Growth is all but inevitable for a community that isn’t dying. Most folks would rather their community not wither away economically as so many cities and counties have in other parts of Georgia. In the not-so-distant past, Monroe oftentimes felt like one of those wounded and foundering communities. It saw some resurgence during the mid-2000’s housing development boom before it went bust in a very hard way. The downtown area probably could not be described as an economic engine since at least the 1980’s or before. Then slowly, out of the calamity of the recession something happened…
Small business entrepreneurs started making big risks by investing their creative talents and money in a little downtown that was mostly vacant with little foot traffic. Those bets started paying off. With the support of the Downtown Development Authority and the City of Monroe, entrepreneurship thrived and vacancy rates plummeted. Now, Downtown Monroe’s storefronts are measured in occupancy rates, rather than vacancy rates, being at or near 100% occupied at all times for available spaces. If a business moves or outgrows a space, another is on a waiting list behind it. The downtown area of Monroe has since become “Downtown Monroe,” synonymous with success and a thriving shop-local economy. This economic engine of our city has caused Monroe and surrounding areas of Walton County to become highly desirable places to live. The closer the proximity to Downtown Monroe, the better. Being walkable to downtown is the holy grail of the new, small-city urban living format.
As such, the City of Monroe has taken off with growth not seen in 15 years but still not quite at that previous boom level. From January 2017 through July 2021, the city issued 811 single-family residential building permits. The vast majority of these were issued in previously defunct or long-stalled developed subdivision neighborhoods such as the Retreat at Mill Creek, Highland Creek, The Legends, St. Ives, and Clubside Estates. While this sounds like a lot of growth, the United States Census actually tracked the City of Monroe at an average annual growth rate of just over 1% annually each year for the 10-year period.
Much of the perceived boom in growth inside the city limits of Monroe is from two factors, displayed anecdotally and in real terms through the increase in traffic. The first is that unincorporated Walton County has grown substantially over the last decade, with many new developments just a few miles outside of the city limits, in areas the City of Monroe has no control over. In years 2016-2020, unincorporated Walton County added 3,045 single-family homes with many more surely built in 2021 (no data given yet). Walton County’s other cities have grown as well. Many of these new County residents come to Monroe to do business and the impacts are felt, both good and bad. The second factor is tractor trailer traffic through Downtown Monroe and on other major highways such as Hwy 78 and Hwy 138. Each truck takes up the room of 3-4 regular vehicles. As more and more trucks travel our streets (those that are also designated as State highways), the impact is dramatically felt by other drivers and pedestrians alike.
Georgia has become a key transportation hub over the last five years with more and more major distribution facilities set up along the interstates, as well as new inland ports being created, with Gainesville’s being the closest to Monroe. This, along with expansion of the Georgia Port at Savannah, has created an economic boom for Georgia but also added to the increased truck traffic we see here in Monroe. The Georgia Department of Transportation reports that 82% or 439.2 million tons of cargo are carried by truck on state routes such as our own Hwy 11 (Broad Street). This translates to about 2,000 trucks on Highway 11 through town each day, comprising approximately 12% of total vehicle traffic. This trend will only increase in time.
Fortunately, the City of Monroe DOES have the truck bypass coming soon. Officially known as The Georgia Highway 83 Truck Connector (State project number PI 0000411), the bypass has been fully approved and funded by GDOT after decades of unfulfilled promises. The project has been fully engineered and is currently in right-of-way acquisition. Construction will begin in the Summer of 2022 according to the GDOT District 1 Engineer. Moving over 2,000 trucks per day out of Downtown Monroe will create a better, more relaxed atmosphere and remove huge amounts of real and perceived traffic from our streets.
Additionally, the City of Monroe along with Walton County and GDOT have partnered on the creation of an Eastbound on-ramp to Hwy 78 from West Spring St. and a West-bound on-ramp to Hwy 78 from Charlotte Rowell Blvd (the latter also consisting of partnership from the Monroe Pavilion developer). The City also recently purchased land to complete a future Mayfield Dr. extension that would link Hwy 11 to Hwy 138 without ever having to travel on Hwy 78 and also increasing interconnectivity. There are other medium to long-term traffic alleviation plans in the works as well but much of that will depend on funding availability.
The city is also being proactive in land planning. While a mandatory comprehensive plan update with Walton County is underway, Monroe is simultaneously creating its own detailed, ten-year comprehensive plan and future land use plan. This plan will be inclusive to the needs of ALL of our community members and will be interactive in format with a great deal of community engagement to receive input. The plan will balance growth with expectations and abilities and create a roadmap for our future development and services in all facets.
Recently, the City Council enacted a moratorium on providing our limited sewer services outside of the city corporate limits to any new developments. Wastewater treatment and capacity is very expensive and is a precious resource many folks do not think much about. Maintaining tight control of our sewer service area will also manifest into controlling our growth patterns in the many years to come.
Growth in Monroe has occurred but it has also been highly beneficial. Home ownership rates have increased over the past few years, well-paying jobs are plentiful especially in our industries, median incomes are rising, and overall quality of life is substantially improved with access to more shopping and dining choices than ever before.
The City of Monroe continues to be welcoming but also as selective as possible to potential forthcoming developments. City officials understand the long-term consequences that each development carries and works to balance community desires with respect to the law that is afforded to the property owners seeking development.
Many other municipalities roll over for development, thinking “bigger is better” or they can grow and tax their way to prosperity. Monroe has proven that it does not and will not grow for the sake of growth and those maxims are foolish. Instead, our Mayor, Council and staff are choosing to be deliberate in their actions on how and where to develop and what it should look and feel like. Being connected and pedestrian friendly, while limiting sprawl and traffic congestion, are hallmarks of the desires of future residential and even commercial development going forward.
Over the past 3-4 years, Mayor and Council have approved many new code of ordinance enhancements that greatly strengthen and regulate zoning controls and building regulations. Many communities have much more lax standards than the City of Monroe. The city will continue to fine tune these standards to ensure the best quality products for the long-term benefit and sustainability of our community. What matters most is not what is here and now, rather what kind of city and community is created for our next 200 years.
City of Monroe