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Business consultant: positive signs of economic recovery, growth opportunities in Barrow

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.”

GROWTH TRENDS

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.”


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UPDATED: Winder-Auburn quarry project nominated in national contest

The Winder-Auburn joint water reservoir project has been nominated and is among the final 16 projects in contention for a national award in a contest that is being driven by online voting.

The project was one of 85 nominated by local governments across the country for the Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) Knope Award, intended to “showcase and celebrate essential local government services.”

According to its website, ELGL is a local government outreach nonprofit and was founded in Portland, Oregon, in 2012 and now has over 4,800 members from all U.S. states, plus Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel and Australia.

The award contest is formatted similar to the NCAA’s “March Madness” basketball tournament, and the Winder-Auburn project has made the "Sweet Sixteen." It received more votes than a water tank project in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and is now in contention with a water distribution system project in Stillwater, Oklahoma. 

Voting for the Sweet Sixteen closes at noon Monday, March 15, and the “Elite Eight” will be announced Tuesday, March 16. Voting and a list of all the “matchups” can be found at https://elgl.org/knope.

Anyone can vote (one vote per email address). The link to vote is https://elgl.org/elglknope-winder-ga-vs-stillwater-ok/.

The reservoir project, located at the old Martin Marietta rock quarry off Parks Mill Road in Auburn, is aimed at addressing a raw water storage shortage in northeast Georgia. The 78-acre site will be converted into a 1.1. billion-gallon raw water storage pond with three water intake points and more than 13 miles of pipeline.

The massive, multi-phase, multi-million-dollar project has been years in the making, and water withdrawal permits have been issued by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, with a current permitted yield of 4.59 million gallons per day on an annual average.

The reservoir is projected to be fully operational by January 2024.

The Auburn and Winder city councils last year approved a dewatering contract for a quarry, and workers have been actively pumping the site over the last month. Roger Wilhelm, utilities director for the City of Winder, told the city council during a Feb. 25 work session that workers were pumping out an average of 3 million gallons per day and were “60-90 days” away from being able to access the bottom of the quarry for site work.

The city is also working on easement acquisitions for the pipeline and intake work, Wilhelm said.


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County, Braselton to create joint economic development authority

Barrow County and the Town of Braselton are set to establish a joint economic development authority together in a move aimed at coordinating growth in and attracting developments to the Barrow portion of the town near Interstate 85.

The Braselton Town Council approved a resolution to create the authority at its Monday, March 8 meeting, and the county board of commissioners followed suit at its voting session Tuesday, March 9. The authority will consist of a seven-member board with four county appointments and three town appointments.

The initial county appointments include four-year terms for BOC chairman Pat Graham and interim county manager Kevin Little (or any successors to the chairmanship and county manager position) and two-year terms for Auburn city administrator Alex Mitchem and Holt Persinger, owner of Ridgeline Land Planning in Winder and a Winder resident who ran unsuccessfully for a city council seat in 2019.

Persinger was the applicant last fall on a proposed large development about a mile south of the intersection of highways 211 and 124 in the Braselton-Hoschton area of the county that would have allowed for the construction of 280 apartment units, 158 townhomes and 8.5 acres of commercial space. The BOC rejected the rezoning request for the property on Lec Stone Road, citing concerns raised by residents over the impact the development would have on traffic in the area, stormwater issues and property values for nearby neighborhoods.

The three Braselton appointments will include the mayor or mayor’s designee and the town manager for four-year terms, as well as a resident of or business owner in the town for a two-year term.

Officials are eyeing the authority as a funding vehicle for attracting development to the area, and the authority would not replace, but would complement, the similar groups the county already has in place, Graham said.

Braselton town manager Jennifer Scott said the county had reached out to the town about creating a joint development authority.

“That way we have a say in economic development that occurs in Braselton in Barrow County and can actually do joint projects together," Scott said. She added there are a number of things that a development authority can do, including significant tourism projects or park projects.

“Barrow County feels like Braselton is their gateway,” Scott said. “We are the only exit that they have off I-85. They see it as a place where they really want to set a standard.”

Scott explained the funding process for development authorities, noting that joint development authorities are typically funded from a percentage development bonds issued for specific projects.

“If there was someone who wanted to build some kind of development in Barrow County and wanted to get some kind of incentive through the joint development authority, typically the way that’s done is through the issuance of development bonds," she said. "The joint development authority gets a percentage of those bonds as payment for the work in issuing them. Then, they use that money to fund their projects.”

Scott also noted that the town wouldn't be giving up control over zoning.

“They don’t decide zoning,” said Scott. “…This is to incentivize a company coming to a property that’s already properly zoned.”

She added that no specific development is currently being targeted.

