Habersham County: Grappling With Growth

Habersham County finds creative ways to make room for more

When it’s hurricane season in Florida, it’s moving time in Habersham County. Andrea Harper will tell you that.

“When hurricane season starts in Florida, the requests for relocation packets almost double,” says Harper, administrative assistant at the Habersham County Chamber of Commerce. She’ll get requests daily.

Visitors obviously like the rural, more relaxed feel of this part of Northeast Georgia, where the mountain climb is just beginning. They enjoy the quiet of nature, the freshness of the air, the history of the county and its seven municipalities. And yet they can drive to Atlanta in 75 minutes, four-lane all the way.

About 100 people a month are following through on their initial interest, motoring from Florida, Atlanta and other Southern states to buy homes and settle in a place that represents a kinder, gentler America.

“When the first President Bush was inaugurated,” Harper says, “that’s what he said he wanted. He wanted a kinder, gentler America. That’s what we have. Folks are more courteous here. You see people praying over their food at lunch.”

Some of them may be praying for help with all of the growth in Habersham County. And for good reason. While Habersham’s population has increased 6.3 percent over the last four years – population is estimated at more than 42,000 – local governments are feeling the strain in a number of areas: in the county’s school system, which is building its first new high school since the 1970s; at the county courthouse, which doesn’t have enough space for court, much less other county offices; and in the water systems – all eight of them, one in each town and a small system in the county.

“At this time, everybody is close to maxing out [on water], but we’re kind of OK,” says Lynne Dockery, chair of the five-member Habersham County Commission for the past three years. “But we can’t take any more stress on the systems. Everybody realizes we need to get this going in the next few years.”

But not everybody agrees who should be the main provider of drinking water as the county and seven municipalities continue to grow. Dockery and other officials say that’s the county’s role. Malcolm Hunnicutt says we’re already doing it, so why reinvent the system?

Hunnicutt is mayor of Demorest, a town of about 1,700 between Cornelia and Clarkesville, the county seat. His town started extending water lines into unincorporated areas shortly after he took office in 1975 and today serves about 5,000 customers. The mayor says Demorest lines reach 75 percent of the county’s populated areas.

Habersham County owns a system in the northern part of the county that serves 380 customers, says Larry Glasco, Habersham’s executive director of economic development. It buys water from Demorest.

So both governments – Habersham County and the city of Demorest – have applied for state permits to withdraw, from one or more sources, 10,000 gallons of water a day to boost their capabilities. Whoever gets the permit likely will control most of the drinkable water for the whole county; but approval could be months or years away.

In the meantime, Habersham County and the seven towns are working well together, say Dockery and Charlie Miller, chairman of the Habersham County Industrial Development Authority since 1992. County and city officials sit down once a month and talk about problems that affect the whole county, Dockery says. That’s never been done before.

“We are pulling together more than we ever have in the past,” Miller says. “We have the leadership in place to move forward over the next 10 years.”

Industrial Parks, Schools

The county is developing in the south end, near Baldwin, a 100-acre industrial park next to its expanded airport (runway extended to 5,500 feet to accommodate small corporate jets).

One small industry, Dentsply/Glenroe Technologies, has moved part of its operation from Bradenton, Fla. Another business, Miller Logistics, a transportation broker that will hire 28 people initially, is moving in, and two other industries are likely to come.

“The location and everything has been great,” says John Bozman, former owner of Glenroe, which sold in May of 2005 to Dentsply, the largest manufacturer of dental products in the world. The Habersham plant now employs 30, but that could change considerably if Dentsply decides to expand. The building, sitting on seven acres, contains 15,000 square feet but could be enlarged to 60,000, Bozman says.

Cheaper electricity, an attractive location – Bozman owns a home in Gainesville, 30 minutes away – and cooperation from local officials encouraged Bozman to move. The park is a quarter-mile from Georgia 365, which connects with Interstates 985 and 85.

Charlie Miller now has his sights on an even bigger industrial park – more than 500 acres – also in the county’s southern end.

He and Ed Nichols say more small industries are needed to offset the loss of about 600 manufacturing jobs in the county in the last 10 years. Now, says Nichols, executive director of the Habersham chamber, taxes are out of kilter. In a good economy, homeowners would carry about 40 percent of the property-tax burden, with businesses providing 60 percent. But, in Habersham, the figures are flipped. Homeowners carry the bigger load.

Dr. Judy Forbes, superintendent of county schools, remembers the time Habersham had two high schools: North Habersham and South Habersham. Competition between them, and between the major towns, Clarkesville and Cornelia, was fierce. Rivalry faded after the two schools were consolidated into Central Habersham about 35 years ago.

Looking ahead to the new school, she says, “We are going to work very, very hard to bring the people in [to talk] so we don’t end up with one end of the county pulling against the other.”

