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Small Cities’ Response to Growth Spikes is a Juggling Act

March 7, 2017  |  Gale Gay
This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
An artistic rendering of Dogwood Forest, Grayson’s newest $28 million assisted living complex set to open in the summer.
 
An explosion in population and business development is underway in many Georgia cities, a phenomena that brings opportunities but also challenges. City officials report that growth spikes require juggling immediate needs along with planning for the future.
 
Big things are happening in the small town of Davis­boro. Located 54 miles southwest of Augusta, Davis­boro has experienced a near 50 percent growth rate in four years. In 2012, the city’s population was 1,700 and by 2016 the population had jumped to 2,300, ac­cording to Davisboro City Manager Daniel Thomas.
 
Thomas pointed out that the Atlanta Journal Con­stitution named Davisboro as one of the fasting-grow­ing cities in the state last year.
He cited the low cost of living, low crime rate and tight-knit community as reasons people are attracted to the city.
 
As a result of the population increase, city officials have had to contend with beefing up the community’s infrastructure. The city successfully requested loans from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority to expand its wastewater and water systems, Thomas said. In 2014, a million dollar loan was awarded to Davisboro to build a new well, which was completed in 2016. In 2015, a $4.6 million loan was awarded for the expansion of the wastewater system.
 
These infrastructure improvements are now anoth­er draw for the city.
 
And last year, a new business—a Dollar General store—set up shop in Davisboro bringing residents a benefit that those living in bigger cities take for granted.
 
“Prior to that time, if you needed a carton of eggs or a loaf of bread, you had to go 10 miles away to Sand­ersville or Louisville. Now, our residents can enjoy a five-minute walk to the store,” Thomas said.
 
Over the past few years, officials in the city of Har­lem have experienced the good fortune of watching and learning from responses to growth in communi­ties nearby.
 
Harlem City Manager Brett Cook describes his city, which is located in the southwest portion of Columbia County, as the last frontier for growth. He said Colum­bia County has grown by 16 percent since 2010 and is one of the fastest-growing counties in Georgia and the United States. The county’s explosion in population is due, in part, to its proximity to Augusta.
 
“It’s given us an opportunity to maybe think a little bit more critically how we want to grow,” Cook said.
 
According the GMA’s data tools, the population in Harlem increased from 2,010 residents in 2000 to 2,967 in 2015—a growth rate of almost 50 percent.
 
“The bubble is here,” Cook said.
 
In preparation for dealing with the growth trend, Harlem officials have been annexing land, revising zoning ordinances, developing building material stan­dards and focusing on revitalizing downtown. A new city library is expected to open in April that will be­come a city center with fountains and greenspace.
 
Harlem officials also have been studying what should be preserved in their city.
 
“Internally we are figuring out what’s important to us and where we want to direct development,” said Cook, adding that now is the right time to look at the city holistically. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
 
He added that Harlem seeks to embrace growth without sacrificing what makes the town unique.
 
Though Cook has been on the job in Harlem only since December 2016, he’s had experience working in other fast-growing communities. He previously served as city manager for both Darien and McIntosh.
 
In Grayson, Mayor Allison Wilkerson said she’s excited about the growth that’s taking place in her town.
 
She remembers growing up in Grayson as a teen­ager when there were no places to go for jobs or shop­ping. Now there are doctors’ and dentists’ offices, gift

shops and fast food restaurants in the city.
“These are all things that we didn’t have here 40 years ago,” said Wilker­son. “Now teens can work five minutes from home.”
 
According to U.S. Census data, Gray­son’s population was 2,666 in 2010 and grew to 3,147 in 2015.
 
Focusing more on planning and zon­ing has been among the ways Grayson officials have responded to the popula­tion rise.
 
Wilkerson said with residential growth, stormwater issues have in­creased. Part of how Grayson officials have responded is educating home­owners about when they are respon­sible for drainage issues and when the city is responsible.
 
She cites Grayson’s seven cluster schools, events for youth and commu­nity hospitality as some of the reasons why people are attracted to the Gwin­nett County city.
 
“People want to be part of that. They want to live among friends that will care for their kids when they get sick,” she said. “They love the commu­nity atmosphere. We are very proud of it.”
 
In 2016 an assisted living facility opened its doors in Grayson. Another $28 million assisted living complex is now under construction in the city and is expected to be finished in March and be open by this summer.
 
Wilkerson believes these facilities are a benefit to young families with ag­ing parents and grandparents.
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