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The Growth Issue 2019 | Part 1 Why is Walton County growing?

Walton County is growing and changing. Where are we headed?

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  • Good Hope Construction

    Storm clouds roll over construction work for homes being built along Old Good Hope Road on the afternoon of Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019.

Posted: Wednesday, September 4, 2019 12:00 am

Good Hope, as most Waltonians know, is a town straight out of a country song. It’s tucked into the rolling hills to the east of Monroe where there isn’t much besides a general store and a festival every fall and a few parks where families throw birthday parties for their kids.

Everybody knows each other, families have lived there for generations, and nothing much happens most of the time, which is exactly how people like it.

That is, until early May 2017.

Because that was when Dollar General announced its intentions to open its ninth store in Walton County. In Good Hope.

There was uproar, at least by Good Hope standards. There was a petition. There were letters written to this newspaper. Thirty-four people, or 12.4% of Good Hope’s population, showed up at a public forum on the matter.

There was fear. About crime, traffic, safety and property values. But mostly about change.

“When the first child is hit by a car, will you show as much concern for the child and the family that you did in siding with Dollar General?” Darrell Matheny wrote in a letter to The Tribune, questioning the City Council’s wisdom in approving the store.

“When the first crime occurs in the store, will you forget we told you so? When undesirables stop in front of the church and neighborhood, will this open your eyes to a mistake?”

Keeli Laughinghouse summed it up well.

“None of us moved here for convenience,” she said at a meeting.

“We moved here because this is a great place to start a family. Now we’re terrified.”

It is not just Good Hope where things are changing. It’s all over Walton County. But just like in the Walton’s second smallest city, folkshere have rather different opinions about what kind of change we want, if any at all.

This is a series of stories about growth and change in Walton County. We’re going to try to explain why Walton is growing, what that growth looks like, how it feels for things to change, and what people and governments want Walton County to look like in the years to come.

Let’s zoom out first.

Today’s story about growth and change in Walton County in the last 20 years can be summed up like this: Things were growing really fast, then not at all, and now things are growing again, but not as fast as they were before.

This can be explained in a single chart. It shows residential building permits filed in Walton County between 2000 and 2017. You see the huge hump on the left. That is the tail end of Walton County’s boom.

In 1980, Walton County was nothing but farmland and a couple of cotton mills. Thirty-one thousand people lived here. Little changed in the next decade, despite explosive growth in the metro Atlanta area. Thirty-nine thousand people lived here in 1990.

But development picked up in the 1990s and early 2000s.

This was fueled by the growth of metro Atlanta more generally, which grew by 39% between 1990 and 2000. With land growing scarce but no natural barriers to growth, the rural counties surrounding Atlanta became decidedly less rural.

Several big employers, like Unisia (now Hitachi Automotive) in 1999 and the Walmart Distribution Center in 2000, opened doors here.

By 2000, Walton’s population had grown to a little over 60,000. By 2010, it was up to 81,000.

Growth happened everywhere, but it happened largely on the west side of the county. It spilled over from Gwinnett County, which boomed in the 1980s and ’90s and has continued to grow significantly since.

The peak of the boom, when the market in Walton was on fire, was around 2003 to 2005, as the chart shows. Population went up by more than 3,300 between 2004 and 2005. Building permits peaked in 2005 with 1,664 in 2005.

And things kept growing until it all fell off a cliff with the recession. That’s the trough, the plunge in new building from 2006, with 1,379, to 2011, when a mere 38 new homes were built in the unincorporated county.

Population growth slowed too, with Walton picking up only 1,800 new residents between 2008 and 2011.

But now look. The line is rising. Builders are building again. People are moving in. Last year, there were 599 building permits.

And herein lies the opportunity, the choices, the fear, the excitement and the whole point of telling this story.

Because barring catastrophe, that line is likely to keep rising, keep on chugging upward, along with population and along with change.

Geographically, there is plenty of room for growth here. Walton has the third lowest population density in the 20-county metro Atlanta region, with only Bartow and Cherokee counties lower.

By 2040, the Atlanta Regional Commission projects that 138,000 folks will call Walton County home, a 48% increase from present levels.

Another recession could slow that number. A huge company moving to the area could accelerate it.

But as much as some might like to, it’s very, very difficult to imagine a scenario where no growth happens. Metro Atlanta isn’t growing like it was 20 years ago, but it’s still expanding. Incomes are rising here. New industries are arriving.

Local governments simply don’t have the authority to say no to everything. And, besides, making life better for people who already live here will attract others.

The more important question is how to direct and manage the growth that is coming.

“It’s going to change regardless,” Shane Short, the executive director of the Walton County Development Authority, said.

“Either you let that change happen to you, or you take control and steer.”

The Dollar General got built in Good Hope. It lit up its big yellow sign for the first time in early 2018.

Matheny, who was vocally against the Dollar General, doesn’t quite feel the same as he did when the announcement first arrived.

He wishes they store would do a better job keeping the grass cut and the trash picked up, but he said having it nearby has been useful sometimes.

“It really and truly is a good addition to our community. It’s working out OK. … The builder did everything we asked them too,” he said recently.

As for growth in the rest of Good Hope, he said he’d welcome a gas station or a restaurant or maybe a clothing store. While he hopes the hometown will stay small and quiet, he knows change will come.

“You have to accept that houses will be built, and nobody wants traffic, but that’s just life,” he said.

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