Rural Community Spotlight: Lavonia, Georgia

This case study was researched and written by Parrish Bergquist, NADO Research Foundation Graduate Fellow.

Anticipating explosive growth associated with a new state-of-the-art medical center, Lavonia, Georgia, is working to balance new economic activity with its cultural heritage. By enhancing its downtown, the City is seeking to support downtown businesses and create a sense of place. Meanwhile, the City is analyzing its master plan, zoning code, transportation facilities, and utilities to guide future growth in a way that does not compromise the viewsheds, natural resources, and agricultural areas that the county’s residents value. According to Georgia Mountains Regional Commission (GMRC) regional planner Chip Wright, “We want to grow up instead of outward and reduce the sprawl that has happened in parts of the county around the interstates—we’re trying to correct that and enhance all the resources of this rural county.”

Lavonia town square (credit: flickr user Rusty Stanton)

Located in northeast Georgia, Lavonia grew up as a small farming community around the railroad and features a traditional town square and a number of historic buildings. With a zoning overlay and design regulations, the City has worked to preserve its historic assets and cultivate a community atmosphere. Lavonia joined Georgia’s Better Hometown Program in 1999, at a time when downtown vacancies had reached 45-50%. In 2012, only 4 sites downtown remain vacant, a 94% occupancy rate (based on data provided by Gary Fesperman, Lavonia City Manager).

How did Lavonia achieve such a remarkable turnaround? Fesperman notes that the City has focused on business retention more than business recruitment, “to keep people in business, rather than trying to attract businesses.” The City has coordinated events and promotions to generate activity downtown and support merchants, and have rehabilitated buildings to lease or sell to new tenants.

According to Downtown Development Association (DDA) Executive Director Marie Morse, the city’s investment in downtown amenities and events and its location on Lake Hartwell have played a key role in attracting residents and visitors. Morse explains:We budget every year for the cleanliness and attractiveness of the City. We make sure to have green space, flowers blooming, benches, and sidewalks, so that when people come into downtown Lavonia they always come back because they like the feel of it. That’s probably the number one thing that people mention to me to explain why they’ve relocated here.”

A large portion of the DDA’s annual budget of $40,000 funds these downtown beautification efforts, but the DDA also supports cultural activities, concerts, festivals, and historical events that appeal to a wide range of audiences. In fact, cultural and historic preservation activities form the cornerstone of the city’s economic development strategy. To this end, the City partnered with DDA to convert a former National Guard armory into a cultural center with a full theatre and a space for art shows and other events. Each year at the cultural center, the community produces the Land of Spirit folklife play, based on stories collected from area residents. The cultural center hosts numerous other events throughout the year.

Lavonia’s rail depot rounds out the town’s tourism-based economic development strategy. The City of Lavonia and Franklin County have worked with the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and GMRC to preserve the depot and install a public meeting space and railroad museum. According to Wright, the ARC and TVA have provided $120,000 in funds for the restoration, matched with in-kind contributions from the City and Franklin County. GMRC manages the project and provides technical consultation in architectural preservation.

Lavonia rail depot (photo source: GMRC)

The restored depot houses a welcome center that receives a huge number of visitors from I-85. It will also house a museum, a community event space, and city offices. According to Wright, a local railroad company has expressed interest in providing commuter rail service and excursion trains from the depot, although these represent long-term potentialities rather than confirmed plans. As agencies keenly interested in the Appalachian region’s railroad history, the ARC and TVA have showed enthusiasm toward the project, and Wright hopes that it will provide an example for other communities to re-use their historic resources. Wright reports that, for Lavonia’s population, the depot “represents a way of life and a window to the past. They love that building and they’ve always been in support of preserving and interpreting it.  With this approach of using it as a museum for the artifacts and making it a gathering place, the people of Lavonia couldn’t be happier.”

For Fesperman, the rail depot, cultural center, and folklife play’s economic value lies in their ability to attract visitors to Lavonia. He reports that churches, senior centers, schools, and other groups have come to Lavonia for events associated with these venues. He estimates that 4,000 visitors attend Land of Spirit each year, in addition to several thousand people who visit the cultural center for other events. Fesperman says, “While they’re here, these visitors shop and eat downtown, buy gas, maybe they stay in our hotels. We have a good number of tourism venues that generate a lot of sales tax dollars.”

Historic community bank in Lavonia (photo credit: flickr user Amber Rhea)

Simultaneously, the city is working to accommodate new growth associated with a new regional medical center that opened in Lavonia on July 1, 2012. The $63 million Ty Cobb Regional Medical Center embodies a relatively new model for public-private partnership. An investors’ group of doctors owns the building and helped raise about $10 million in private funding, to match $39 million in bonds issued by the Franklin County Industrial Building Authority, and $10 million in bonds issued by the Lavonia Hospital Authority. The hospital is projected to retain 300 jobs from the two hospitals it replaced, and, alongside its associated medical office building, the hospital will create 50 new jobs in its first three years of operation. Additionally, Fesperman expects the medical center to attract retirees to Lavonia, since the community will offer a golden combination of lakeside access, downtown amenities, and access to specialized medical services. Fesperman recalls, “In the past, our residents had to go to Athens, Gainsville, or Atlanta to see medical specialists. Now, we see Lavonia as becoming a medical hub, and it will change the dynamics of the region. We will see some incredible growth here.”

To address this growth, at the time of publication Lavonia had begun revising its comprehensive plan. The City also added to its zoning code a Medical Campus District (MCD), which regulates the form and uses of buildings in the 200-acre area surrounding the hospital. Wright and Fesperman both referred to a potential non-motorized transportation connector to link downtown with the hospital complex, which sits about a mile away from downtown, near I-85. Lavonia is also considering an ordinance to allow the use of golf carts on some streets in town, as part of a broad initiative to improve non-auto accessibility. GMRC will provide technical assistance for Lavonia’s planning efforts, and Wright hopes that the City will adopt strategies that connect new development with the town’s history; respect its agricultural heritage; and protect the surrounding mountains, rivers, and creeks. Lavonia will be a city to watch as it grows in the coming years.


This is part of the NADO Research Foundation’s Vibrant Rural Communities series of case studies, which describes how rural regions and small towns across the country are growing local and regional economies and creating stronger communities. This series shows how communities can leverage a wide range of tools and resources to build on their assets, protect their resources, and make strategic investments that offer long-term benefits.

This project is based in part upon work supported by the Federal Highway Administration under Agreement No. DTFH61-10-C-00047. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.


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