To Grow Or Not To Grow? That Is Not The Question

Last week’s Courier Herald column:

I grew up in rural Fayette County Georgia.  Or, perhaps I should say I grew up with rural Fayette County. 

When the 1970 census was taken shortly after I was born, the county due south of Atlanta’s airport, nestled between interstates 75 and 85, had under 12,000 residents – and only about 150 more than it had contained in 1900.  We added 17,000 people during that next decade, when newcomers suddenly outnumbered the “locals”. 

Things were just getting started for growth, as the next two decades brought about 30,000 residents each.  Now, a bit more than a half century later, Fayette County has more than ten times the number of citizens as we had when I arrived on the scene. 

You can still find traces of the rural county where I grew up, but you have to look well outside the incorporated areas of Fayetteville or Peachtree City.  Fayette has seen the wave of suburban growth come, explode, pause, and…morph.

When I graduated college my first job was as a banker in Cobb County. I quickly learned that a banker’s job had expectations to work closely with their local chamber.  Cobb had about 450,000 residents, whereas Fayette had just eclipsed the 60,000 mark.  Neither county showed signs of slowing down, as growth itself was a major industry in the metro Atlanta area.

The approach, however, was different within each county.  My home county decided that the best way to “control” growth was to pretend it wasn’t happening. 

Plans to add a limited access highway through the heart of Fayette County to ease access to and from Atlanta where most residents work were killed almost as soon as they were floated.  Sewer access was denied outside of the larger municipalities, with one acre lots established as the minimum for homes in the county on septic tanks.  Minimum home sizes were established, and mobile homes were no longer permitted to be added on lots or land.

I can recall as these issues were being debated in my home county a specific presentation given in Cobb with some of the Chamber folks.  They put a population on the County for 2020, noting that we would be adding 200,000 people to the county over that timeframe.  They didn’t question IF we would grow, nor fret about how to stop it.  The plans were for HOW to grow, and to do their best to get ahead and stay ahead of it.

A new divided four lane road was proposed through the southern end of the county that circled up to link with Town Center Mall.  It’s now known as the East West Connector.  A system of grid roads was built and/or aligned around the Cumberland/Galleria area.  This road system is what made it possible, three decades later, to drop an entire baseball stadium and entertainment district into the area with little disruption to traffic flows.

Cobb hit their growth target within a decade, and now has more than three quarters of a million residents.  Fayette, while resisting population growth, has still seen its population double in the last three decades.

For much of the 80’s and 90’s, Fayette was considered a success story.  The upheaval of the airline industry with Eastern’s liquidation, followed by 9/11 and the housing crash, set the county back for a bit. 

An honest self-assessment during the last decade determined that the county had the highest age of any county in the metro Atlanta area, with some of the largest homes on the largest lots, that kids who grew up there couldn’t afford when it was time for them to start their own families. Without amenities to attract younger residents, nor places for them to live, the county’s own growth plans had come to fruition – after adding ten times the number of residents.

Fayette is now in a new phase, led by the community of Trilith, anchored by movie studios.  The city of Fayetteville has added some apartments to attract younger residents, but there is still resistance to change, and many prefer to preserve things as they are. 

The cruel reality is, whether a community chooses to grow or not, time will march on either way.  Nothing will ever stay the same.

As the state grapples with ways to assist local governments who are seeing economic development opportunities and the growth they bring to their communities for the first time in decades, there is a cautionary tale here.  Change is going to happen. Growth is something best prepared for rather than ignored.

Exurban and rural communities need to have an honest and frank discussion with themselves, involving community leaders and their citizens.  The question should not be how to keep things the way they are forever, for that is a goal that will always result in failure.  The question needs to be how to we preserve who we are, while preparing ourselves and our communities to be the place that our kids and grandkids will want to live, and be able to prosper within. 

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