Spenser Hewett plays with her 15-month-old son Eliot in Pinewood Forest community in Fayetteville on Saturday, June 22, 2019. Spenser and Cory Hewett are millennials who have left their life in Buckhead for Fayette County, metro Atlanta’s oldest county by age. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Fayette needs millennials to bring youth to Atlanta’s oldest population

For decades, Fayette County has been described as home to great schools, low crime, big houses and golf carts.

But as time passed another hallmark has emerged — metro Atlanta’s oldest demographic.

While about 1 of every 10 residents in metro Atlanta was 65 or older in 2015, that number was almost double for Fayette County, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. That demographic is expected to explode by 2040 when more than 1 in every 4 Fayette residents (28 percent) will be 65 or older.

Such projections have ominous implications for the county. There could be fewer candidates for jobs held by retiring seniors, economic growth could stagnate, and school budgets would tighten as property tax breaks for those 65 or older grow.

Hoping to avoid catastrophe, leaders of the affluent south metro community are developing strategies to lure young people, including pushing for more housing diversity, emphasizing the need for more arts and culture, and improving workforce development.

“We are restarting that conversation here in Fayette County,” said Fayette Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Colin Martin. “We don’t have the answers yet, but we know the fastest-growing demo in our county is 65 years plus.”

Millennial-favored dense housing projects such as the 265-acre mixed-use Pinewood Forest development in Fayetteville, for instance, are being pitched alongside the community’s traditional golf homes more so than in the past, leaders and residents say. Peachtree City, the planned community on the county’s western edge, is considering redeveloping Aberdeen Village, one of its first shopping centers, into a mixed-use development with shops and housing in a three-story facility.

Leaders point to concerts, such as upcoming tour stops by “Spin Doctors,” “10,000 Maniacs,” “The Motels” and other ’80s and ’90s groups, as evidence of the county’s burgeoning music scene. Those looking for food will find occasional night markets, food trucks and a handful of independent coffee shops, brew pubs and chef-driven restaurants.

“Marketing has always been our weak spot,” former County Commissioner and ex-Peachtree City Mayor Steve Brown said.

Rural suburban

The chamber’s Martin said getting it right will be critical to Fayette’s future. A widely reported study by RealtyTrac in 2014 determined that 31 percent of Fayette’s millennial population left the county between 2007 and 2013 — one of the biggest out-migrations of young adults in the nation.

That has exacerbated a problem for Fayette businesses with younger workers who prefer to commute from Atlanta than live in the county because the city has more of what they seek socially and in housing: Those employees eventually quit after a couple of years of driving back and forth.

“That is significant, not just because it shows a shrinking workforce … but it has a real practical effect in Fayette County because for those 65 and older, their property taxes for education go down,” he said. “And this is a community that has always placed a very high priority and very well deserved, strong sense of pride on its school system. So we have to think about what the impact will be on that crown jewel of Fayette County.”

Fayette is not alone in its graying. The number of residents 65 and older is expected to double over the next 20 years across the metro area — from 10.87 percent in a 10-county area in 2015 to 20.1 percent by 2040, the ARC said. Many residents never left the area after the population boom of the 1990s and the first decade of the new century, the ARC said.

Fayette has grayed faster, however, because of who it attracts. It’s an affluent county with older residents at the top of their professions. Average household income is about $85,000 annually, one of the highest in metro Atlanta.

Because of its proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, it has been a favorite house buying destination for high-paid Delta Air Lines pilots.

“I couldn’t afford Peachtree City when I was in my mid-30s,” Brown said. “I had to work up to this area.”

The county also has used zoning to discourage lower-income residents, who typically skew younger, leaders said. There are just a handful of apartment buildings in Fayette — whose poverty rate is around 6.3 percent — and houses in the unincorporated portion of the county can only be constructed on lots of one acre or more.

New urban vs. traditional

That means Fayette has some hard decisions to make about how it will encourage new residents, Tyrone Mayor Eric Dial said. It may be that one or more of the county’s five cities becomes the desirable spot for millennials with apartments, walkable developments with sidewalks and arts and cultural events, while the others focus more on the area’s traditional residents or some combination of both.

“This cannot be a cookie-cutter approach,” he said. “We can’t all have the same solution.”

Rob Parker, the chamber’s incoming chairman and president of Pinewood Forest, said adapting to change might not be as difficult as people think. He has spoken with longtime Fayette residents who are as eager as millennials to downsize into smaller homes with less yard work.

“Both are interested in a smaller footprint,” he said of millennials and those 65 and older. “They want walkability.”

Brown said the county needs to be careful not to overreach. Fayette needs millennials with families, not bars and clubs. And the county should determine the skills needed for the marketplace — say engineers — and recruit from there, instead of throwing out the welcome mat for every vocation.

“That’s not our game,” he said of clubs and bars. “If you want that, go to Buckhead or downtown (Atlanta).”

Millennial migration

Litia Jones, 31, who went to high school in Fayette, had not thought about moving back until she was persuaded by her husband Josh to move to Pinewood Forest earlier this year. She said the pair, who are expecting their first child soon, were happy living on the west side of Atlanta.

Josh Jones told his wife that Pinewood, with its small lots, community parks and sidewalks, was an even more urban fit than west Atlanta, which didn’t have as many amenities as she thought it would compared to Midtown and the eastern stretch of the Atlanta Beltline.

“I found that Fayette County is a lot different than it was when I was here 11 years ago,” Jones said, adding that the night market in Peachtree City felt like a scaled-down, monthly version of the Inman Park Festival. “In Pinewood we get the quality of life we can get in the city.”

Spenser and Cory Hewett with their 15-month-old son Eliot at the construction of their new house in the Pinewood Forest community in Fayetteville on Saturday, June 22, 2019. Spenser and Cory Hewett are millennials who have left their life in Buckhead for Fayette County, metro Atlanta’s oldest county by age. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Spenser Hewitt, 29, hopes that’s true. She, too, was persuaded by her husband, Cory, 29, to move there from Buckhead after much resistance. What she feared was moving to the flavorless suburbs, with shopping centers anchored by Walmart, a Michael’s craft store and a Longhorn steakhouse.

“When I originally thought about Fayette County, all I thought was, “Great, it’s family-oriented and you’re going to move me there,” said Hewett, an Albany native and mother of 1-year-old Eliot. “The next thing is you’re going to talk me into driving a minivan and before you know it, I’m not working anymore and I’m carrying around a bag of soccer balls in my car.”

Spenser and Cory Hewett check the construction of their new house as Cory holds his 15-month-old son Eliot in the Pinewood Forest community in Fayetteville on Saturday, June 22, 2019. Spenser and Cory Hewett are millennials who have left their life in Buckhead for Fayette County, metro Atlanta’s oldest county by age. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

She has been pleasantly surprised by the long-term vision of Pinewood and is eager to move in later this summer. But as for Fayette County, she is not yet convinced leaders truly are willing to make the changes needed to lure millennials.

She points to the Peachtree City Council’s May decision turning down a zoning request that would have built a 37-acre mixed-use project dubbed Calistoa Lake McIntosh near the county’s airport. The project would have included apartments, restaurants and single-family homes in an integrated walkable community.

“In the same breath that they say they want to attract people in my and Cory’s age group, it’s like then they are handicapping ideas like Calistoa,” Hewett said. “They are making it difficult for local businesses to want to come there and want to open things.

“It will be interesting to watch the next two or three years to see if they get on board with the Pinewood movement or if they kind of just stick to their ways,” she said.

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