Barrow County: Checking All the Boxes

Location, industrial growth and healthcare
May23 Barrow Os Tommy Jennings

Economic Development Edge: Tommy Jennings, president and CEO of the Barrow County Chamber of Commerce, at Spring Mountain Center headquarters Photo by Jennifer Stalcup

The story of Barrow County today is not so much about what’s going on as what’s “growing on” there.

“Barrow County is one of the top five fastest-growing counties in the state,” says Tommy Jennings, president and CEO of the Barrow County Chamber of Commerce. “Our industrial base is growing and so are our businesses. The industry is following the land as a [preferred] location, and the population is following the industry.”

Barrow County is bisected by State Route 316, which runs between Atlanta and Athens. According to Jennings, Barrow has more land bordering on 316 than Gwinnett or Oconee counties, giving it an edge in economic development opportunities.

“We have a number of sites, some controlled by the county, that are of great interest to project managers from the state and private sources because [Interstate] 85 is mostly built-out and land is much more expensive than land on 316,” Jennings says. “Land on 316 is not cheap, but it is available.”

Located within an hour of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the county is experiencing “some foreign investment,” which is proving to be a catalyst for growth, Jennings says. In December, Spring Mountain Center, a subsidiary of China-based Noviland, opened a $45 million manufacturing and distribution headquarters in Barrow County. The 275,000-square-foot facility is located at Park 53 in Winder.

Spring Mountain Center is a leading manufacturer of plumbing fixtures, home furniture and more, selling its products to customers across the globe. The company is a core manufacturer for many top U.S. brands, including Kohler, and one of its largest customers is The Home Depot.

“We know when those foreign companies come in, [related] interests follow them; Chinese companies follow Chinese companies,” Jennings says. “The company will start on Phase 2 of that facility a little later this year. The total number of jobs to be created is 250, that’s the goal.”

Regional Cooperation

Whether domestic or international, companies continue coming to Georgia, and since Barrow County is among the ring of counties just outside the metro Atlanta area, it’s a natural next frontier for development.

“We are extremely busy right now in a really good way,” says Ben McDaniel, Barrow County economic development administrator. “We have seven state projects we’re working on.”

According to McDaniel, Barrow County checks all the boxes when it comes to what developers are looking for: closeness to the metro area, proximity to a major four-lane highway, availability of a large workforce and Georgia Ready for Accelerated Development (GRAD)-certified sites. But the secret sauce, he says, is regional cooperation.

“When Jackson County wins, we win; when Walton County wins, we win,” he says. “It’s really a regional effort because companies don’t see county lines.”

Bordered by Jackson County to the northeast and Walton County to the south, Barrow is perfectly positioned to capitalize on the region’s recent economic success, including SK Battery America’s two lithium-ion battery manufacturing facilities in Jackson County. The Korean company is investing nearly $2.6 billion in the facilities to supply batteries for electric vehicles. SK Battery met its hiring goal of 2,600 jobs at the end of last year and expects to hire an additional 400 employees this year.

Meanwhile, Rivian will set up shop in Walton and Morgan counties, creating about 7,500 jobs at its $5 billion EV plant.

“All of these jobs that are landing near us, and tiny Barrow County, about 163 square miles with an estimated population of 90,000, and we are right in the middle of all of this,” McDaniel says, noting manufacturing jobs tend to beget others, as manufacturers need vendors nearby. “It’s location, location, location. We are minutes away from two of the largest economic development projects in the state of Georgia’s history. Our location is everything.”

Catalyst for Commerce

According to Barrow County Board of Commissioners Chair Pat Graham, the county has experienced an “enormous” amount of growth over the last few years, leaning slightly more toward residential growth than business growth, but construction of the West Winder Bypass is going to be a major catalyst for commerce.

“It’s an enormous investment of state dollars and it also opens up a lot of land for industrial and business development,” she says. “We envision this as a business corridor.”

