Northeast: Plum Projects

The Osage Farm store on U.S. 441 in Rabun Gap is a popular destination in the summer and early fall for locals and tourists in search of farm-fresh vegetables and fruits. During the peak season, it can be tough finding a parking space. It can be even tougher negotiating a left turn to head south, prompting wise motorists to turn right and turn around at the next traffic light. But many do not, often resulting in mishaps.

“It’s just a matter of what day of the week the big wreck will occur,” says Rabun County Chamber of Commerce President Tony Allred. “Safety is the big issue.”

Lessening the likelihood of highway collisions is the top priority of most Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) and Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) projects in the region. A GDOT plan to improve Highway 441 from the northern limits of Clayton to the North Carolina line, about a seven-mile stretch, will move to the construction phase in 2019, following surveying and right-of-way acquisition.

Allred notes that the project will be a welcome improvement, as tourist traffic through the mountain towns of Clayton, Mountain City and Dillard has increased in recent years.

Welcoming Industry

Throughout Northeast Georgia, local governments and GDOT are working on highway enhancement and utility projects, sometimes aimed at improving safety, sometimes targeting traffic problems and in some cases providing the infrastructure for industrial development. If there is a common thread in the region, it’s that many of the projects involve upgrades to industrial parks.

That’s the case with Diana Food, which is developing a $50-million food processing and R&D plant in Banks County. The facility is being built in the newly named Grove Creek at Banks Crossing Industrial Park.

Banks County and the city of Commerce, which is in adjacent Jackson County, are both providing infrastructure help. Banks is shifting a traffic light on 441 to the park’s entrance. In the process, new access will be created to the nearby Tanger Outlets, according to Hannah Mullins, executive director of the Development Authority of Banks County. The city of Commerce is developing a pretreatment facility and providing water and other utilities for the park.

Industrial park development is also percolating in nearby Habersham County. Tim Lee, the former Cobb County Commission chair, is now the director of economic development for the Habersham Partnership for Growth/ Economic Development Council. He says the Habersham County Airport Industrial Park has now come to fruition, with eight graded pads fully equipped with utilities. Also underway are improvements to the county’s airport, which is part of the industrial park.

“We are in year three of a $24-million investment in the airport, including a new taxiway, terminal building and apron,” Lee says. “We’ve also purchased property for a hangar. This will be a modern airport that will be attractive to industry.”

Jackson County is among the counties improving roads to benefit industry. That includes the widening of Hog Mountain Road, which runs parallel to I-85 North, to three lanes. Jim Shaw, president, CEO and director of economic development at the Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce, notes there is about 6 million square feet of industrial spec buildings available, with another 3 million planned. Much of that is along the corridor pegged for widening. “That’s a pretty big chunk for a county of 65,000 people,” he says.

One of Jackson County’s biggest industrial projects involves the moving of Southeast Toyota, one of the largest distributors of Toyotas in the U.S., to a new $30-million campus across Highway 334. There will also be some restructuring of nearby Highway 441 to accommodate the facility. The current operation receives about 800 vehicles weekly by rail from the Port of Jacksonville for distribution throughout the Southeast.

Franklin, Hart and Stephens counties are part of a joint development authority developing industrial sites along the I-85 corridor as it approaches South Carolina. One of those is Gateway Industrial Park, which is now in Phase 3. Dwayne Dye, Hart County economic development director, says a collaborative agreement with the city of Lavonia to provide sewer is helping the third phase of the park progress.

“Sewer usage is expected to increase significantly in the next few years,” Dye says. “Hart County is supporting Lavonia as the lead applicant for grants to increase their waste treatment capacity in exchange for us putting around $400,000 in matching funds into the project.”

One company at the park, Linde + Wiemann, is developing a multi-phase plant to provide parts to the BMW facility in South Carolina and the Mercedes-Benz facility in Alabama.

Drive Time

New interchanges, one complete, the other in the works, are the top infrastructure projects in Dawson and Hall counties, respectively. 2017 saw the opening of Georgia’s first continuous flow intersection at Ga. 400 and Highway 53. The improvement has made a heavily traveled intersection much safer, and after perhaps some initial confusion, has traffic flowing smoothly, according to local officials.

“It really has worked well,” says Christie Haynes, president of the Dawsonville Chamber of Commerce and Office of Tour-ism Development. “We’re really glad we didn’t have to do a fly-over ramp that would have cut off traffic to businesses. As North Georgia grows, we are seeing more trips through there every day. It is really a creative solution that knocked out a traffic and a safety issue at the same time.”

Construction began last fall on a new Exit 14 interchange on I-985 in Hall County. The $34-million project, which will create a diverging diamond interchange, is scheduled to be finished in 2019.

Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, says what could be considered the plum of Hall’s infrastructure projects is the new $135-million, 95-acre campus of Lanier Technical College, just north of Gaines-ville on Highway 365. The campus will open this fall, with classes beginning next January. Another ongoing project of note will soon begin at Gainesville’s Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport, which will be getting some cosmetic improvements to its terminal. The airport is used by some of the growing number of manufacturers in the region.

Clarke County voters approved a one-penny T-SPLOST last November that will fund 19 transportation projects to the tune of $109.5 million over the next five years. Of that amount, $25.6 million will go toward road construction and rehabilitation, with another $25.8 toward the Firefly Trail extension and the Oconee Rivers Greenway. Drew Raessler, director of transportation and public works for Athens-Clarke County, says the T-SPLOST program “gets at the core infrastructure needs.”

At the top of the state, Union and Fannin counties both have road projects. In Union County, GDOT is in the early stages of acquiring right of way for a widening to four lanes of about 10 miles of U.S. 76 and 515 from Blairsville to the east side of Young Harris. A second project, to widen about 8 miles of U.S. 19-129 north toward the North Carolina line, is at an even earlier stage. Lamar Paris, Union County’s sole county commissioner, says the widening projects are badly needed.

“We are continuing to grow, and we’re starting to have significant traffic issues,” he says. “They are both vital to our future expansion.”

In Fannin County, a GDOT project to widen Highway 5 from Highway 515 just north of Blue Ridge to Old Flowers Road and the construction of a truck bypass around the city of McCaysville from Old Flowers Road to Tennessee Highway 68 just north of the Tennessee state line, will improve safety, says Christie Arp, executive director of the Fannin County Development Authority.

All this and more show that the Northeast region is in a plum position for the future.

People to Meet

Nancy Stites

Nancy Stites is described as a “true unsung hero” in Dawson County. As director of the county’s Family Connection collaborative, she has been a leader in raising awareness about child sexual abuse, encouraging parents to ensure their children are ready for kindergarten, campaigning to end underage drinking and so much more. One county leader says Stites “has touched so many lives” through her dedication to strengthening families.

Amanda Wilbanks

Amanda Wilbanks founded Southern Baked Pie Co. in Gainesville in 2012 (then known as Buttermilk Pie Co.), and it has quietly cooked up a reputation as a top purveyor of locally made deserts. The pie maker now has shops in Alpharetta and Buckhead, and the award-winning pies are also shipped to clients throughout the U.S.

Regional Highlights

Advanced Digital Cable Inc., which manufactures electronic and communication cable and wire, expanded in Union County to the tune of $15 million, adding 65 jobs.

Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. is investing $320 million into a manufacturing and distribution facility in Hart County, creating 240 jobs over the next five years.

• Shipping supplier Uline will open a Southeast logistics hub in Braselton, initially employing 450 people with plans to grow to 600 employees.

Northeast: Population, Income and Unemployment statistics

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