Thornton looks ahead to 2019

Published 7:19 pm Thursday, January 3, 2019

LaGrange experienced yet another year of growth in 2018, and according to LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton, that growth is likely to continue in 2019, with a focus on housing for the people moving to LaGrange for new opportunities.

“I think that we are in a growth mode,” Thornton said. “You can just ride around town and see the new developments happening. There are new businesses opening. I think that our local businesses and industries seem to be doing very well from an economic standpoint. Probably one of the most significant aspects of that was the opening of Great Wolf. It got a lot of publicity. It is bringing in a lot of revenue, but it is also bringing a lot of new people to LaGrange.”

Thornton admitted that this major growth can challenge existing infrastructure and transportation at times, but he said the key to positive growth is to encourage diversification.

“I think the key is always diversity,” Thornton said. “You don’t want to have all of your eggs in one basket. What is exciting to me is that we have made progress in diversifying our local job base. I hope that we can continue doing so. That means bringing not only manufacturing jobs but also service sector jobs, hospitality jobs and small businesses to support some of the existing businesses and industries that we have in our community.”

While conversation at the city council level sometimes focuses on balancing projects in district one and district two, Thornton said he prefers a more holistic view of development.

“I tend to think about it more in terms of spreading the growth and the development throughout the city as a whole, so that no particular area gets left out,” Thornton said. “Much of the growth that is happening is actually technically in district two, because half the city is in district two, but I don’t know that that enters into my way of thinking. What enters into my way of thinking is that we’ve got to develop along existing infrastructure and existing transportation corridors because it is too expensive to build new four lane highways. It is cost prohibitive. It is too expensive to run sewer out into areas of the county that don’t currently have sewer.”

The city does not get to decide on what locations are chosen for potential developments since those are private business decisions, but it can encourage developers to take advantage of areas with existing infrastructure.

“When a developer comes to town with a business or a residential project or whatever it is, we encourage them to build in a location that is along an existing transportation corridor and is served by existing infrastructure,” Thornton said. “But, when you say that, you are basically talking about the entire city limits.”

That encouragement also applies to housing, which Thornton said will be a major point of focus in 2019. The city and county are currently taking part in the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing survey and the LaGrange rezoning and development code rewrite.

Thornton said that the city hopes to identify what residents need through those initiatives, so that it can encourage developers to invest in the housing options that residents want and need.

“We need a diverse set of housing options,” Thornton said. “We hear anecdotally that we need more senior housing, and we hear anecdotally that we need more workforce housing. Now, senior housing is pretty easy to define. It is intended for smaller more accessible housing units for elderly residents, senior citizens. The workforce housing is a harder issue because it involves both multifamily housing for people who are locating to the community and need a temporary housing before they determine exactly where they want to settle.”

Thornton also said that he hopes the GICH study will allow developers to build housing that will be used and meets the needs of the community, and that he would like to see more downtown residential development.

“I think that is the next big phase in the revitalization of downtown,” Thornton said. “We’ve done a fabulous job with the public spaces like Sweetland and Southbend Park. We’ve done a good job at recruiting businesses, restaurants, hotel, etc. I think we do need to somehow see if we can encourage more residential development downtown.”

However, Thornton said that he hopes the bulk of development will take place in locations that already have infrastructure in place.

“We’ve got a lot of areas in the City of LaGrange that are already served by water, sewer, gas, electricity and have good roadway access,” Thornton said. “Those are areas that need to be redeveloped as opposed to encouraging development out in greenspace.”

The city is already in the process of developing some greenspaces with plans to make major improvements at Eastside Park and continue construction on The Thread trail.

“We will continue to make a lot of progress this year in building out The Thread, which has been a great addition to the community,” Thornton said. “As we start to make some progress on connecting areas together, I think that will reveal just how much passive greenspace we do have out in the community, and we’ll want to preserve that obviously.”

There are also plans to open Southbend Park, which sits on the south end of downtown LaGrange, in the spring. The bulk of the park was built by the Callaway Foundation, and it will include a dog park, playground, picnic pavilion and multiuse field. The city is also in the process of constructing a skate park on one corner of the property, and the park is already changing the appearance of the southern end of downtown.

“I think it is going to be a real encouragement to redevelopment of residential projects on the south side, because you’ll have a lot of residential area that will be ripe for redevelopment projects surrounding Southbend Park area,” Thornton said. “We are excited about that, and we will continue to look for other opportunities [to develop pocket parks or redevelop existing park space].”

The City of LaGrange and Troup County are currently working on a comprehensive parks plan, which has been discussed during city council meetings in the last year.