The new high school, along with an elementary school, will be located along Highway 115 and Cannon Bridge Road. Habersham Central, in the meantime, will be renovated and expanded. Both high schools will be located off Highway 365 “almost in an east-and-west configuration, but we’re sure not going to call them that,” Forbes says, meaning there’ll be no East Habersham and West Habersham to divide the county again.

Student populations are booming, Forbes says. A new Level Grove Elementary opened last fall but already is at 108 percent capacity. Cornelia Elementary is near 100 percent full. “We increased over 100 students [in one year] three years ago,” she says, “and it’s been steadily climbing from that point.”

But the schools are doing well academically, she says. Habersham claimed one of the highest pass rates on the Georgia high school science test. And teachers are learning to meet students’ individual needs. They aren’t locked into the one-size-fits-all mentality, she says. In fact, students in the same class often read on many different grade and interest levels. Habersham’s student population is about 18 percent Latino.

Searching For Justice

A Gainesville firm, Precision Planning, and a local Courthouse Advisory Committee are looking for the best way to relieve crowding at the county’s outdated courthouse in Clarkesville. The courthouse contains only 35,000 square feet of space, but the court system alone needs about 65,000, Lynne Dockery says.

Ed Nichols, a Habersham native, remembers when the courthouse was built, back in the 1960s, when the county’s population was about 20,000. “Not only do we have an ugly courthouse and a courthouse that’s hard to maintain,” he says, “it’s nowhere near what the county needs.”

At one point, there was talk about renovating the old North Habersham High building to serve as a courthouse; but in March the advisory committee recommended building a new judicial building on the site of the old school and renovating the existing courthouse for use as a county administration building.

Officials are visiting newer, more modern courthouses in other counties to get design ideas to ensure the new structure meets the county’s needs.

“Right now we have just one courtroom, so scheduling becomes a problem,” Dockery says. “They can’t hold court as often as they need to because they have to work around each other.”

Under New Management

The county, incidentally, is working with its fifth county manager in four years, but Dockery is complimentary of the latest, Edward L. Sealover, who moved to the county about a year ago from a similar position in Virginia. Because of the turnover, administering the county has been difficult, Dockery says, “but it’s coming along. We’re very pleased with his work and what [Sealover] has done so far.”

The two largest towns in Habersham, Clarkesville and Cornelia, are following in the steps of other American cities, revitalizing their historic downtowns while making life easier on pedestrians. Both received federal grants to improve for streetscape improvements.

Cornelia redid its old railroad depot. Old-fashioned lampposts were installed, benches placed, parking spaces increased, bricks laid for crosswalks.

“It looks cleaner, safer and to be a more vibrant town where things are happening,” says Don Higgins, Cornelia’s mayor for a quarter-century. Clarkesville is the government center and Cornelia the business center, he says, “but we’d like to be more than that.”

Much of the work – crosswalks, new sidewalks, new curbing – was done under a federal assistance program called the Transportation Enhancement Act. But not all improvements are visible, says Richard Monroe, city manager in Clarkesville. The city got help from the state Department of Transportation to replace drainage systems under the highway, and city crews replaced water and sewer lines in the streetscape area. “The brick crosswalks and the signage there have actually slowed the traffic down,” Monroe says. “And there’s bumpouts. Having crosswalks, we’ve had motorists stopping to let pedestrians cross from one side to the other.”

Attracting Visitors

“If you and I sat down to design a government,” Charlie Miller says, “we wouldn’t design seven separate governments. But that’s what we’ve got, and that’s what we work with.”

Ed Nichols looks at the situation with chamber of commerce eyes. Yes, more governments can mean more problems and duplication of services, he says, but look at all those festivals – in Alto, Baldwin, Cornelia, Mount Airy, Demorest, Clarkesville and Tallulah Falls. Each town has one, and each event draws tourists – and their wallets – to the area. It’s the chamber’s job, he says, to promote them all.

Festivities rev up this spring for Cornelia, the county’s largest municipality. Starting in May and continuing through September, Cornelia will hold its First Friday Free Concert Series highlighting bands of different genres. Between 1,000 and 5,000 people are expected to attend the first concert, says Rachel Green of the Better Hometown Program.

Slated for June is the Apple Blossom Pottery Show, which will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the dedication of Cornelia’s Big Red Apple monument. The Big Red Apple Festival, showcasing homemade arts and crafts, is planned the first weekend in October.

Nature and man coexist in Habersham, blessed with an abundance of peaceful woods and plentiful streams and rivers – the Soque River begins and ends there. Governments, meanwhile, are working to ensure future residents and industry will not have to worry about potable water; schools are expanding; subdivisions are building; people are fleeing riskier, more congested areas for Habersham.

It’s all good – and bad.

“The good news is, Habersham still has a rural atmosphere and is a good place to live,” Nichols says. “But the bad news is, this rapid growth brings a lot of problems.”

Categories: Northeast