South Metro Atlanta: Sunny Side Up

New Development, New Attitude, Growing Population

An eight-foot high, 10-foot wide sunrise painting titled “Cityscape” hanging outside Exhibit Hall A in the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park symbolizes the dawn of a new day on Metro Atlanta’s south side. A mauve morning sky highlights woods, houses, streets and historic buildings of College Park – including City Hall and Woodward Academy. Looking northward, the Atlanta skyline is in the background. Jian Wang of Sacramento, Calif., won the commission for the 2002 work because of his creative vision. Like the artist, a lot of people are looking at the south side differently these days.

College Park Mayor Jack Longino tells the story of the south side’s transformation as plainly as it can be put. A third generation local statesman – his grandfather was mayor and his uncle was a city council member – Longino remembers what a lot of newcomers to the area never knew.

“Several years back, you couldn’t give away something south of I-20,” Longino told a crowd of hundreds of real estate, construction, government and business types assembled for the fifth annual South Metro Develop-ment Outlook program in January. “Now, people are beating the door down to come here and do business.”

Indeed, shopping centers, restaurants, industrial parks, office buildings and high end housing developments have sprung up in dramatic numbers in recent years. Some parts of South Metro – which includes South Fulton as well as Clayton, Coweta, Fayette, Henry and Spalding counties – have grown more than others, but all are seeing historic increases in population and investment.

The fastest growing is Henry County, which bills itself as “Metro Atlanta’s southern horizon.” Henry has been named seventh among the nation’s top 10 fastest growing counties. Estimates show the population increasing by 40 percent between 2000 and 2005.

Not far behind is Coweta County – on the region’s western and southern edge – which has seen a population increase of 18 percent between 2000 and 2004. That’s more than twice the growth rate of eight percent for Georgia as a whole, according to the Coweta County Development Authority.

Clayton, the mostly densely populated of the South Metro counties, is the state’s fifth most densely populated and the third smallest in landmass, says Robin Roberts, director of economic development for Clayton County. “Our focus is on redevelopment,” she says. “We have several major redevelopment projects under way.”

Those include the Mountain View, Ellenwood and Northwest Clayton areas. Plans are for each of these areas to evolve as live, work, play communities with mixed use development. “Everybody loves the idea, but it’s a change,” Roberts says.

The richest South Metro county is Fayette. “We’re the premier county in South Metro,” says Matt Forshee, president and CEO of the Fayette County Development Authority. He notes that median household income tops $100,000 and the average home price is in the neighborhood of $360,000.

“Fayette County has really focused on doing things differently, planning and following a plan,” Forshee says. “That has led to a lot of good things for the community.”

Much of that is due to the presence of Peachtree City – the state’s first fully self-contained planned community – which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2009.

Another planned community is in the works for South Metro, this one in Spalding County. Sun City Peachtree already has begun construction and plans to build 3,400 homes on 15 acres, part of a national chain of active adult communities. “It will be an important part of economic development here,” says David Luckie, executive director of the Griffin-Spalding Development Authority.

“Until now, manufacturing and residential growth have been steady but slow,” Luckie says. “Now, with Sun City, residential is really taking off.”

Residential development seems to have taken off all over South Metro. Leslie Hamrick, president of the South Fulton Chamber of Commerce, recently took a helicopter tour of the south side with economic development representatives from Georgia Power and the Atlanta Regional Commission. They were surprised by what they saw.

“They didn’t realize how much development had already taken place,” Hamrick says. “We can talk about all the great things that are going to be happening, but when you can say this is already happening it gives credibility to the other projects that are in the works.”

One feature that made an impression on the group in the helicopter was the number of new housing developments near existing transportation corridors, including the MARTA rail line. Consequently, traffic and congestion are much less severe on the south side.

The Business Side

“Our business is almost all on the south side,” says Mike Nelson of Print Graphics Services, Inc., a family business that produces guidebooks and other area publications. “That is where the need is.”

Nelson himself moved to the south side – Peachtree City – 15 years ago when he returned to Atlanta from college. Growing up in the northern suburb of Sandy Springs, Nelson says he knew nothing about the south side. If he heard anything at all, it was negative. But he says he’s found a “utopia” in Peachtree City and can move about much more freely than his former neighbors to the north.

“The south side is growing like crazy,” Nelson says. “People are finally starting to realize they can move to the south side and drive 20 minutes, or they can live on the north side and sit in traffic for an hour.” Nelson marvels at how acquaintances have moved so far north of town that they commute for hours when good neighborhoods on the south side are many miles closer in.

“If you’re brand new to Atlanta – even if you’re going to work downtown – you’re better off on the south side,” Nelson says.

New residents get credit for the success of recent retail, office and industrial developments on the south side. Housing developments provide a ready market for new shops and restaurants.

Take, for example, the explosion around the intersection of Interstate 285 and Camp Creek Parkway – south of Interstate 20, which bisects the city of Atlanta. A shopping center called Camp Creek Marketplace includes a new Target, Lowe’s, Linens ’n Things and a DSW shoe store, along with several restaurants. Just off Camp Creek on the other side of 285 is a new industrial and office development called Camp Creek Business Center. Both the retail and business developments have benefited from the subdivisions nearby around Camp Creek, as well as South Fulton Parkway.

