The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By KEVIN DUFFY
Metro's Southside Headed to Macon
Not everyone wants a shorter commute.
Most of the buyers at a new gated golf and equestrian community 25 minutes north of Macon are coming from metro Atlanta's Southside.
They've opted to spend more time on the interstate to enjoy the perks of living beyond the urban area: affordable upscale housing, low taxes and a more leisurely pace of life.
River Forest, on 1,700 acres close to I-75, is being marketed as a link between metro Atlanta and metro Macon. One day, dozens of communities along I-75 could join the two cities, regional development watchers say.
"Henry County was the refuge," says David Aldridge, developer of River Forest in rural Monroe County. "Now, those people are moving up and moving out."
Case in point: Trevor and Tammy Barnett, a school resource officer and a nurse practitioner. They work in Henry and were living in Jonesboro in Clayton County before moving to River Forest last month.
The Barnetts saw a newspaper ad about the development last fall, took a 35-minute drive south and eventually bought a 1.5-acre lot.
"Henry County's notorious for quarter- and half-acre lots," Trevor Barnett says, explaining why the couple rejected living in the metro county, among the fastest-growing in the nation. "We're used to having a little room to roam."
At River Forest, "you're kind of out in the country without being out of civilization," Tammy Barnett says. River Forest is 20 miles south of Henry County and 50 miles from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
The Barnetts aren't wealthy, but their house, which they moved into last month, suggests affluence. It has an 18-foot-high stone fireplace, windows that are even taller and a view of the eighth tee at River Forest's new golf course, whose hilly topography is reminiscent of North Georgia courses.
Monroe County's low taxes also are a draw. If River Forest were in Henry, the annual county taxes on a $400,000 house would be $2,368 higher.
"It's basic economics: You trade travel costs for land costs," says Bart Lewis, research chief for the Atlanta Regional Commission.
About half of Monroe's 7,669 employed workers commute outside the county, with most going to the Macon area in Bibb County, according to the 2000 census. Roughly one-quarter head to Atlanta or other areas north.
But with River Forest attracting a good many metro residents, the percentage of workers driving north is likely to increase. House construction at the year-old development is just getting started. A dozen homes are occupied thus far, and more than 600 are still to be built.
Metro Atlanta's Southside has seen a surge in popularity after years of lagging the Northside. Southern tier counties grabbed 41 percent of the 10-county metro area's population growth from 2000 to 2003, according to the ARC. That's up from 28 percent in the 1990s.
And there's no geographical reason why that growth cannot flow even farther south.
"Atlanta is here for two reason: It's the central part of the transportation region and it doesn't have any major natural barriers to development," Lewis says.
Aldridge, who's been selling and developing land south of Atlanta for 25 years, gambled that an upscale project in a county known mostly for having a lot of trees could draw from south metro's burgeoning population.
The biggest employers in Monroe, population 23,000, are the school system and Georgia Power's huge Plant Scherer, a coal-fired facility on 3,500 acres at Lake Juliette. The movie "Fried Green Tomatoes" was filmed in Juliette.
Last year, Aldridge bought 925 acres of forest land from the Weyerhaeuser Co. and two families, and set about planning River Forest. The first phase, with 318 lots, is 75 percent sold.
"I felt like the timing became right," Aldridge says. "The surprise, though, was that this development is about two years ahead of schedule, based on sales." He recently acquired more acreage to develop an additional 313 lots.
Thanks to technology and Georgia's smooth roads, commuting from distant counties isn't that daunting to many metro workers, so communities such as River Forest become an option.
"The rural commute isn't anything like the urban one" explains Douglas C. Bachtel, demographer at the University of Georgia. "It isn't as stressful."
Cellphones and audio entertainment can make the long drive productive and enjoyable.
"They don't want to walk to work," Bachtel says of interstate commuters. "They want to drive that air-conditioned car and listen to books on tape."
Some future River Forest residents will work from home periodically to avoid the rut of a long commute. David and Kelli Bailey bought 4.5 acres along the Little Towaliga River. He's a food broker and she's a banker; both work north of Atlanta's downtown. But after moving, the Baileys intend to try telecommuting at least part of the time.
They decided to look past Henry County because, in their opinion, it's already too crowded.
Bachtel predicts that one day Chattanooga, Atlanta and Macon will all be linked by communities strung along I-75.
Pamela Christopher, president of the Forsyth-Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, agrees. "Macon is moving northward and Atlanta is moving southward, and we're right in between," says Christopher, whose husband commutes to Atlanta from Monroe County. "Definitely, we're seeing them merging."
The Atlanta-Macon linkage already is a selling point at River Forest.
"I've told people, this is where Atlanta meets Macon," golf director Jim Hickman says. "They're going to have a lot of new friends and new experiences."
Despite River Forest's brisk sales, Monroe County doesn't anticipate a Henry County-like boom. A consultant hired by the school system forecasts modest 5 percent growth over the next five years.
But Christopher predicts that River Forest will spur job growth. "That is the type of subdivision that draw CEOs," she says.
James Pace Jr., a real estate broker and the mayor of Forsyth, the county seat, sees a more affluent future for Monroe County. River Forest "won't turn us into Fayette County overnight," Pace says, "but it's a start."