Jackson County: Tidal Wave of Growth

New Development, Businesses and Opportunities Abound

Nick Geiman, the newly elected mayor of Pendergrass, compares the tidal wave of growth headed out I-85 into Jackson County to a river: You can adjust how a river flows and in which direction, but you can’t stop it from flowing.

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Newly Elected: Nick Geiman, mayor of Pendergrass; Lindsay Snyder.

“Pendergrass as a whole is pretty much unrecognizable from 10 years ago,” Geiman says. “There’s been a lot that’s happened in a decade. It feels like Pendergrass is under construction now.”

Once a sleepy little town of around 400 residents, Pendergrass has seen an explosion in growth across all sectors: industrial, residential and commercial, Geiman says, noting if his math is correct, there are roughly 1,106 single-family homes in the city now.

“There are a few other neighborhoods already under construction or about to be under construction; Providence Estates is under construction with 52 homes and an unnamed neighborhood is beginning the development process and it will have 200 houses,” he says. “The big thing driving all of this is everything going up the I-85 corridor. Pendergrass is smack dab in the middle of Gainesville and Athens, so it’s a very desirable location for industry, and when you have the industry, people follow and so does commercial thereafter.”

Screenshot 2023 06 25 At 41032 PmPendergrass is home to a Kubota distribution center, and the city has approved construction of 8.6 million square feet of warehouse space on the Highway 129 bypass. According to Geiman, 1.9 million square feet of the 8.6 million has already been built and is occupied.

“We also have a downtown project that’s going on, the Town Square that we’re really excited about,” he says. “There will be two different types of housing, including 300 apartments near the rear of the development and 100 fee-simple townhomes, and we’ll have 55,000 square feet of commercial space in that development. There will also be a brand-new Town Green, which will be about an acre of green space with an amphitheater.”

Housing Boom

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Low Unemployment: Jim Shaw, president and CEO of the Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce: photo Lindsay Snyder

There’s also a housing boom in nearby Hoschton, which is attracting both young families and empty nesters. Cresswind at Twin Lakes includes 1,300 homes for adults over 55, while the adjoining Twin Lakes development will have an additional 1,300 single-family homes.

“With our two new developments, we’ll have 2,600 new homes,” says Jessica Greene, executive director of the Hoschton Downtown Development Authority (DDA). The DDA just received a Georgia Department of Transportation grant for a sidewalk that will run from Twin Lakes all the way to Braselton.”

The $744,000 grant will allow residents to travel to downtown and Braselton via golf carts, bicycles and walking, Greene says.

With all the new residential construction in Pendergrass and Hoschton, the cities are poised to help the county fill a housing shortage – a shortage that occurred at a most inopportune time, according to Jim Shaw, president and CEO of the Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce.

Downtown Projects: Providence Estates under construction and Town Square rendering“SK was ramping up its labor force at the same time Jackson County, Georgia and the whole country was going through a housing shortage,” Shaw says. “There was a severe housing shortage in Jackson County for a couple of years, [and the timing was terrible], especially with low interest rates and SK ramping up.”

Transformational Project

SK Battery America has invested $2.6 billion in Jackson County to build two manufacturing facilities to supply electric vehicles, including the Ford F-150 Lightning and the Volkswagen ID.4. In January, the company announced it had exceeded its hiring goal of 2,600 employees at the end of 2022, the same year it began mass production.

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Driver of Growth: SK Battery America: photo contributed.

“SK is absolutely a transformational project in Jackson County,” Shaw says. “They have recently reached their target for growth, which was exceeded, and they’re up to about 3,000 employees now.”

In addition to being a “huge driver of growth” in the county across sectors, SK Battery helps keep the tax base balanced between residential, commercial and industrial, Shaw says, adding the county has a more diverse industrial and commercial landscape “than we’ve ever had.”

“We have had some businesses that have located here or close by that are suppliers of SK, and we continue to have businesses that have interest in Jackson County because of SK,” he says. “SK provides good-paying advanced manufacturing jobs for our citizens. Our unemployment rate has hovered around 2%, which is phenomenal.”

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New Developments: Jessica Greene, executive director of the Hoschton Downtown Development Authority: photo contributed.

Adds County Manager Kevin Poe, “Our unemployment rate is lower than we thought we’d see in our lifetime. My understanding is they [SK] have a regional workforce and they’re pulling in employees from surrounding counties. There’s always a benefit to having daytime population increases. All of these people coming into your community and spending money, their impact overall is helping increase our sales tax collections.”

SK Battery has certainly drawn attention to Jackson County, while putting a spotlight on Commerce.

“There’s no question people have their eyes on Commerce because of SK Battery,” says Mayor Clark Hill. “Unlike a lot of communities, our community has done a lot of planning, and we’ve been very strategic in developing industrial away from our central business district and our housing.”

