As local legend goes, Benjamin Parks was deer hunting back in 1828 when he tripped over a rock in woods near where Dahlonega is today. Ben’s eyes must have popped wide open at the sight of the huge gold nugget at his feet. Over the next several years, thousands of miners flocked to Northeast Georgia as part of the Dahlonega Gold Rush.
Nearly two centuries later, another gold rush is underway. This time, it’s in Gainesville-Hall County, and the gold is our local economy, a top-ranked healthcare network, temperate climate, and our lake and nearby mountains.
You don’t need an official census count to see what’s happening. Visit downtown Gainesville at night and you’ll notice the sidewalks are no longer rolled up. The streets are filled with diners, shoppers, partiers, tourists, and yes ... downtown residents. It’s also a much more diverse crowd of all ages and cultures.
Gainesville is not alone. Like the area’s boomtowns that popped up in the 1800s, Braselton and cities across our region are experiencing similar growth and development.
While we can visibly see the crowds, the trend is supported by a recent economic report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. It reveals startling migration patterns of population waves leaving the Northeast and Midwest for Georgia and other southern states. California is experiencing the same exodus with many residents also moving to Georgia.
Much of the outmigration, particularly in large cities, is attributed to the pandemic, according to the report. Rising crime in urban areas is likely another reason. However, the biggest motivator appears to be our favorable economy in Georgia. A follow-up population wave, the report confirms, will be driven by “outmigration from higher-to-lower cost markets.”
One local example is the relocation of Fox Factory, a large manufacturer of bike parts, from California to our community. At Peach State Bank and other area banks, there has been a steady influx of new consumer accounts from New Yorkers and others from the North. In many instances, these newcomers are buying houses here with cash, reaping the windfalls of a comparatively more affordable housing market.
For our native population, the area’s growth and resulting higher home prices are creating some interesting scenarios. I have witnessed several local residents selling their homes at premium values and moving into rental properties to wait out the market. It’s a gamble that could pay off when home prices dip back down again – but not likely any time soon.
The downtown development in cities like Gainesville and Braselton is attracting young workers in healthcare and other professions. However, with starter home prices averaging above $350,000 (a $100,000 increase over last year), they are moving into apartments instead. The first phase of the Solis apartments in downtown Gainesville is already sold out with long lines of many more renters chomping at the bit for additional inventory to open in coming months.
In fact, the affordable housing market is so tight here that the population overflow is spilling into Banks, Habersham and other communities to our north. The Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank also tracks home affordability in 23 Georgia cities, and Gainesville and nearby Jefferson lead the list of areas with the least affordability.
If some are finding it challenging to afford living here, it’s certainly not stopping them from visiting. Tourism here and across the rest of the country has rebounded sharply from the last two years of the pandemic. With our abundance of natural resources in Lake Lanier and recreational parks, in addition to area wineries, new restaurants and entertainment venues, we are officially a tourist destination.
It’s already difficult to book a hotel reservation here, and local officials point out that even with the Marriott Courtyard opening in downtown Gainesville next year, we could still fill up three or more hotels.
The good news is our modern-day gold rush is likely to continue to insulate us from future economic woes elsewhere. Even if a national recession happens, there are simply too many open jobs and corporate expansions to fill that will keep our regional and statewide economy stable if not booming for the near future.
You might say there’s still plenty of gold in “them thar hills.”
Ron Quinn, president and CEO of Peach State Bank & Trust, serves as the Georgia delegate for the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) and is former chairman of the Community Bankers Association of Georgia.