Barrow County has not been exempt from the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic, but there are strong indicators of recovery and growth opportunities in the county that are mirroring national trends, an area business strategy consultant said last week.
Mark Kooyman, CEO and discovery chief of Athens-based Experience Insight Group, told the Barrow County Chamber of Commerce — at its monthly “First Tuesday” luncheon March 2 — that as coronavirus infection levels have sharply declined in both the county and in much of the country over the last several weeks, and as prospects are increasing that there will be enough COVID-10 vaccine supply for all Americans by late spring, the national marketplace outlook also has continued a strong improvement.
But that positivity hasn’t necessarily been reflected in local perception of where things stand, Kooyman said. In a survey of around 40 chamber members and business owners in Barrow County conducted by Experience during the last two weeks of February, just over 50 percent of respondents said the national marketplace is “in the same place” as it was prior to the November elections, with 24 percent saying it was “better and improving” and another 24 percent saying it was “worse and getting worse.”
When asked the same question about the local marketplace in Barrow, 68 percent of respondents said conditions were “in the same place,” and 27 percent said things were better and improving.
“It’s a hell of a lot better today than it was (in November),” Kooyman said, noting that a third of business owners surveyed in Barrow County said their business either never faltered or has already recovered from the initial economic hit of the pandemic.
Another third of respondents said their business will be recovered by the second half of 2021, while the rest were split between saying their business would be recovered by the first half of this year (16.2 percent) and others saying it would take another 2-3 years (18.9 percent).
“The perception has been that things are way more negative than they are, but, in reality, you’re seeing some positive changes,” Kooyman said.
Barrow chamber president Tommy Jennings said the general reaction to Kooyman’s presentation was positive and that it may have helped reinforce what local business owners “were already thinking in their heads.”
“We have seen some devastation (from the pandemic) with a number of businesses directly affected like sit-down restaurants, and other entities have taken a hit,” Jennings said. “But to a large degree in Barrow County, our manufacturing and industrial businesses have not only survived, but thrived.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics cited by Kooyman during his presentation, Barrow’s population grew 3.2 percent from 2020 to 2021 to an estimated 86,175 people and is projected to grow 7.68 percent over the next five years — outpacing the metro Atlanta area as a whole in terms of percentage and other neighboring counties with the exception of Jackson County, which has the current fastest growth rate in the state and one of the top growth rates nationally (3.76-percent growth in 2021 and forecasted growth of 8.38 percent in the next five years).
“There’s been a massive movement to the suburbs and Barrow County is right in the middle of that,” Kooyman said, adding that as the eastern sprawl from metro Atlanta and Gwinnett County has continued, home affordability has made Barrow a more desirable location.
He showed statistics that the median home value in Barrow for 2020 was roughly $188,100 in 2020 compared to $257,100 when combining Barrow and surrounding counties into an area he dubbed “metro Barrow.”
Kooyman said the housing market is being driven by Millennials (ages 25-44), many of whom are first-time homebuyers with moderate, middle-class incomes, and that generation is now moving to Barrow in higher percentages than surrounding counties and the metro Atlanta area.
At the same time, Kooyman said, the home ownership rate in Barrow County is trending up at a greater pace than the surrounding area with a 3.2-percent increase to 77.5-percent home ownership in 2020. Education levels (a decreasing high school dropout rate and a higher percentage of people with four-year college degrees) and annual household incomes in Barrow (a 4.3-percent increase from $78,200 to $81,600 from 2019 to 2020) are also improving, he said.
ECONOMIC GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES
As Barrow County’s population continues to grow rapidly, Kooyman said that presents the county with strong economic growth opportunities as well.
He cited a Wall Street Journal nationwide analysis that show a boom in “blue-collar” and service-oriented jobs across the country with a drop in “white-collar” jobs and noted that Barrow is also part of that transition.
According to the numbers presented by Kooyman, overall retail spending also increased in Barrow in 2020 despite the pandemic, with grocery stores, general merchandise stores like Target and Walmart seeing a boost of more than $17 million. Clothing and department stores like Belk took the biggest hit with at least $20 million less in sales.
Limited/quick service restaurants increased sales by roughly $2.5 million, while full-service restaurants’ sales decreased by about $2 million. Pet stores, drug stores/pharmacies and sporting goods stores also saw increases.
Restaurants, both full and limited/quick service ones, along with pet stores, sporting goods, lawn and garden stores, health food stores, and independent coffee shops and similar businesses are projected to see the highest retail sales growth in the county over the next five years, Kooyman said, adding that people’s spending habits, particularly those of the growing millennial demographic, are driving that forecast.
“If I had retail business here in Barrow County, I’d be very excited about what’s happening here,” he said.
In general, Kooyman, whose group conducted a prior survey last fall of chambers and business owners in Barrow, Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, said the pandemic has led many businesses to re-evaluate its operations in a “positive” way, including a heavier emphasis on technology.
With the transition taking place, he said the Barrow chamber should place a larger focus on outreach to small businesses and an increasing number of entrepreneurs and local startup companies.
Jennings said the chamber been thinking along the same lines but that a number of initiatives and engagement meetings that have been set up have been delayed by the pandemic. He said he’s optimistic, though, that with the improvement in conditions the chamber can become more aggressive in those efforts.
“We do recognize that we have a growing entrepreneur base here, and we want to be able to help them facilitate their next steps toward growing their business,” Jennings said. “Overall, we’re excited that Barrow County continues to be growing community, both for residents and business. We think the business-friendly atmosphere here is in an ideal spot for companies looking to move in, and growing our residential base is a focus for those industries looking to move in here so they can grow their customer base.”