Why Do Small Towns Matter?
By Katherine Moore, Georgia Conservancy Senior Director of Sustainable Growth
When we think about “cities,” the largest ones usually come to mind first. For Georgia, that’s Atlanta, Columbus, Macon, Augusta, and Savannah, located in specific areas of the state based on history, natural resources, and county lines, among other factors. As planning practitioners, it’s easy to spend most of our time thinking about big cities because they face obstacles that affect thousands, sometimes millions, of people. But whether it’s water quality, access to nature, housing choice, or transportation and infrastructure, small towns have these problems too, and sometimes have greater need of planning services.
To put it in perspective, small towns make up the majority of municipalities in the state. 391 of 535 cities and towns are home to 10,000 people or less (U.S. Census Bureau). Small towns also make up the majority of our land area – 92%, in fact, is classified as nonmetro or rural.
As a statewide organization dedicated to using and conserving our land wisely, Georgia Conservancy is keenly aware of the importance our small towns have – not only to our state economy, but to our state’s resiliency as well. The heart of our state remains our small towns and all of the places and spaces within them that make them special: the quaint little shop in St. Marys, the pizza place in Hogansville, numerous city halls and historic theaters that charm and exude authenticity of place. Small towns provide the backbone for our robust agricultural, tourism, and nature-based recreation economies. Yes, Georgia needs Atlanta, Savannah and our other large cities to continue to thrive, but life in those larger cities and the rest of the state would not be sustainable without our small towns.
Planners working in these larger cities can learn a lot from small towns. Our small towns’ historic downtowns, mill villages, and Main Streets are the original walkable communities, with environmental and economic benefits that major urban centers spend millions of dollars to reproduce. These places, many created before the widespread use of the car, were built so that residents could conveniently access everyday needs.
As times have changed, the vibrancy and resiliency of small towns has wavered. Many of our smaller towns have seen decline as younger generations have migrated to cities, as manufacturing has dwindled nationwide, and as resources have been redistributed to larger towns and cities. However, there has been a resurgence of interest in these towns because they offer many qualities that larger cities do not – housing affordability, access to greenspace, and unique cultural activities. By focusing on quality of life, sustainable community development, land use, and benefits provided by existing assets and resources (whether they are in the built or natural environment), the Georgia Conservancy believes Georgia’s smallest towns can grow, thrive, and compete.
Since 1995, the Georgia Conservancy has provided planning, design, and technical assistance to communities across Georgia, including many small towns and rural areas – places such as Sandfly, Pin Point, Moreland and Hogansville. We learn from local leaders, provide monetary resources and planning services, and help local government officials plan for sustainable futures in an effort to ensure the vibrancy and of these places and their attractive individuality. The program often refers back to the strong characteristics of a place – farmland, greenspace, historic structures, and unique stories – that should be recognized, conserved, strengthened, and often marketed so that the community can thrive alongside the “big cities” that learn from their example.
RURAL REVITALIZATION ACT AND THE CITY OF HOGANSVILLE
To bolster these sustainable planning efforts and work towards revitalization and renewed growth in our smaller communities, in 2017, the Georgia Conservancy, along with the Georgia Municipal Association and Georgia Chamber of Commerce, advocated at the State Capitol for the passage of legislation that would allow for the designation of eligible downtowns across Georgia as Rural Zones. Approved by both legislative chambers and Governor Nathan Deal, the Rural Downtown Revitalization Act (House Bill 73), which was sponsored by Rep. Penny Houston and Ways & means Chairman Jay Powell, among others, encourages small, rural and historic downtowns across Georgia to invest in their built environment – all in an effort to create jobs and stimulate economic activity.
In October of this year, Hogansville’s historic downtown was among eight communities in Georgia to receive the Rural Zone designation by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. As part of this Rural Zone, as mentioned above, eligible business owners within the area will benefit from three different tax credits: a jobs credit, an investment credit and a rehabilitation credit.
How did Hogansville, a town of 3,200 in Troup County, position itself to stand out among the many applicants?
In 2017, leadership within the City of Hogansville reached out to the Georgia Conservancy to help make them competitive. Along with partners Canvas Planning Group and Village Green Consultants, the team worked to develop a Downtown Master Plan – a roadmap for future sustainable development and rehabilitation in the historic core. The Downtown Master Plan inventoried existing community assets (historic structures, city parks, annual Hummingbird festival, proximity to a major city, etc.), and community issues (lower average incomes, vacant or blighted properties), took into account public feedback, comprehensively analyzed socioeconomic, demographic and market data, made zoning recommendations, and developed implementable tasks and projects for the community to enhance its downtown.
Through pursuing, then adopting the Downtown Master Plan, as well as continuing to promote Hogansville as an attractive place to live and visit, the Downtown Development Authority, city council and city staff were successful in advocating for its Rural Zone designation. The Georgia Conservancy is excited about the opportunities the Rural Zone designation can provide for Hogansville, and has already seen this momentum be fruitful for the downtown.
Through our planning work via the Sustainable Growth program, as well as through our Stewardship Trips and Land Conservation Initiative, we recognize that sustainability is not just important for our most populous and resource consuming towns and cities. The implementation of thoughtful land practices for historic restoration, town planning, outdoor recreation, and economic development can benefit even the smallest of Georgia’s communities. Hogansville, among other locations in our state, are setting an example of a sustainable way forward for small and rural towns.
If your community is interested in engaging the Sustainable Growth program in this type of work, please feel free to reach out to us! www.gaconservancy.org/growth