draw – 200,000 to 300,000 visitors a year, easily.”

“Henry County collects $200 million in tourism dollars annually,” Henry County Chamber of Commerce President Kay Pippin told the South Metro Development Outlook attendees, “and Atlanta Motor Speedway generates $400 million annually for the state.” Pippin also credits Metro South with bringing the Ladies Professional Golf Tournament to Eagle’s Landing Golf Club.

But residential growth is still the main driver of Southside development, and transformations are becoming common currency in a region that must change or perish. “I hope the rest of the region understands that this is economic development at its best,” Wainscott enthuses. “We have $800 million in redevelopment going on within four square miles. There’s a tremendous shift to the Southside now.” “

It’s taken a long time to put the pieces together but it’s starting to happen,” Luckie says. “There are a lot of different flavors to Southside, and they all add together to attract people here. Metro South has helped erase county boundaries.”

And speaking of boundaries, Luckie feels the biggest benefit of the Lovejoy Line – referred to here as the Lovejoy-Griffin-Macon Line – will be its ability to strengthen the region’s workforce. “It will certainly help job markets along commuter rail corridor, to be able to live in one area and commute to another,” he says. “It’s not just quality of life, or riding to an event in Macon or Atlanta, or even development along the commuter rail stops – retail around stations. That’s really just part of overall impact, of being able to get back and forth to work. It may take a while for people to adjust, but I believe it will happen.”

Categories: Metro Atlanta