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Photos contributed

The county did all the pre-work for the bypass, Graham says, and the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) has completed the first two phases and has the third phase under way. GDOT is also in the process of converting state highway 316, also known as University Parkway, from a full-access highway to a limited access highway, which will move traffic more efficiently and safely by removing median breaks across the highway, according to Graham. Those direct crossings will be converted into interchanges or overpasses.

“[The bypass] is a four-lane divided highway that connects 316 to Highway 211 and ultimately to I-285,” she says. “GDOT has projects throughout the county and what I tell our neighbors in Gwinnett County and Athens-Clarke County is this is the decade of the orange barrel. As you travel the 316 corridor, there is going to be construction on this highway for the next decade.”

Echoing the refrain of “location, location, location,” Graham says the key to successfully navigating the pressures of continued growth lies in good planning.

“We have a great group of elected officials in place and a great comprehensive plan and when you have a great plan and you follow the plan, you usually arrive at success,” she says. “What makes Barrow County special is its people. We have a tremendous amount of old-fashioned Southern charm.”

According to interim County Manager Billy Pittard, affordable, quality housing also makes Barrow very attractive for young families as well as 55+ individuals. Fort Yargo State Park, Chateau Elan Winery and Resort, and other golfing and hiking locations are among the amenities drawing these demographics and appealing to long-time residents.

“Barrow County, located midway between Atlanta and Athens, is a geographically prime area for those who want to live and raise a family near enough to the big cities so that they can commute to work, but far enough away so they can experience the rural and semi-rural, hometown quality of life,” Pittard says. “Good schools, vibrant downtowns and a strong sense of community stand out in Barrow County.”

According to the 2020 Census, the median age of Barrow County residents was 36 years. Jennings, of the Barrow County Chamber, says millennials represent 28% of the county’s population, making it No. 1 for millennials among the six counties Barrow borders. About 42% of families that live in the county have children under 18 years old. Last year, the county issued an average of 40 building permits a month, 90% of which were for single-family housing.

Meeting Needs

As the population grows, so too does the community’s need for healthcare. Meeting those growing needs is the Northeast Georgia Health System (NGHS), which recently broke ground on a new, 34,000-square-foot medical office building in Bethlehem.

“The medical center is expected to open in January of 2024,” says Anthony Williamson, administrator of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center (NGMC) Braselton campus. “It will be a multi-specialty medical office building and will include an urgent care center which will be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and it will be anchored by our Northeast Georgia Physicians Group.”

There will be a number of specialty practices located in the $16.5 million facility, including OB-GYN, sports medicine, orthopedic surgery and general surgery, according to Williamson. There will also be cardiology services on site.

“As a health system, we’ve got a long history in this area and we continue to look at how we can bring our care to the growing community,” he says. “Our goal is to continue to bring more services to the community and population, so they don’t have to travel far for care. We think that the new building will see over 100,000 visits a year after it opens.”

For more than 65 years, Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow has been caring for the community through its 56-bed hospital and more than 200 physicians. NGMC Barrow joined the health system in 2017.

“Barrow County being a growing county, we’re very pleased to have the hospital there,” Williamson says, “and to be adding these physicians there.”

NGMC Barrow is located in Winder, the largest of the county’s four cities and two towns. With its downtown already experiencing a renaissance — boasting several restaurants, two entertainment venues and a new brewery that’s under construction — the “biggest, coolest thing happening” there, according to Mayor David Maynard, is a planned destination park and playground.

“That destination playground is just incredible,” he says. “That will be a great asset to Winder right here in downtown.”

Rock Quarry 1

Ensuring Enough Water: The rock quarry to be used as a reservoir for the municipalities of Winder and Auburn Photo contributed

The “Building Our Future Project” is a public-private partnership to build a destination park and playground that will feature climbing blocks, swings, twisters, slides, climbing ropes, a zip line, ADA-accessible features, sensory pieces for children with autism and more. The highlight of the destination playground will be the “Barrowsaurus,” a one-of-a-kind rope pyramid that is 27 feet high and 70 feet long.

