The coming year promises to have some big events in Jackson County, some of which could change the community forever.
Of course, much of that will depend on how quickly the nation — and by extension the state — is able to tamp down the Covid virus.
Today, Jackson is in the midst of a major Covid outbreak. The holidays likely contributed to that and January could become a very deadly month if the virus did indeed spread over the past couple of weeks at holiday gatherings.
Even so, there are some things in motion that are likely to go forward in 2021 regardless of the virus.
So what will the big stories of 2021 in Jackson County look like?
From my crystal ball:
1. The opening of the new Jackson County High School and Empower Center.
The opening of any new school is always big news, but this event is a double-move for education in Jackson County.
First, the move of Jackson County Comprehensive High School to West Jackson will completely change the social, political and cultural dynamics for that side of the county. It will give what is becoming a suburban community a large, central institution around which to organize itself.
Currently, the area is a loose confederation of subdivisions with no real central focus. There is no "there" there. But the opening of the new high school will create a "there" for the sprawling West Jackson community.
It also marks a historic return of the school to its roots. Jackson County High School was moved from Braselton to Jefferson in 1979 to become JCCHS. There were good reasons for the move, but now 40 years later, there are also good reasons to move the school back into its "home" territory.
Make no mistake, this is also a big move politically in the county. This event, along with an upcoming redistricting of county election districts, will shift the balance of power in the county to the west side. Previously splintered and disjointed, political forces on the west side will be better organized and more focused, especially around education issues.
That will also bleed over into general county government issues as well. Both the Jackson County Board of Education and Jackson County Board of Commissioners will be dramatically affected.
But that's not all.
The move will also open up the existing JCCHS facility to become the county's newest education campus, the Empower College and Career Center. The EC3 is a charger high school in partnership with local businesses and is under the state's technical college system. It will offer various career paths to students from the Jackson County and Commerce school systems.
The new school — and that's really what this is — has the potential to revolutionize education in the county. In addition, it is already being used as a major selling point to potential new businesses, especially those looking for an educated workforce.
Longer term, the EC3 could be the basis on which the county develops a college campus, something that is much needed in the community. Although we're surrounded by higher education colleges and tech schools, having a college in the county would be a major boon for the future, especially if it was focused on high-tech engineering (Georgia Tech, are you listening?)
2. Expansion of Hoschton's city government infrastructure and residential growth.
Over the last 18 month, the town of Hoschton has been through hell. For a time, its government couldn't function due to a lack of a quorum.
All of that may be in the past. Over the last six months, the town has reorganized, hired new staff and is pushing hard on a wide variety of projects.
Some of that revolves around expanding city infrastructure, especially to accommodate a boom in residential growth. Other aspects are more political as the small town government attempts to grow, expand and professionalize. Among the items on the table is a planned expansion of the county from four to six members, higher pay for the council and mayor and very likely, the creation of a city property tax to pay for the reestablishment of a city police department.
All of that is on tap for 2021.
In addition, the development of Twin Lakes is proceeding at a rapid pace. The massive planned community could bring the town's population to over 10,000 people by 2030, if not sooner. It will have a dramatic impact on the small town. It's likely that Twin Lakes will eventually take over the town's government as an extension of its homeowners association, much like the large Chateau Elan development has come to overshadow Braselton's municipal government.
But there is some bad blood between the city and the developers of Twin Lakes that revolve around the town's quick move to implement impact fees, a move that will cost Twin Lakes buyers about $3,000 more per house. (Developers sued, but lost in court.)
It remains to be seen if the city can repair its relationship with its largest developer, or if 2021 will bring out more tension.
And it remains to be see if the town can manage to juggle all the balls it is tossing into the air. There's a lot going on in the town and it will require a lot of on-going energy to keep things organized.
3. Industrial expansion plans at I-85 and Hwy. 98 in Commerce.
This is the last major I-85 interchange in the county that has not yet developed with commercial and industrial growth. That's about to change as large landowners in the area get ready for additional infrastructure for what is expected to be a boom in development in the coming years. New roads are planned and a study of rail and highway realignment is in the works. The nearby SK Battery plant could drive a lot of growth at this interchange.
How much of that will happen in 2021 is unclear, but the year will certainly bring a lot of planning and infrastructure discussions to the table.
4. The initial opening and testing at the SK Battery facility in Commerce.
Assuming that the lawsuit between SK Battery and its rival is settled, the Commerce plant will gear up in 2021 to manufacture its first EV batteries. Those will be tested by VW during the year for that company's new electric vehicle being manufactured in Tennessee.
There's been a huge amount of interest and controversy surrounding the SK plant. Some of that may continue for a while, but once it's up and running I expect the tone to change.
SK is huge; it's the gorilla in the room. How it decides to throw its massive weight around could directly impact the Commerce area and by extension, all of Jackson County.
Mega-corporations have a mega-microphone and SK will have an outsized voice in local issues for many years to come, if it chooses to get involved in the community.
5. Potential major growth in South Jackson.
South Jackson's era as a rural area of large landowners with undeveloped property may be coming to an end.
Two major residential projects in the area were put on hold in 2020 over Covid issues, but both could see a return in 2021 given the county's strong economic growth relative to many other areas of the nation.
A large 700-acre development on Chandler Bridge Rd. near the Clarke County line could be a transformational development if it gets approval and moves forward. The idea behind the project is for an "agrihood" community similar to the famous Serenbe project west of Atlanta.
The other project just south of Arcade is also on hold, but could bring a large subdivision community to that area.
Any development in South Jackson is bound to be controversial. A proposed Striplings store/restaurant on Hwy,. 129 at Brock Rd. is currently creating a firestorm in the area. A lot of South Jackson residents oppose growth in the area, but the day may be coming when large subdivisions transform that part of the county in a major way.
6. Education SPLOST vote
A renewal of the county's sales tax for education facilities could come up for a vote as early as March. Among the major aspects of that would be to fund a new elementary school in the West Jackson area and to expand Jefferson Middle School.
Residential growth in the small town of Pendergrass is part of that. That growth will soon bring pressure on North Jackson Elementary School and the need for additional classrooms in that area of the county.
Pendergrass has long been a tiny town and at times, with outsized controversies. But those days may be coming to an end as new residents flood the community bringing political changes to the town and that area of the county. That includes an impact on SPLOST votes.