City on the Rise

Historically, the city’s textile mills were located downtown, including the Blue Bell Factory, which produced Wrangler jeans for 100 years. After the factory closed, it was purchased by the city in 1988 and converted into the Commerce Civic Center. No “real money” was spent on the building for decades, Hill says, and only a portion of the building was being used, so local leaders came up with a plan to use the building to transform the State Street corridor. State Street is a main artery off of Highway 441 that leads into downtown.

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Celebrating History: Michelle Head, community development director at Dr. Crawford W. Long museum mural: photo: Lindsay Snyder

Construction is underway on a multipurpose government building that will serve as a “one-stop shop,” housing city offices, council chambers and municipal court, according to Hill.

“The city is investing about $12 million,” he says. “This is a public investment that’s really going to position our facilities to carry our city forward for the next 20 to 30 years from a facilities perspective.”

What most folks don’t realize, according to Main Street Manager Natalie Thomas, is there is a third floor with “huge plate-glass windows covered with iron grids” and that is where the civic center’s new ballrooms will be.

“We’re going from having one large room upstairs and three smaller rooms downstairs, to three ballrooms on the bottom floor that can be converted into five for smaller events,” she says. “The bottom floor will also include bride and groom dressing facilities.”

Thomas says plans call for the works of local artists like Frances Byrd and Kevin Burchett to be showcased in the lobby of the second floor of the building, which is street level and will house council chambers and the municipal court.

“Commerce has a good number of local artists, and we want to be able to feature them,” she says, noting that country music singer-songwriter Bill Anderson claims Commerce as his hometown because it’s where he got his start at the local A.M. station while he was a student at UGA.

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Beneficial Impact: County Manager Kevin Poe: photo contributed.

Growing up in Banks County, the mayor says Commerce was always a destination for restaurants and retail, but as with many small towns across Georgia, its fortunes ebbed and flowed over the years. Today, Commerce is a city on the rise.

“What you see in our city now is a renewed interest in housing, in redevelopment and revitalization of our downtown,” Hill says. “Commerce was always the go-to place for groceries, shopping, to buy a car. We’re becoming that again.

“When I drive through town or go out to dinner downtown and it’s vibrant and there’s people around and you have to find a parking place, that makes me proud of all the work that’s gone into it. Your downtown is the heart and soul of any community.”

Embracing Opportunities

Named for President Thomas Jefferson, the city of Jefferson is the county seat of Jackson. Michelle Head, the city’s community development director, proudly points out that it was in Jefferson where Dr. Crawford W. Long performed the first surgery using ether as an anesthetic on March 30, 1842.

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Transportation Grant: $774,000 for Hoschton sidewalk: photo contributed.

“We celebrate that day by visiting all the doctors in the area and delivering flowers to them,” she says. “We celebrate how we are a part of [the history of] modern medicine.”

Fast forward nearly 200 years, and residents and developers alike are discovering Jefferson. According to Head, that includes Ace Hardware with a “large headquarters” in Jefferson, several Amazon distribution centers and Kubota.

“There’s a new Publix in town; that shopping center has gone in and is quickly filling up,” she says. “We’re getting a Chick-fil-A, and I think everyone in Jefferson is excited about that.”

When it comes to new residential, however, Mayor Jon Howell says his administration is “trying to be thoughtful about additional residential zonings” right now, as 900 lots that were zoned residential more than 20 years ago are coming online now.

“It’s a high-class problem to have,” he says. “A lot of people want to come to our city and that’s where we find ourselves.”

The city is also very mindful about the impacts of growth, especially on the Jefferson City School District, according to Head.

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Grand Opening: Ribbon-cutting ceremony for Ace Hardware: photo contributed.

“Our school system is one of the top-ranked systems nationally for academics and athletics,” she says. “We don’t want to overcrowd those schools. We can’t approve tons of subdivisions and they don’t have the classroom space for that.”

In addition to embracing the opportunities and challenges that growth brings, the mayor says he wants to make sure the city is putting its best foot forward with beautification efforts at its two exits off I-85.

“That is the gateway to our town,” he says. “Jefferson is a city with a pedigree and a proud history of excellence.”

The city is also a proud “WaterFirst Community,” a designation that demonstrates the city’s commitment to the stewardship of water resources for environmental and economic benefits. Jefferson became the 35th community in Georgia to receive the WaterFirst designation in December 2019.

Drawing Tourists

Screenshot 2023 06 25 At 45414 PmJefferson isn’t the only city in Jackson County to be honored as a WaterFirst Community. The town of Braselton also holds that distinction, according to Town Manager Jennifer Scott.

