People seeking the pleasures of pastoral living will soon double the population of a quaint town once known as a railroad hub on the edge of Barrow and Gwinnett counties.
Auburn is split by railroad tracks running parallel to U.S. 29/Ga. 8. Its historic downtown area to the north pays homage to its railroad history with a bright, red caboose and mom-and-pops set up in tiny cottages known as the Whistlestop Shops.
“It’s like an updated Norman Rockwell village,” said Mayor Linda Blechinger, smiling while describing her bucolic town at a City Hall conference table.
The hamlet sits equidistant from Athens and Atlanta, creating a haven for big-city workers who enjoy living in a quiet atmosphere. Fewer than 8,000 residents currently call Auburn home, but that number will double in less than five years based on the new number of homes being built, Blechinger said.
Auburn’s character may be unique, but its growing pains are not. All 21 counties counted by the Atlanta Regional Commission as part of metro Atlanta are expected to grow. Most of them are projected to at least double their population by 2050, according to the agency.
The push to the suburbs and exurbs can partly be explained by the pandemic, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported. Teleworking freed some people from their daily commutes and convinced urban dwellers to plant roots father out, as did the perception of high crime in Atlanta.
“(Young families) are looking for something that is not too far from the city but still affords them to be able to have their own house,” Blechinger said.
Local leaders have big plans to keep up with the inevitable growth. Auburn has planned to expand its downtown area for years, Blechinger said, but the pandemic made it more timely.
The city expects to open its new $8.5 million municipal complex by the end of next year. The 33,000-square-foot building off U.S. 29/Ga. 8 near Auburn Elementary School will house both city staff and the police department.
Officials saw the need to spend penny sales tax dollars on a new facility to give staff more space — and to potentially limit chaos during a catastrophic emergency.
The City Hall and police department are currently located on 4th Avenue in front of the tracks. A train derailment could force first responders to evacuate, preventing them from performing their jobs, Blechinger said, citing a case in another city in which a rail accident caused a chlorine gas leak.
The new digs will also help recruit new officers and entice them to stay, said Chris Hodge, chief of the Auburn Police Department.
Encircling the complex will be Harmony, a residential project with a mix of single-family homes and townhomes. It boasts the same architect as Serenbe, a village-like community near Chattahoochee Hills in south Fulton County.
Harmony residents will have access to a barn as a central gathering spot with fire pits and a caterers kitchen, community garden, pocket parks and possibly a coffee shop. Raised gardens with trees, shrubs and flowers will run parallel to the sidewalks.
“There will never be a time when something beautiful isn’t happening,” said Blechinger with a chuckle.
The first phase of Harmony, consisting of 137 houses, will be completed around the same time as the municipal complex by the end of next year. But they aren’t the only homes coming to Auburn.
About 1,500 new rooftops will spring up in already-approved subdivisions across the city over the next few years, according to numbers provided by City Administrator Alex Mitchem. It won’t happen all at once, though, since developers will be capped at placing no more than 100-150 homes at one time.
Hawa Davis, who moved to Auburn from Liberia about 21 years ago, sells specialty jams, local honey and handmade items out of her store MS:16 in the Whistlestop Shops. She said she enjoys the town’s quiet environment and is just fine sharing it with incoming residents.
“People always say I live in the country; well, I tell them it’s peaceful,” said Davis in between helping customers on a Saturday afternoon.
The new homeowners will help put more money into Auburn’s economy by driving up sales at local businesses, Davis said.
“Harmony is going to be a showpiece,” Blechinger said. “Whenever you have tourists come in, they spend their money while they’re here. That’s always good.”
Those opposed to the addition of new homes raised concerns about overburdening schools, traffic buildup and deterioration of the small-town charm. A few people even warned against Auburn becoming overdeveloped like the rest of Gwinnett County.
“It’s our hometown, so yeah, we’re going to make sure that we protect it,” said Blechinger, who took office as mayor in 2005. “The day will come that I’m gone from the earth, and we want to know that we’re leaving the city in great condition for future generations.”
Tyler Wilkins is a local news reporter covering the cities of Gwinnett County for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He's particularly interested in explaining how local government institutions impact the residents they serve. He is a Georgia native and graduate of the University of Georgia.