Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Trip Down Memory Lane Leads to Cherokee County

By Ellen Cutter, Director of Research. 

In 2004, I started my master’s program in city and regional planning at Georgia Tech. I had just moved from Oregon, where I served as an AmeriCorps volunteer after college. Besides having some family in the city of Atlanta, I did not know any of the ins and outs of communities ITP, let alone OTP. 

(For the record: that’s local jargon for inside and outside the perimeter – I-285). 

For my first class, our assignment was to break up into groups, perform a data assessment on a metro Atlanta county, and then visit that county for an on-the-ground assessment of land use, housing, population, and economic issues and opportunities. My group was assigned Cherokee County, about an hour north of Atlanta. We visited historic downtown Woodstock, had a dynamite lunch at Williamson Bros. Bar-B-Q, and saw a dizzying number of new subdivisions and strip developments. It was a great time, and we all really liked the feel of Cherokee County. But at the same time, it was clear the county was at a crossroads. 

Little did I know, at about the same time, Market Street was facilitating an economic strategic plan for the county. And when I was hired by Market Street a year later, I caught up on the Cherokee work. Growth pressures were central to that process. Knowing that Cherokee would catch the wave of Metro Atlanta growth, how did residents want their communities to grow? 

Cherokee County was attracting educated, middle-class and affluent families to its communities, but its job base was not keeping pace. Local jobs were concentrated in lower-paying service sectors, leaving a high proportion (65%) of residents to face long commute times to work out-of-county. The process focused in on job creation in Cherokee County, doing more to assist small businesses and establishing target sectors, while also supporting workforce and quality of life initiatives that are critical to building strong community. 

In the last decade, the Cherokee Office of Economic Development has grown into a dynamic organization with impressive board and staff leadership. Its website is sleek, well-organized, packed with good information, and (hugely important) up to date. In addition to targeted business recruitment, Cherokee has established a business retention and expansion program and expanded small business development programming in partnership with the local chamber. The results show. Within the community, great things are also taking shape. Its school district boasts the highest average SAT scores in the state and Northside Hospital is investing $280 million in new facilities. 

All the while, the Office of Economic Development has operated on a spartan budget. The county is currently reaching out to its cities for funding support to aid in marketing efforts and to hire an additional staff person. The OED has certainly proved itself, and I hope the county is successful in bringing city partners to the table. 

You can catch up with Cherokee County Office of Economic Development by checking out its 2012 Annual Report.