Fayette County trying to shake up its bedroom-community reputation

For years, Fayette County has enjoyed the high reputation of being one of metro Atlanta’s ideal bedroom communities.

It's known for its good schools, stately homes on acre lots and the kind of low-stress lifestyle where people drive golf carts to the grocery store.

But as the county’s empty-nesters downsize and millennials eschew big yards for apartments in Midtown, Fayette finds itself at a crossroads: Remain on the path that has served it well for decades — and risk becoming a retirement community — or change to keep up with the times.

Instead of emphasizing the area’s quiet, family-oriented atmosphere, some government and business leaders say, the county needs to highlight its urban amenities and work to attract new jobs.

“We are more than home to Delta pilots,” said Megan Baker, the business retention manager for the Fayette County Development Authority. “We need to do a better job of telling our story.”

The new Fayette is about Marvel movies shot at Pinewood Studios, more apartments and condos and the redeveloped Fayetteville square, which feels more downtown than small town.

There’s a lot at stake in Fayette’s transition. The county’s workforce is aging — with 43 being the average age of a county resident, compared to the state average of 36. And most workers drive north to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport or to Atlanta for work because there are not enough high-paying jobs, officials said.

Millennials don’t have the county on their radar, said Carlotta Ungaro, president and CEO of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce. And the few who are turned off by the lack of tech jobs and public transportation options.

“Our population is aging out,” Ungaro said. “We need to have more people who aren’t looking to retire.”

Not everyone thinks Fayette County needs an update. Fayette Commissioner Eric Maxwell said apartments attract “a different type of person than the county really desires to have.”

He doesn’t doesn’t worry about the community becoming too old. When he moved to Fayette in the early 1970s, there was one high school, he said. Now there are five, an indicator that young families continue to see the area’s value without the need for a marketing push to lure millennials.

“We would rather folks who are property owners as opposed to renters,” he said.

It’s an interesting dilemma for a county of 110,000 to 115,000 that, for generations, enjoyed a certain amount of isolation from the rest of metro Atlanta, said Harvey Newman, professor emeritus at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. Fayette’s strict zoning standards and planned communities were for years used as a way to keep people out rather than let them in, he said. That sentiment is shifting because what made the county unique may no longer be in vogue.

“The idea of tooling around in a golf cart used to appeal to some folks, but I don’t think that is true anymore,” he said.

To improve its growth potential, the county is beefing up its economic development staff, reviewing zoning laws to make them more flexible and undergoing a branding campaign called “Create Your Story” to help recruit businesses and workers. The “create” tagline is meant to evoke the idea that Fayette County is a place of new career beginnings.

The county also plays on the Pinewood Studios connection, which has helped Fayette develop a reputation in the business sector, leaders said. Fayette County almost landed a second high-profile corporate development project — a $750 million data center for Facebook — that eventually went to Newton County, said Fayetteville Mayor Ed Johnson.

“That kind of lit a fire under the local leadership to get our industrial sites ready so that the next time a Facebook comes around we’ll be prepared,” Johnson said.

But the county also is keeping its limitations in mind.

While Fayette leaders included bus and rail considerations in its recently updated transportation plan, they said it is unlikely either would come to the county anytime soon because of resistance from residents and because the county does not have residential density. That meant the county stayed out of the mad rush of metro Atlanta communities making a play for Amazon’s second headquarters, which required access to public transportation as a component.

“It’s really hard to compete for those kinds of things,” said Jonathan Lynn, town manager for the Fayette city of Tyrone. “If Fayette County and Tyrone and all the other jurisdictions want to maintain their level of low density, that wouldn’t be a right kind of development.”

Balancing growth while maintaining Fayette's character is the challenge, economic development and business leaders said. More so than most metro Atlanta counties, Fayette has prized its big residential backyards and network of trails that snaked through the area long before Atlanta created the Beltline. Peachtree City — a planned community where even students drive golf carts to McIntosh High School — has been hailed as the epitome of smart zoning.

“You tweak, you don’t overhaul,” Peachtree City Mayor Vanessa Fleisch said. “You enhance what you have.”

Bruce Seaman, associate professor of economics at Georgia State University, agreed. He said Fayette doesn’t need to fix what’s not broken. While the county needs more flexible zoning to match more modern housing choices and would greatly benefit from transit, Fayette is in an enviable position because of its established distinction as a bedroom community for the airport.

“Their ace in the hole is the airport, and that is not going to change,” he said. “That will always give them an advantage.”

The tweaks, so far, have been met with mixed reaction.

In 2015, Fayetteville built its first apartment building in 20 years, a move so unusual that some people expressed concerns that it would be occupied by Section 8 residents, Ungaro said.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” said Brian Wismer, Fayetteville’s Downtown Development director.

The city followed that with Pinewood Forest, a 234-acre "mini-city" under construction across the street from Pinewood Studios that will include 100 townhomes, 600 single-family homes and 600 multi-family apartments. The project, which is expected to be completed in the next five to seven years, required the Fayetteville City Council to bend its own rules to allow the construction of homes smaller than 1,000-square-feet, the minimum allowed in the city.

“They’ve had to adjust and adapt pretty much almost weekly with zoning and ordinances and creating flexibility for us to do things that were not anticipated,” Rob Parker, president of Pinewood Forest and a member of the Fayette County chamber board, said of Fayetteville leaders. “Our mayor and city council have been very progressive in doing that.”

What works in Fayetteville, however, is not being duplicated in Peachtree City. Available land is scarce so leaders are focusing on growing businesses instead of looking for mixed-use development opportunities, Mayor Fleisch said. The city is studying whether to use annexation as a way to broaden its footprint.

Tyrone Mayor Eric Dial said the hamlet is going to stick with its requirement that homes be built on at least an acre of land, in part because it does not have the sewer capacity to accommodate a boom in growth.

“I don’t think you are going to see our leadership opening the doors to apartments,” he said. “There are other locations nearby where that would be more appropriate.”

Lizz McKay, manager and principal of Peachtree City-based shuffleboard maker Venture Games, said the county is on the right track, but more is needed. While Fayette’s K-12 education is peerless in metro Atlanta, she said, the county needs to invest more in vocational education for those who are not college bound.

Her company, which was based in New Jersey until it moved to Peachtree City six years ago, has struggled to find workers with the manufacturing skills she needs. The lack of transit, which was not a problem in the company's former location, has compounded the problems. It's even made it necessary for the company to pay a higher wage.

“Coming from New Jersey, we were never without unskilled or skilled labor because of mass transit,” she said. “If we needed to find guys, I would put an ad in the paper and we would get 40 or 50 guys in a two- or three-day window, not to mention those who would just show up looking for work. Because it was a non-issue, we didn’t expect the labor challenges we’ve faced in Georgia.”

But the challenges they have faced have been worth it, she said, because of the quality of life Fayette County offers.

“It’s such a lovely thing to work and live in a community that has wonderful schools, that has amazing outdoor activities, that has strong community connections,” she said. “We have a unique community here that is incredibly desirable.”

Fayette County, with its aging workforce, is attempting to rebrand itself in an effort to snag more businesses and lure millennials. Here are some facts about the county.

Population: 110,000

County seat: Fayetteville

What the county’s known for: Being a bedroom community for Delta Air Line pilots

What makes it stand out: It’s home to Peachtree City, a planned community where homeowners can ride golf carts to the grocery store.

Top private employers: Piedmont Fayette Hospital, 1,700 employees; Panasonic Automotive, 800; and Eaton Lighting Solutions, 700.