On Thursday, Feb. 13, members of the Dawson County Chamber of Commerce met at the professional development center for an update on the first ever Economic development Plan which is currently under development by the county.
Chamber members heard from Lynn Patterson, Principal of Three Points Planning, the firm that is helping Dawson County develop the plan, on where they are in the planning process, how the plan is taking shape and what members should expect in the near future.
"I love places because they are unique and it takes the entire community to have a vision to make that place unique," Patterson said. "I could sit at my desk and give you a cookie cutter plan over and over again that would probably work about 80% of the time, but that's not what we want.
According to Patterson, the economic development plan will be a dynamic, guiding document, aimed at improving the county’s economic prospects for years to come, while also providing a baseline measure of where the county currently is.
During her presentation, Patterson walked the crowd through the planning process, updating members on what elements in the community the plan will look at, what it's aims will be, focusing a large amount of time on a list of assets and liabilities in the county which had been identified by a stakeholder group.
Assets included elements like the tourism Dawson County gets from the Atlanta Motorsports Park and Amicalola State Park; existing infrastructure from Ga. 400; the rural feel of the community, the positive business climate and emphasis on quality education.
But liabilities identified by the group were equally numerous, including a lack of diversity in industry and the community of Dawson County as a whole; a host of different concerns related to land use and availability in the county; and a shortage of labor, housing and affordable real estate.
After the floor was turned over the crowd for feedback, local residents and business owners began sharing their concerns and thoughts on opportunities that the community presented with Patterson and chamber representatives.
Chief among the concerns and monopolizing the majority of the conversation was the topic of housing and labor availability in the community.
Multiple people stated that they had faced issues, either with their business or their personal lives, with housing or labor, and feared that those issues would be a hurtle for the county or have additional negative impacts in the future.
"My daughter is 20 and she’s out working on her own, living with us and a one-bedroom apartment is $1,100 a month, it just makes no sense, it would be nice to have something a little more affordable," a woman in the back of the room said. "She's just going to live with us and save up to buy a place."
"Your rents are extraordinarily high," Patterson said.
Another woman chimed in saying that the problem didn't just stop at residential housing, but extended to businesses which need to rent a location they can afford.
"When my husband and I a couple of years ago bought a business, it took us forever to find a place to lease to put our business, we either could not afford it, or there wasn't space available anymore. I see that as an issue for people that are just starting out," the woman said. "It's crazy what we pay for the building we have right now."
A man at the front of the room asked Patterson, when they look at other areas that have had success bringing more affordable housing options into their community, what have been some of the strategies that were used?
The man said that from his perspective, land costs, construction costs, materials and the "cost per door" makes building "affordable" housing difficult, bordering on impossible.
"I don't know how you build an affordable apartment," he said. "Everything we do is going to be some sort of new construction, and to do that, those costs right now are outrageous."
Patterson said that this area the man was talking about was a good opportunity for public-private partnerships, where the development authority could help facilitate the creation of housing, such as they would with an industrial or business project. These methods wouldn't address high construction costs, she said, but they would be a step in the right direction."
"I want to be really careful, because affordable housing often gets conflated with low income housing, and that's not what we're talking about, we're talking about housing for your work force," Patterson said. "Multi-family doesn't have to be a dirty word, it's actually something that can be really vibrant and helps the base."
Moving on from the topic housing, another woman raised the issue of finding qualified workers in the community, saying that her business always has problems finding workers who are dependable and want to work.
"I just don't know if the pool isn't big enough or if they're just not prepared to come out of high school and want to work," she said.
Chiming in to agree with the question of labor availability, another business owner said that Dawson County is both "blessed and cursed" by the outlet mall, because the small local business have a hard time competing with the easy, $9-10 per hour jobs that it provides young people.
"Why would they want to come work for us when it's hard work," she said.
Many of those labor problems, according to Patterson, can be fought by bringing community partners like industry, the county school system, colleges and universities and local government to the table to look at options for how to mentor young people and draw them into different industries.
"I think those programs are really key and the participation of the business community is huge," Patterson said.
A draft of the Dawson County Economic Development Plan is expected sometime in June or July 2020, according to Patterson’s presentation, with a final plan ready to be implemented as early as August 2020