“There will not be another one like it [the Barrowsaurus] in the state of Georgia,” says Chris Maddox, fundraising campaign co-chair. “It’s being built by Kompan, which is the largest playground manufacturer in the world, and this will be the first piece of its kind in the U.S.”

Fundraising for the project began last spring, and to date, more than $4 million of the $5.5 million goal has been raised. A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for May.

“I think Phase 1 should be completed by year-end and everything else is plug-and-play after that,” Maddox says. “It’s a one-of-a-kind park our residents can be so proud of, and I think it’s just a really exciting project for our community.”

While the new destination park and playground will be yet another reason why Winder is the mayor’s favorite city in Barrow County, Maynard says his favorite mayor is Auburn Mayor Linda Blechinger. Winder has partnered with Auburn to purchase an old rock quarry to be used as a reservoir.

Blechinger estimates the cost of the reservoir to be between $25 million to $30 million. Two-thirds of the cost will be shouldered by Winder while the City of Auburn will pay one-third, she says.

“The impetus behind us doing this was when we did have the drought 10 years ago, we almost ran out of water,” Blechinger says. “We were buying from Barrow County and Winder was also buying from Barrow County. We were all scrambling for other sources of water. Lake Lanier was dangerously low, so we couldn’t borrow from them like used to.

“We hopefully will never be in that situation again where our citizens face the potential of running out of water.”

The reservoir will hold more than a billion gallons of water, and construction of a water treatment plant across the road from the quarry is underway. Blechinger says the new treatment plant will be operational in about two years.

“It’s a really good project,” she says. “It’s just a wonderful, wonderful collaboration and project, and we’re very proud of that.”

A new city hall that’s expected to open in mid-May will make room for new restaurants, a brewery and other downtown shops in the old city hall, Blechinger says. She notes the new building replicates the former Perry-Rainey College and will house the city’s police department, courtrooms, city hall and city administration.

“We are a very young and vibrant and close community,” she says. “I think that’s so great because you get young people to move into your city and they bring new ideas, new businesses and new entrepreneurs.”

With its ideal location between Atlanta and Athens and local leaders’ solid vision for development, Barrow County’s continued growth and success is certain.

Local Flavor

Outdoor Oasis

Winder Mayor David Maynard fondly recalls learning to swim in the 260-acre lake at nearby Fort Yargo State Park, an 1,816-acre oasis that features a log fort built by settlers in 1792. The park is situated between Atlanta and Athens, about a mile south of the mayor’s hometown.

“Fort Yargo is a special place to me,” he says. “My brother was a lifeguard out there, and when I was seven years old that’s where he taught me how to swim.”

A large swimming beach is just one of the reasons visitors come to Fort Yargo. Its wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities includes boating, paddling, disc golf, fishing and hiking. There are 20.5 miles of trails for mountain bikers and hikers to enjoy and the University of Georgia men’s and women’s crew teams train at Fort Yargo.

There are many lodging options for overnight guests, including fully equipped cottages, campsites and lakeside “glamping” yurts, which are permanent canvas- and-wood “tents.”

“Years ago, Fort Yargo was the sixth or seventh most-visited park in the state,” Maynard says, “but I saw something recently where the park was ranked No. 2.”

The park’s new 5,859-square-foot visitor’s center opened in 2019 and provides a view of the lake and namesake fort. A $1 million grant from the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Program, funded through the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, paid for a 10-foot wide, mile-long handicap-accessible trail into the park that leads directly to the visitor center. The city was among the first recipients of a grant from the program that the legislature established under the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act. It dedicates funding that will support trails and parks and make it possible to protect and acquire lands that are critical for wildlife, clean water and outdoor recreation throughout Georgia. Under the law, which became effective in 2019, a portion of the sales tax on certain sporting goods goes into the stewardship program.

Fort Yargo made headlines in November when it became one of eight state parks to offer high-mobility all-terrain track wheelchairs to allow those with mobility impairments to be able to more fully enjoy the outdoors through trail exploration, fishing and adaptive hunts. The chairs can traverse mud, water, sand and snow. – Jennifer Hafer

Categories: Northeast, Our State