Henry proposes warehouse moratorium as growth overwhelms roads

Home Depot recently opened its third distribution center in the Henry County city of Locust Grove. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Home Depot recently opened its third distribution center in the Henry County city of Locust Grove. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Simeon Nunnally maps out a route every time he leaves his Henry County home.

But it’s not to find the fastest path to his destination — it’s to avoid the growing number of tractor trailers clogging local streets.

”I have not seen an isolated truck operating, they always seem to send them out 20 at a time,” Nunnally said.

Like many counties that ring metro Atlanta’s core, Henry has chased the billions of dollars in the logistics sector by courting large distribution centers and warehouses. That in turn has been responsible for as much as 35% of the county’s economic growth over the past 15 years.

The success, however, has come at a cost, residents and elected officials say. Roads are choked with truck congestion, which in turn has made potholes cracking under the weight of tractor-trailers ubiquitous.

”We been attracting warehousing ... on steroids,” Henry Commissioner Bruce Holmes said.

County officials are now floating the idea of a moratorium on zoning more land for the massive buildings, which can be as big as 20 football fields. Leaders hope the break will allow the county to attract other types of development, such as office towers and corporate relocations.

Also, it would give the county time to work on a transportation plan that would better accommodate trucks and passenger traffic, and to agree on taxes that could be levied to force the sector to help pay for damaged infrastructure.

The idea, however, has stalled because some are afraid to bite the economic hand that feeds the county.

“We are not trying to send a message that we are anti-business,” said Henry Commissioner Dee Clemmons, one of the leaders of the moratorium, who agreed to pull the legislation for further review.

But if the move is eventually approved, it would be a big deal for the county, with no guarantee for success.

Rural outpost to suburban community

Henry was once a rural outpost of about 36,000 people in 1980. Today, it is a thriving suburban community of around 240,000 residents with ambitions to someday attract MARTA, open a convention center and offer enough white collar jobs so that fewer residents have to travel north for high-figure salaries.

But the convey of trucks that line up to get on I-75 from Ga. 155 is turning off residents, who fear it making the county less attractive as an alternative to north metro Atlanta congestion.

“I am very concerned about the short and long-term effects of constant wear and tear on our local roads,” said Henry resident Sarita Dyer, who adding that the trucks are also an environmental hazard. “I wonder what environmental, traffic and impact studies have been done.”

Business experts, however, warn that cutting off the spigot to the supply chain business may not be the answer.

Building a reputation as a tech destination or financial services hub takes years of wooing and investment in a workforce with the right skills. Tax incentives can help but counties need deep pockets because businesses are often lured with the promise of tax breaks for up to a decade.

And those sacrifices in the warehouse and trucking sectors are just now paying dividends in Henry.

“This issue they are wrestling with is not unique or novel,” Kennesaw State University economist Roger Tutterow said. “All communities are not going to look the same.”

And it’s hard to turn your back on an industry that consistently brings jobs, the business experts said.

In 2020, the sector made up more than 50% of new jobs in Henry County, said Josh Fenn, executive director of the Henry County Development Authority.

Since 2007, Henry has added more than 60 businesses using giant warehouses and distribution centers, including retailer Wayfair, mattress maker Purple and Luxottica, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of eyeware, Fenn said.

Home Depot announced in August that it would open its third distribution center off Ga. 155 in Locus Grove — a project that would create 600 jobs. That was followed near the end of 2020 by Ken’s Foods’ announcement that will boost their Henry operations with a $103 million expansion and 70 new jobs.

Earlier this month, the state of Georgia said Dole Packaged Foods plans to expand its Henry facilities, adding 100 jobs when the building is fully operational.

“We welcome these things,” said Locust Grove Mayor Robert Price, whose city would not be affected by the county’s proposed moratorium. “We don’t have a property tax so these businesses are important to us.”

Henry offers a mixture of county and state tax incentives, including incentives for job creation, property taxes and port investments.

When asked by board members how much in taxes Henry collects from warehouses and distribution centers, Fenn said he did not have specific numbers, but told them a $50 million building brought in more revenue to the county than a housing project of 350 houses with an average value of $250,000 per home.

Fenn still did not have the tax collection numbers when asked last week.

The sector’s success has made it difficult to quickly enact a moratorium.

The county commission was supposed to vote on it earlier this month, but the legislation was pulled for more study.

Clemmons, the county commissioner, said putting off the vote gives the county more time to look at revenue that could be generated from the industry to pay for some of the impact it’s having on roads. Specifically she wants to look at state freeport taxes on manufacturing goods and whether Henry can levy them.

Sam Williams, a professor of practice at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, said there are no quick solutions because Henry is in the pathway of business that is very important to the state: the ports at Savannah.

The state’s push to connect that business to Hartsfield Jackson International Airport did not come with adequate road expansions for distribution hubs like Henry that became part of the system.

“All of this is an unfortunate consequence of the port,” he said.

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