Forsyth County counts five golf courses. Hancock County has none.
Construction cranes tower over Cumming, the Forsyth County seat 45 minutes north of downtown Atlanta. Abandoned antebellum mansions rot in Sparta, the Hancock County seat 90 minutes east of Atlanta.
Forsyth is among the top 25 wealthiest counties in America. Hancock is among the bottom 25.
Hard to believe, but the two counties once had much in common. Both were rural. Both made livelihoods from cotton and cows. Both were poor.
What happened? Atlanta happened.
Forsyth got sucked into Atlanta’s gravitational orbit, an exurban outpost with relatively affordable housing, good schools, a burgeoning business sector and water sports galore. Ga. 400 made it easy for the young and the restless to leapfrog north Fulton and Cobb counties, but to continue to suckle jobs, wealth and cachet from the Atlanta mother ship.
Hancock, meanwhile, shriveled. The death of King Cotton was followed by the demise of the textile industry. That gave rise to the wholesale exodus of high school graduates to Augusta, Macon and, yes, Atlanta. Hancock’s story is rural America’s story writ large.
“All the small towns in Georgia sent their brightest to Atlanta,” said Allen Haywood, executive director of Hancock’s development authority. “People that are really the backbone of our communities don’t have the jobs to keep them here. It really dries up your small towns.”
It’s not all doom and gloom in Hancock, though. A planned highway bypass around Sparta and a solar energy farm at the industrial park offer hope. And it’s not all wine and roses in Forsyth. The number of poor people has more than doubled the last 50 years. Then again, the population has risen more than tenfold to 188,000 during that time.
Nationwide, the top 25 richest counties have much in common: Most are suburbs to major U.S. cities. A half-dozen Virginia and Maryland counties surrounding Washington, D.C. made the list. So, too, did counties near New York City, San Francisco and Denver.
Forsyth ranks 22nd, according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, with a median household income of $87,380. The poverty rate, after a small up-tick during the recession, stood at an estimated 6 percent in 2012.
“People like the idea of small town life or suburban life, but they want to be within 30 minutes or an hour of a fancy hospital, restaurants and nice shopping,” said Jeffrey Dorfman, an economist at the University of Georgia.
In 1960, Atlanta itself was a relatively small town of nearly a half-million people without a feeder system of major roadways to take people – and their money – to far-flung suburbs.
Forsyth County tallied only 12,200 people. And 42 percent of them were impoverished, the Census reports. Water had just filled thousands of acres behind the new Lake Lanier dam.
The lake attracted a well-heeled crowd of boaters, retirees and second-home buyers. Within a decade, Forsyth’s poverty rate had dropped to 18 percent. The 1993 extension of Ga. 400 into Forsyth accelerated the northern exodus, helping the county perennially rank as one of the nation’s fastest growing.
The highway allowed parents to live in one of the dozens of subdivisions dotting south Forsyth, commute to the Perimeter or Buckhead and rest assured that their kids were getting a good education. The Forsyth school system boasts that its students notch the highest test scores in Georgia, and it’s graduation rate is No. 1 among the state’s 20 largest districts.
“Business is very good, thanks to God. We keep growing, growing, growing,” said Kiran Kaushish, a Realtor who lives in the upscale St. Marlo subdivision in south Forsyth and caters to Asian home buyers. “And the schools have to be really good in order to have that growth.”
No longer must Kaushish’s clients struggle with Ga. 400 traffic to reach jobs. Nearby Alpharetta, in northern Fulton County, is chock-a-block with high-tech firms that employ legions of Indian (and American) computer programmers, app designers and project managers. Forsyth prides itself on a growing roster of multinational companies, including Hansgrohe (German) and IUS Technologies (Korean).
“We have seen enormous growth in the international business community,” said James McCoy, who heads Forsyth’s chamber of commerce. “These folks are making an investment in the community, they’re living in the community and a number of their employees are driving in from somewhere else.”
‘Hidden jewel of Georgia’
The South is home to nearly all the country’s 25 poorest counties. Hancock is 23rd on that list.
One of every three Hancock residents lives below the poverty line, according to the Census. The median household income is $25,416, less than a third of Forsyth’s.
“Average household incomes are lower in the South than in other regions of the country,” said professor Dorfman, adding that Southern counties tend to be smaller in size than elsewhere and often lack significant population centers.
Once, when cotton drove the economy, Hancock County lorded its wealth and power over Georgia. In the early 1800s, the county was one of the state’s richest and most populous. The heyday left Sparta with an “extraordinary architectural legacy that cannot be equaled elsewhere in the state,” as historian Phinizy Spalding put it.
A slew of wondrous Neoclassical and plantation-style beauties still dot Sparta’s side streets. Many, though, are abandoned, with balconies sagging and columns disintegrating. The circa 1883 courthouse, a three-story gem with soaring windows and a white cupola, needs $3 million in repairs.
Geography all but doomed Hancock County. Stuck near the middle of the state, with only two-lane byways beckoning industry, Hancock depends on a perfume bottle plant, a few quarries, 300,000 acres of timberland and local and state governments for jobs and economic survival.
A decade ago, 10,100 people lived in the county, which bills itself as “the hidden jewel of Georgia.” Now that’s down to about 9,000, but 1,300 of them are men serving time at Hancock State Prison. In the 1980s, Hancock was the only county in Georgia to actively recruit a prison — which now employs 300.
The county hospital closed in 2001. There is no chamber of commerce; Forsyth’s chamber counts 900 members. The technical school in Sparta is reduced to offering only adult education and truck driving classes. BriarRose, a golf course up near much wealthier Greene County, closed two years ago.
The county’s unemployment rate hovers around 15 percent, one of the highest in the state. It didn’t help when the state all but closed the mental hospital in nearby Milledgeville last year, casting hundreds of Hancock County residents onto unemployment rolls. Nor did fortunes improve when the state routed an Augusta-to-Columbus highway around Hancock.
“It’s the little things that keep happening that don’t quite play into our hands,” said Helen “Sistie” Hudson, who chairs the county commission. “There’s just a persistent poverty here.”