Coweta Vision 2013: Signs of hope
by By W. Winston Skinner
While the impact of the economic downturn continues, local business leaders see signs of improvement during the next 12 months in Coweta County.
The strength of the growing medical presence in Coweta and a strong regional retail sector are fueling growth and increasing economic vibrancy. Business leaders also see the beginnings of a resurgence in the vital housing industry, and some other sectors — including automobile sales and the film industry — are also doing well.
Local bankers Ashley Schubert and Steve Stripling both see an improving local economy. Steve Mader, owner and general manager of SouthTowne Motors, and Scott Tigchelaar, president of Raleigh Studios Atlanta in Senoia and co-founder of Senoia Enterprises, also spoke of the positive trends they see — in their own businesses and generally.
“Our local economic outlook for 2013 looks positive and is indicative of growth in several areas,” Schubert, Coweta-Fayette president for Charter Bank, said. “There are positive things happening in the county that show we are moving in the right direction.
“The economic drivers in Coweta County are retail, small business, medical and some industrial. All of those affect the tax base in some way, but the medical growth we’ve seen and should continue to see also has a positive impact on the housing market,” Schubert said.
“Things are getting better generally. The car business is good. We’re up this year — double digits from last year percentage-wise,” Mader said. He said 2012 also saw double-digit percentage growth from 2011.
The strength of the auto business locally is following national trends. Dealers are expecting 15.5 million new car sales in 2013, the most in several years. “Everybody agrees it’s going to be a good year,” Mader said.
There is “a lot of pent-up demand” for vehicles, Mader said. He said the average car on the road in the United States is six or seven years old.
Tigchelaar also spoke of the vibrancy of the regional film industry. “It couldn’t be better. It’s just outstanding that ‘Walking Dead’ is as successful as it is. ... They’re spending an enormous amount of money on production.”
AMC television network show “The “Walking Dead” uses Senoia for filming regularly, and other areas of Coweta have also been used for scenes. The series will be continuing through the end of the year, and Tigchelaar said there is “a high probability” of renewal for 2014.
The new Pinewood Studio planned for Fayette County, along with Raleigh, Screen Gems at the Lakewood Fairgrounds and Tyler Perry’s facilities near Hartsfield-Jackson Airport create a node of film production energy on Atlanta’s south side.
“That’s good in terms of high tides floating all boats,” Tigchelaar said. He is hearing from film crew members who are looking for housing in eastern Coweta County and in Peachtree City, since so much work is now centered in this area.
“It’s very promising,” Tigchelaar said. He said incentives approved by the state are outperforming “in terms of what was anticipated.”
The growth and strength of the movie industry in the area “has spilled over into non-film-related businesses,” Tigchelaar said. He noted Senoia has gone from having six or seven businesses downtown a few years ago to having 49 today.
What has been created is “a whole other layer of business that doesn’t get factored into” number crunching where movie-making is concerned, Tigchelaar said. Senoia’s downtown illustrates “what the industry can do for this area,” he said.
Georgia and Coweta County were hard hit when homebuilding ground to a halt a few years ago. The county is “starting to see a bit of recovery in the housing market,” said Stripling, who is president of United Bank in Newnan. “It’s not a strong recovery – but a recovery.”
“The housing market continues to be a barometer for economic growth, and we have certainly seen the residential sector pick up over the past two years,” Schubert said.
There has been “a flushing out of the houses that were on the market,” Stripling said. “The number of houses on the market has declined. That’s a positive thing.”
“It feels like things are breaking free a little bit in the housing market,” Tigchelaar observed. He noted some people have not taken jobs that required relocating in recent years because they could not sell their existing home. The previous optimism – where people would move first and sell the house later – disappeared.
In Coweta and Fayette counties, there has been “very little available in terms of new homes,” Tigchelaar said. “Now that’s starting to happen.”
The growth in the housing market “is creating a perfect little storm that’s going to be helpful to the area,” Tigchelaar predicted.
While there is an “upturn” in the housing market locally, “it’s not close to where it needs to be,” Stripling said. He believes the county is at least two years from getting back to a healthy level of housing construction.
Tigchelaar believes there is great potential for housing growth in the area as the economy improves. People can buy more house and/or a larger lot in Coweta or Fayette than in counties north of Atlanta. Plus, the north side “is just so congested,” he said.
“Here in Coweta County, it’s beautiful. I hope we as a county – and county leadership – recognize the jewel we have here,” Tigchelaar said. He said political leaders need to make sure new projects are good for the community and for future economic vitality.
“The alternative to quality growth is crap growth. We have an opportunity still to direct the path of development as the county grows,” he said.
Charter Bank is “actively making construction loans in 14 different subdivisions for builders and their customers,” Schubert said. “We also have our mortgage loan originator that provided approximately 100 loans during 2012.” Schubert said 45 percent were for refinancing, “which is a good indicator people are buying houses and building new homes.”
Much of the growing strength in the local economy comes from the Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Newnan and the new Piedmont Newnan Hospital. Both have created a lot of new jobs.
Two other medical facilities are set to open during 2013, and medical office space is being built and leased.
“Local people are getting jobs,” Mader said.
“We are a preferred retail area. People from Peachtree City like to come to Ashley Park to shop,” Schubert said. Other retailers in the area draw customers from several nearby counties, as well.
“We’ve got some new small businesses that are occupying previously unoccupied buildings along the Highway 34 bypass,” Schubert said. He specifically mentioned a gun shop in a former sporting goods store location and the Center Field Baseball Academy on Hillwood Circle, just off the bypass.
Schubert said Coweta County could benefit economically from having more jobs in small business and industry within the county. Large numbers of Cowetans commute to Atlanta and bring their paychecks home.
“In order for Newnan to reach its full potential, we’ve got to see more job growth in the industrial and small business sectors,” Schubert said.
Stripling noted large corporations are doing well, and the stock market continues to show gains.
He said small businesses are a main driver of employment and economic growth, however, and those businesses “have struggled the most.” Smaller companies “don’t have the elasticity to get through something like this” to the same degree as large companies, Stripling said.
He gave the example that a national air conditioning component company may be doing well and posting record profits, but local heating-and-air firms may still be struggling “to get back to normal levels.”