“The retail has been so successful because it has the business traffic in the daytime and the residential traffic at night,” says Hamrick of the South Fulton chamber. “It’s a real live, work, play environment. That’s been the recipe for success.”

Now that everything else is there, bulldozers have prepared another corner for planned hotel construction.

“We’ve had a lot of success with Camp Creek,” says Chris Brown, vice president for leasing with Duke Realty, which developed the business center. “We’re looking for other opportunities in the area.”

Akiva Freeman, Duke’s leasing agent for Camp Creek Business Center, notes the development has attracted new tenants such as Williams Printing Company from downtown Atlanta as well as a regional center for Clorox and a number of businesses related to nearby Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “It’s active,” Freeman says of the south side market.

South Metro’s recent success is particularly dramatic to those whose memories go back, like those of College Park’s mayor. Indeed, 20 or 30 years ago, elected officials used to gather and dream of ways to attract development to the south side. Then they began to promote it as an undiscovered bargain with land and housing prices well below those of the northern suburbs.

Prices may not be so low anymore, as demand has gone up. Says Brown, “I think the secret is out.” But he and others in the area say prices remain relatively low compared to other parts of Metro Atlanta.

No Slowdown

Whatever slowdown Atlanta may see in the housing market this year is likely to be north of I-20, says Roger Tutterow, dean of the Eugene Stetson School of Business and Economics at Mercer University. Real estate activity south of I-20 “has probably doubled in the last five years,” he says. And he expects prices to hold steady even if they drop a bit elsewhere.

Tutterow cushions his remarks by saying that he doesn’t believe housing is overvalued in the Atlanta area anyway, as it may be in other metropolitan areas. And he doesn’t believe predictions of a national downturn or bubble bursting in the housing market can be applied to Georgia. “In Atlanta and in the southern crescent, it’s hard to believe there’s speculation in the market,” he says. “The idea that we’re going to see a sharp decline is utterly unfounded.”

Tutterow gave an economic forecast at the South Metro Development Outlook in College Park in January. It was the fifth such program in as many years. The event is sponsored by the Collaborative Firm, founded by Michael Hightower.

“The south side is hot,” Hightower says. “I’m a native of College Park, born and raised in South Fulton. I am seeing peak interest in economic growth, increased opportunity and increased activity.”

Hightower was elected to the College Park City Council in his early 20s, then served 15 years as a Fulton County Commissioner. He had a shocking fall from grace in 2000, caught on camera taking a bribe, and went to prison for two years.

But with remorse for wrongdoing and a commitment to change his life, he has created a new career for himself around promoting economic development in his home region. He consults for both governments and businesses on zoning and growth issues, and he brings them together in scores for the South Metro Development Outlook.

“As a former policy maker and now on the development side, we recognize the need for government, business and political leaders to collaborate,” Hightower says.

The group also gives awards to recognize quality development on the south side. This year’s winners were John Ryckeley of JR Development and John Tennant of Hendon Properties.

Ryckeley was recognized for the development of a sustainable community, a “green” subdivision called Annelise Park. Of the neighborhood’s 186 acres, 82 acres are parkland. It features two miles of walking trails, two fishing ponds and a pecan grove. The development has been called Fayette County’s first conservation community.

Ryckeley also developed several other subdivisions in the area, including Chimney Springs, Ashley Forest and The Woodlands Lake Community.

Tennant’s award was for a development that “improves the quality of life in the community.” That was the Old National Town Center, a retail redevelopment that replaced an abandoned grocery story and a night club.

Fulton County Commissioner Bill Edwards praises Tennant for bringing new investment to the community. “They took a chance. And it worked,” Edwards says.

“We’re very pleased with the end product,” Tennant says. “It’s the first step in what we envision as the gentrification of the whole area.”

The venue where these awards are presented and the South Metro Development Outlook event takes place says a lot itself about how things have changed on the south side. The Georgia International Convention Center is the newest and second largest meeting facility in the state.

Hugh Austin, the center’s executive director, calls it “one of the premier facilities in the country.” It includes a 40,000-square-foot ballroom and a 150,000-square-foot exhibit hall. Two new full service convention hotels are planned on the campus, and more than 8,000 rooms are already in the vicinity. And it’s right next to one of the nation’s busiest airports – Hartsfield-Jackson.

Everything about the facility seems to pay tribute to Atlanta’s legendary airport. The design of the building seems to suggest a giant airport control tower. On the drive in, eight tall white towers that resemble airplane wings lead the way. And on the grounds, the sound of airplanes taking off and landing never seems to stop.

Next year, the center plans to become one of the first facilities in the world where convention goers can get off a plane and attend events without ever getting in a taxi, bus or van. This will be thanks to a new light rail train called the Automated People Mover.

The center is a major reason why people – like the artist who painted “Cityscape” to adorn the exhibit hall corridor – are looking at South Metro in a new way.

“I remember the time when the area south of I-20 was not looked on with great favor by really significant investors. I think that has changed dramatically in the last several years,” says Bill Harrison, executive director of the Coweta County Development Authority. Fueling South Metro’s success, he adds, are “the increasingly difficult and costly development constraints in the northern part of Atlanta.”

“Quality developers are coming down here and initiating major projects,” Harrison says. “I think we’re the place to be.”

Categories: Metro Atlanta