“We’re also a PlanFirst city,” she says. “We were one of the first 10 governments in the state designated PlanFirst. All of the things that go into WaterFirst go into PlanFirst; you don’t just plan for the future but implement the plans. It covers the full gamut of planning for the future – roads, zoning, government facilities, parks, environmental.”

PlanFirst recognizes communities for successfully implementing their Local Comprehensive Plan. Braselton received its designation in February of 2015. Another distinction the town holds is its status as one of only two cities in the state that resides across four counties: Jackson, Barrow, Gwinnett and Hall. The town was originally incorporated in Jackson County and that’s where the town offices are located, Scott says.

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Town Manager Jennifer Scott: photo contributed.

“It’s complicated, but it also has its benefits,” she says. “There are lots of cities and counties we can partner with, and not only can we partner with them on things like joint paving contracts, wastewater and sewer, they are also a resource. If my town elected officials want to do something and I don’t know how to do it, there’s someone who has done it before.”

As the home of Chateau Elan Winery and Resort, Braselton’s largest industry is tourism. It’s an industry so large, according to Scott, the town has never imposed a property tax since its incorporation in 1916.

“Chateau Elan is by far our largest tourism draw in the city,” she says. “We also have Road Atlanta just outside of town and we draw a lot of tourism from that. We have quite a few hotels in town. We collect approximately $3 million just in local hotel/motel taxes.”

The Town of Braselton also has the unique distinction of having its entire downtown on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Scott. There are downloadable Chateau Elan Winery and Resort tours of the town available and on the weekends a series of trolleys run between downtown, Chateau Elan and retail shopping stops.

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Romantic Getaway: Chateau Elan Winery and Resort: photo contributed.

“We have a fantastic group of historic buildings that house all kinds of local businesses,” Scott says. “From award-winning restaurants to unique retail, our downtown is a great place to mingle and explore.”

As the growth from Atlanta pushes through Braselton on the west side of Jackson County and Commerce on the east, local leaders are focused on smart, strategic growth that fosters a welcoming environment for business and new residents while maintaining a sense of community connectedness.

Local Flavor

Blend of Old and New

Commerce knows how to blend old with new. M.T. Sanders Furniture Co. has called Commerce home for more than 100 years, while Strange Duck Brewing Co. is new to town; but each family-owned business brings something unique to this Northeast Georgia city.

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Family Business: Joe Sanders of MT Furniture Co. with parents Jennifer and David Sanders, holding family photos from the store’s history. On the wall behind them are portraits of MT Sanders (left) and Reagan Sanders (right): photo Lindsay Snyder.

“My great-grandfather started the business in 1913,” says Joe Sanders, the fourth-generation owner/operator of one of the stores. “It’s been in the same family … and in the same building since the beginning.”

According to family lore, Joe’s great-grandfather, M.T. Sanders, was a traveling salesman who was away so much, one time when he returned his young son didn’t recognize him.

“So my great-grandfather decided he needed to be home more, and at the time, this was Shephard’s furniture store [the J.J. Shephard Co.], and he went right up to [Shephard] and bought the business from him,” Sanders says, “and we’ve been there ever since.”

After graduating from college, Sanders worked in finance. But after three years in a cubicle, “I said, ‘I gotta get out of here,’” he recalls.

“I’ve always enjoyed my family’s history here,” Sanders says. “It just always meant a lot to me that my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my father worked here before me. The furniture store feels like a member of the family.”

Strange Duck Brewery is all about family, too. Located on a 13.5-acre tract that used to be a family entertainment spot offering mini-golf, go-karts, an arcade and driving range, Strange Duck Brewery offers more than just beer.

“We’re a brewery, but we’re also like a community center because we have art shows, live music, food trucks and we have the mini-golf course here,” says owner Drake Scott. “We have scooters for people to ride around the old go-kart course.” He says the brewery’s name was derived from his first name (meaning male duck) and “strange refers to its various events, shows and offerings.”

A 1978 Bluebird bus serves as an outdoor pouring station, according to Scott.

“I have 16 to 20 different beers on tap at any given time and those are beers we brew on-site,” he says. “We have a three-barrel brewing system, which is a 93-gallon system, which sounds like a lot until you have 200 to 300 people out here.”

Scott’s customers, including Joe Sanders, can enjoy brews like Mr. Quacktastic, a hazy IPA; The Key to Happiness, a Key Lime Pie Gose beer; and Fratty Light.

“Our three mainstays of styles are the sours, the light beers and the IPAs,” Scott says. “We have a Duck Tail [pour], which is an amber ale, and the Nut Job, which is a peanut butter porter. These are all my own recipes. It’s just me messing around and hanging around in the basement like I used to do in my mom’s house.”


Categories: Northeast, Our State