Project Update: Dawson County Trail Master Plan

By Janet Cochran


Dawson County is located in mid-north Georgia where the City of Dawsonville is the county seat. Just one hour north of Metro Atlanta, the county is home to beautiful natural resources such as Amicalola Falls and the mountain vistas of Georgia’s Appalachia to the north and Lake Lanier to the south. Its heritage rooted in the moonshine runs of the past gave rise to what is known today as NASCAR. Long before that the Cherokee people called it home.

Georgia Hwy 400 is a major transportation corridor which connects Dawson County to the Metro Atlanta area. Its major retail commercial center is located south of the Georgia Highway 53 interchange with potential for additional medical, office, and industrial development along both the Georgia 400 Corridor and the Georgia Highway 53 East Corridor. Dawson County has seen tremendous retail investment in the past five years. While this growth has been a net positive to the community, it has not been balanced with industrial and office growth. There are also significant disparities between wage rates and the affordability of housing.

The reliance on the retail sector for both property tax income to the county and for employment of citizens is not sustainable for this area. With the continued growth in e-commerce, more retailers are expected to downsize and close their doors over the next several years. There is valid concern with the recent announcements of store closures like Toys-R-Us, Payless Shoe Source, JCPenney, Gymboree, The Children’s Place, and Sears. Ecosystems that rely heavily on the retail sector have a dangerous exposure for negative economic impact.

A key factor in assessing this project is that a significant percentage of the county’s land area is public forest land, which does not generate property tax revenues. Therefore, Dawson County must ensure preservation, access, and value-added strategies to generate visitors and indirect income from these assets. Envisioning a future with a more diverse economic base, Dawson County looks to incorporate its nontaxable natural assets into a development plan that will ultimately lessen tax burdens placed on residents and farmers.

"We are so thankful for the partnership with Georgia's Rural Center in developing a master trail plan for Dawson County,” says Betsy McGriff, Director of Economic Development, Dawson County Chamber of Commerce. “Tourism is a crucial element of economic development in our part of rural Georgia and this plan will help us link existing assets with a goal of retaining visitors in our community for extended periods of time. It also helps us capitalize on the natural resources we are so blessed to have here. Plans for implementation are already underway and we can't wait to get started!"

In 2014, a study was conducted for the Appalachian Regional Commission entitled, “Economic Diversification in Appalachia: Case Studies in Economic Diversification.” This study stated, “Structured regional planning processes can motivate and guide the development and implementation of economic diversification strategies.” Furthermore, the study stated that “Common strategies include creating an ecosystem more supportive for entrepreneurs.” Dawson County’s pursuit of support for this project from Georgia’s Rural Center aligns with this study.

According to the Dawson County Development Authority, there is support for planned growth by the Dawson County Chamber of Commerce, City of Dawsonville, and Dawson County. A plan for a trail system to provide connectivity is just one factor, and Georgia’s Rural Center agreed to assist the Dawson County Development Authority with funds to support a countywide multi-use trail system based on a business and economic development angle to attract businesses that can virtually work from any location such as entrepreneurial and tech companies. Dawson County competes with neighboring counties that have great connectivity to shopping, parks, and other recreational opportunities within the county which add a quality of life component attractive to young professionals, especially those who work from home.

“In our modern society with so many technological advantages, the decision becomes not about where the job is located but rather about where life happens outside of work,” says Janet Cochran, project manager. “Tackling the challenges of economic growth sometimes means going at it from a different angle.”

Tourism and retail are the biggest portions of the county’s economic portfolio. Expanding economic development efforts to reach small tech companies with higher wages is an effort to infuse diversity into Dawson County’s economy.

“We look forward to seeing how this trail system will factor into Dawson County’s sustainable growth and increased workforce while adding to its desirability as a tourist destination,” says Cochran.

For more information about this initiative, check out the report.