County, Cumming respond to pandemic
Forsyth County and the City of Cumming had to adjust from the status quo amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both entities declared local emergencies in March as the virus began taking a foothold in the area. For months, meetings were held virtually, or in the case of some committees, cancelled altogether.
Cumming’s Parks and Recreation Department cancelled most of its summer and fall programming, the Aquatic Center was closed for months and the Cumming Fairgrounds remained a ghost town through much of the year. It was a similar scenario for the county’s parks departments, but most have since come back online.
To aid its struggling businesses, the county loosened several regulations, including certain alcohol sales and sign permits, and postponed a requirement to renew business licenses for an extended period of time. It also suspended requirements to renew licenses, and residents were granted relief on fees or late utility payments.
Frontline workers in the county, including first responders and those with a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because of their duties, received hazard pay bonuses in the spring with the county allocating $1 million in added pay to be distributed among employees.
As the pandemic has continued, most standard county operations have returned as or close to normal, including face-to-face board meetings and hearings at the county’s court. However, some measures are still in place, such as the doors remaining locked on the county’s senior centers and the cancellation of community events.
Chamber heads CARES relief
Over 300 businesses in Forsyth received funding aid through the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act following the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce was tasked with allocating the funds and set up a tier system that benefited companies with fewer than 500 employees that could show an impact to business/revenues due to the pandemic. In all, 320 businesses in the county received nearly $1.9 million in aid.
Chamber Vice President Jimmy Lane said the companies “ran the gamut,” and beneficiaries included companies in the manufacturing, service and restaurant industries.
Major traffic upgrades begin
Traffic may remain snarled at some the county’s busiest thoroughfares in the immediate future, but relief is on the way. Major improvement projects either broke ground in 2020 or plans for future upgrades were set in motion.
Clearing for the Ronald Reagan Boulevard extension began in the late summer to connect the roadway from McFarland Parkway to Majors Road. The 3.6-mile, $60 million project will provide a parallel alternative to Ga. 400 in the southern portion of the county.
The city also took steps to begin the Old Atlanta Road widening and reconstruction project which will widen the existing two-lanes of Old Atlanta Road to a four-lane roadway with a raised median, curb and gutter, sidewalks and turn lanes. The improvements come ahead of an expected increase in volume on the road. The thoroughfare’s traffic is expected to increase by 70 percent over the next 12 years, according to the Forsyth County Transportation Department.
The McGinnis Ferry Road widening project also moved forward. Forsyth is partnering with the cities of Alpharetta and Johns Creek to widen the roadway to four lanes from Sargent Road in Johns Creek west to Union Hill Road in Alpharetta.
In November, the county broke ground on the Ga. 369 widening and a new interchange at the road’s intersection with Ga. 400. The project will widen Ga. 369 from two to four lanes for approximately two miles and create a partial cloverleaf interchange with Ga. 400.
At the same time, funding some of these projects became a point of concern this year. Several projects have come in over budget, including a $12.2 shortfall for the Ga. 369 project and an $8.5 million increase to the price tag of the Ronald Reagan project, reported by the county’s Finance Department in September. The McGinnis Ferry widening, which is being funded by the county, cities of Johns Creek and Alpharetta, and state dollars, has come with ballooning costs.
Nonprofits struggle with demand
Many of Forsyth County’s nonprofits saw an unprecedented demand for assistance with the economic turmoil and increased joblessness caused by the pandemic.
The Place of Forsyth has seen more need, especially for food, than at any other time in its 45-year history. By midyear, the organization had already provided more than $500,000 in food aid, much of it going to those seeking food assistance for the first time. The increase in need came as the group faced its own financial issues. The Place’s thrift store, its main driver of revenue, was closed for over two months because of the statewide shutdown, resulting in a loss of an estimated $150,000 that would have been redirected for aid.
Meals by Grace, which provides food assistance and programs to county residents, also saw a sharp increase in demand. The organization served over 60,000 meals to about 6,000 families in a two-month span from March to May, but procurement of food was hampered by limited supplies at food banks in the area.
The outlook did improve over recent months. Meals by Grace reported a fairly well stocked supply bank in recent weeks and the county’s unemployment rate dipped below 3 percent.
Economy continues growth
While the pandemic put a strain on the local business climate, Forsyth’s economic growth continued.
Over 500 new jobs came to Forsyth in 2020, along with $109 million in new capital investment, according to the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce. Just over 20 new development projects were announced, many in industries the county courted, including advanced manufacturing and e-commerce.
A survey released in the fall from Forward Forsyth, the county’s economic development arm, showed over 500 individual business parcels were developed between 2017 and 2019 and the total value of the county’s companies increased by 10 percent up to $3.2 billion during that span.