OTHER BOC BUSINESS

In other business Tuesday, county commissioners:

•approved issuing a request for qualifications (RFQ) for on-demand professional planning services, where an outside firm would assist the county’s planning department with handling requests with proposed “developments of significant impacts.” Those would include residential developments or subdivisions with at least 50 proposed lots/homes, commercial or industrial projects with at least 50,000 square feet of space and all proposed master-planned mixed-use developments. County officials are eyeing additional review of significant proposed projects that may not meet the state’s “developments of regional impact” (DRI) thresholds and hope to help relieve some of the strain on planning department staffers at a time of high growth and development interest in the county while also aiming to ensure fairness to all applicants requesting rezonings, conditional-use allowances and changes to the future land-use map. The company doing the independent review would present its findings to the county planning staff, and the staff would still make presentations and recommendations to the county planning commission and BOC. The external review would not lengthen the current process that applicants go through. The resolution passed by the board also gives the county manager flexibility to send out for review projects that don’t meet the “developments of significant impacts” thresholds. The board also approved Tuesday an RFQ for professional services to help prepare zoning regulations for the county’s Light Industrial District (M-1).

•tabled a request to rezone 5.9 acres at 683 Carl-Bethlehem Rd., Winder, in order to build a convenience store so county staff can have more time to work with the applicants on issues with the traffic configuration and intersection by the site.

•approved a request to rezone 26.3 acres at 1596 and 1612 Doc McLocklin Rd., Statham, which will allow for a 47-home subdivision to be built.

•approved the refinancing of a little less than $10.2 million in outstanding debt on Winder-Barrow Industrial Building Authority bonds that were originally issued to acquire the Park 53 land totaling 275.62 acres at highways 53 and 316. The county, which had been paying at a 3.75-percent interest rate, will now pay at 1.93 percent and is projected to save a little less than $900,000 through the refinancing. The bonds are scheduled to mature in 2031.

•approved the acceptance of an internship program through the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia that will allow the county to hire a website design intern and overhaul the county tax assessor’s website. Chief appraiser Guy Rogers said the goal is for the intern chosen to help his office develop a more customer- and user-friendly website.

•accepted a donation of 2.57 acres of land from Harrison Poultry for the rebuild and relocation of the county’s Fire Station No. 3 in Bethlehem.

•approved the purchase of cardiac monitors from Stryker Medical in the amount of $225,300. The monitors will replace ones the county previously approved the purchase of from another company in December that turned out to be defective.

•approved an upgrade to upgrade the county’s self-contained breathing apparatus units to bring them up to the latest standards. Barrow County Emergency Services Deputy Chief Heath Williams said the purchase price of the new equipment would be $20,350, which will come from the emergency services department’s capital improvement project funds.

•approved the acceptance of a Performance Partnership Grant from GEMA in the amount of $22,992.

•approved a low quote from Souder’s Asphalt in the amount of $50,791 to pave two new roads at Victor Lord Park off Firetower Road.

•extended the county’s landscaping contract with Tallent’s Landscape Maintenance, Inc. through June 2022.

•approved the reappointments of Glenn Whitley (District 3) and Larry Joe Wilburn (District 1) to the Barrow County Airport Authority board for two-year terms that will expire Jan. 31, 2023.

•approved the appointments of Angela Willingham and John Kohl to the Keep Barrow Beautiful board. Willingham’s term is for four years and will expire Dec. 31, 2024. Kohl’s is for two years and will expire Dec. 31, 2022.

•approved a resolution recognizing the City of Auburn for being named a 2021 Visionary City by Georgia Trend magazine and the Georgia Municipal Association.

•recognized the efforts of four people who were presented certificates by Barrow County Emergency Services officials for helping save a woman’s life last month at the Brad Akins YMCA after she went into cardiac arrest.

•met in closed session for a little more than an hour. No action resulted from the session. 

Alex Buffington of The Braselton News and Mainstreet Newspapers contributed reporting on the Barrow-Braselton economic development authority.


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UPDATE: Two suspects killed, two more arrested in attempted armed robbery in Winder subdivision

Two suspects were killed and two suspects have been arrested in connection with an attempted armed robbery in a Winder subdivision early Tuesday morning, March 2, according to the Barrow County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Jud Smith has said the killing of two suspects appears to have been an act of self-defense.

Julio Rivera, 20, and Alphonzo Gonzalez, 19, both of Athens, have been charged with criminal attempt to commit armed robbery and aggravated assault with the intent to rob following the incident in Beech Creek Estates off Highway 82 and are in custody at the Barrow County Detention Center. The two other suspects, Jose Barrera, 19, and Erika Contreras, 19, also of Athens, were killed in the confrontation with the person the suspects tried to rob, who was in a car and also armed, according to a BCSO news release.

Deputies were called to the scene on Beech Creek Circle just before 1:30 a.m. Tuesday following a report of suspicious people wearing masks and standing around a residence.

After deputies responded to the location, they found Contreras dead from a gunshot wound in a car about 100 yards away. Winder police alerted deputies that Barrera was found dead further up the road, and it was determined that Contreras and Barrera were both connected to the incident.

The sheriff’s office declined to release further information Friday, March 5, as the investigation remained ongoing and other charges were possible, according to the release.


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More than 1,000 BCSS employees set to receive vaccine

Through a collaboration with the Northeast Health District, the Barrow County School System will be holding a coronavirus vaccination event for all pre-registered teachers and staff to receive their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Thursday, March 11, marking the single-largest vaccination event the Barrow County Health Department has ever conducted.

As of Tuesday afternoon, March 9, 1,057 school district employees had booked an appointment to receive the vaccine — including teachers, school support staff, substitute teachers, custodians and student teachers. District officials were still hoping to reach their goal to administer 1,200 doses Thursday at Apalachee High School. Those who sign up are scheduled to receive their second dose April 1. The school system does not track the number of employees who have already received a vaccine.

Superintendent Chris McMichael said in a district news release Tuesday that he was encouraged by the registration levels.

“I am especially proud of the levels of participation in this event, which underscores how seriously and personally our staff take the challenges and responsibilities of living and working in the days of COVID-19,” McMichael said.

The district has been coordinating with the Georgia Department of Public Health’s Northeast Health District for several months on a vaccination plan and began pre-registering employees in early February. Gov. Brian Kemp announced late last month that vaccine eligibility would be expanded to pre-K-12 teachers and school staffers beginning Monday, March 8.

Susan Kristal, nurse manager for the Barrow County Health Department, said Thursday’s event will be a crucial step in helping protect the community’s educators.

“I think the planning and coordination of this event is one of the best examples of community partnerships. It is another example of Barrow County Schools’ bold thinking and bold ideas,” Kristal said. “Barrow County Health Department has the will and desire to serve but not the staff required, so the work you have been doing for weeks with volunteers and planning is appreciated.”

Twelve stations will be set up at Apalachee on Thursday for the vaccinations, with each of them staffed by a certified nurse, according to the release. Seven school district nurses volunteered to be trained and to administer the vaccine. There will also be three nurse volunteers from the Northeast Georgia Medial Center Barrow and two nurse volunteers from Piedmont Healthcare in Athens. The Northeast Health District is also providing nurses and staff to help lead the event.

“Thank you to our health care officials who have supported us every step down this new untrod and perilous path since this time last year,” McMichael said. “We are extremely thankful for our school and community nurses that volunteered to help.”

The school system will also provide more than 50 staff volunteers for event coordination. Volunteers will help direct traffic to specific parking areas, greet people upon entry, check in staff with their DPH form and photo ID, guide them to the vaccination stations and support the health district staff with data-entry.

Volunteer health care science teachers and school nurses will monitor staff for any side effects for at least 15 minutes after they receive their vaccine, officials said. NGMC Barrow is also providing an ambulance in case staff need additional medical support on site.

More than 85 volunteers from Bethlehem Church will be on hand to provide coffee, snacks, drinks and lunch for event workers and those being vaccinated. Children from the church also hand-made 44 posters and 15 yards signs with thank-you, support and encouragement messages for district employees.

“We are humbled and thankful for the incredible community support, volunteers, and resources that make it possible for our school staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” McMichael said. “From these efforts, we are confident that we will continue to be able to provide the best learning opportunities for our students moving forward.”

All vaccinated staff will be given a sticker that says, “Vaccinated to save our school year,” which can be applied to a school ID badge or phone case if employees choose, according to the release.

“Speaking for the nine members of the (board of education) and our Pandemic Incident Command Team, I cannot adequately express the pride, admiration, and gratitude we hold for our teachers and all the front-line staff members that are in the buildings, cafeterias, school buses, and online,” McMichael said. “While they see to the care, safety, and educational needs of our students every day, they have also taken the essential step to get vaccinated. Their dedication, hard work, and creativity during this global time of stress and change has been simply incredible. We are so thankful that we are finally at the point in this crisis that we can help to ensure their safety and health further through this herculean effort.”

With the vaccination event going on throughout the day, the school district will hold an online learning day for all students Thursday, as well as April 1 and April 2.

On each distance learning day, all school cafeterias will offer curbside meals from 10:30-11:30 a.m. There will be signs at each school directing parents where to pick up curbside meals. Each meal bag will include a breakfast and lunch. No signup is required. Students do not need to be present when picking up the meals, and proof of student attendance is not required.

Students do not have school on Friday, March 12, or Monday, March 15, as part of a previously-scheduled extended weekend. Spring break remains scheduled for April 5-9.


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