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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Regional Development Researcher Andrew Coker joined the NADO team in March of 2023 after spending two and a half years as the Regional Economic Resiliency Coordinator at West Central Arkansas Planning and Development District. Andrew holds a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College and a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

At NADO, Andrew conducts research on the newest economic and community development best practices from Economic Development Districts across the country. He helps produce easily digestible information on complex regional issues through case studies, tip sheets, and research reports. Andrew also hosts training and professional development opportunities including conference sessions and virtual webinars for member regional development organizations.

Andrew is one of our Missouri-based team members and enjoys reading and training for his next triathlon.

Jack Morgan came to the NADO team in 2022 after seven years with the National Association of Counties (NACo) as a Program and Senior Program Manager. Prior to NACo, Jack was a Policy Analyst for Friends of Southwest Virginia. Jack holds a bachelor’s in geography from Emory & Henry College and a master’s in geography from Appalachian State University.

As a NADO Senior Program Manager, Jack leads capacity-building and peer-learning work supporting energy communities in economic transition, regional resilience, and recreation economies. He also helps with the EDA-Austin training program Emerging Leaders.

Jack is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and is a member of the American Planning Association (APA) in the Regional & Intergovernmental Planning division. He also serves on the Emory & Henry College Alumni Board.

Taking road trips, reading non-fiction, and indulging in top-notch barbecue and coffee round out Jack’s days. He loves maps, mountains, and of course, all things sports.

Karron Grant joined the NADO team in 2023 as Administrative Specialist and is the first face (or voice) you’ll see or hear when reaching out to NADO. As Administrative Specialist, Karron manages our database and coordinates NADO event operations. He ensures members’ needs are met, contact information stays current, and NADO’s office is running efficiently.

Karron came to NADO after four years in the classroom teaching at The New Century School and Old Mill Middle North where he received the Patriot of the Year award. He attended Towson University and the University of Maryland Global Campus and holds a bachelor’s in international studies and humanities.

Visiting art galleries and museums, playing basketball and bowling, and taking in movies and music are some of Karron’s interests and hobbies.

Deputy Executive Director Laurie Thompson has been with NADO for 25 years. Laurie helps keep the NADO and NADO Research Foundation wheels turning through management of the daily operations of the Research Foundation, securing financial resources and overseeing grants management, and helping execute NADO’s Annual Training Conference each year.

Laurie holds a bachelor’s in public affairs and government from Mount Vernon College and a master’s in health services administration from The George Washington University. Prior to NADO, Laurie spent time as a Field Specialist and an Eagle Staff Fund Director at First Nations Development Institute.

When she’s taking a rare reprieve from her NADO work, Laurie enjoys traveling domestically and internationally to visit friends and family.

Jamie McCormick joined the NADO team as a Policy Fellow first in 2019, then moved into her current role as Legislative Associate in 2021. As Legislative Associate, Jamie keeps NADO members apprised of any policy and regulatory issues and communicates NADO’s policy priorities to federal stakeholders and partner organizations. She is also the first stop for members with inquiries on policy issues. The planning and execution of NADO & DDAA’s annual Washington Conference is also managed by Jamie.

Jamie holds a dual bachelor’s in political science and international relations from The State University of New York College at Geneseo and a master’s in international development studies from The George Washington University. In addition to her roles at NADO, Jamie also worked as a Legislative Assistant for the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association.

Outside of her NADO work, Jamie is an active volunteer with the VOLO Kids Foundation and a fundraiser for YMCA youth programs. She is also NADO’s resident baker regularly providing treats for those in NADO’s D.C. office. Traveling, taking her pup on walks, and hiking in the northeast keep Jamie busy. 

Brett Schwartz began at NADO in 2012 as a Research Fellow after earning his J.D. from the University of Baltimore School of Law. The following year, he was promoted to Program Manager and has now been leading as an Associate Director since 2018. Brett is responsible for managing NADO’s Economic Development District Community of Practice (EDD CoP), as well as researching and monitoring the latest trends in regional economic development and resilience, including best practices for the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). With more than a decade of experience on the NADO team, Brett is a dynamic relationship builder helping connect and build capacity among the national network of regional development organizations.

Brett also holds a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a master’s from Trinity College Dublin, as well as a certificate in mediation training. He’s a member of Catalyst Grantmakers of San Diego and Imperial Counties and was a participant in the 2021-22 Field Trips to the Future Cohort.

Brett is one of NADO’s West Coast team members residing in San Diego, CA where he enjoys spending time outdoors, attending concerts and festivals, and soaking up life as a parent of two young children.  

Communications Manager Katie Allison joined the team in 2023 to lead the strategic communication efforts of NADO. Katie creates and develops print and online materials, communicates NADO’s updates to members via weekly emails, and maintains content for and NADO’s social media channels. She also works with different departments to generate new ideas and strategies to effectively describe and promote the important work NADO is doing for EDDs and RDOs across the country.

An experienced nonprofit communications professional, Katie has worked for organizations in western North Carolina for nearly a decade. She holds a bachelor’s in communications from Wingate University where she was a four-year student athlete. Katie has also completed Vision Henderson County, a comprehensive leadership development program that promotes informed and committed civic volunteerism.

Katie stays busy trying to keep up with her two young sons whom she enjoys exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains with. Traveling to new and favorite places and cheering on the Atlanta Braves are some of her family’s favorite pastimes.

Senior Program Manager Ciara Ristig has been a member of the NADO team since 2021, and helps with NADO’s EDD Community of Practice, EDD staff capacity building and other grants on a range of subjects, including equity and solar energy. Before NADO, Ciara worked as a Planner for the County of Santa Barbara and an Assistant Project Manager for REM Consult. Ciara holds a bachelor’s in urban studies and French from Bryn Mawr and a master’s in urban studies from Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris.

When she’s not traveling, you can find her outrigger paddling and serving on the board of the Blue Sky Center in New Cuyama, CA, near her home base of Santa Barbara.

Carrie Kissel has been a member of the NADO team since 2005 when she began as a Research Fellow. She later moved into the roles of Program Manager in 2006, and then Associate Director in 2011. Carrie holds a bachelor’s in anthropology from Ball State University and a master’s in public anthropology from American University. As Associate Director, Carrie oversees NADO’s work in rural transportation and rural wealth creation. She provides technical assistance and support to rural regions on transportation and economic development issues and develops training and peer exchange events on transportation issues and rural wealth creation as an economic development strategy.

Carrie is a member of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and secretary of TRB’s Rural Transportation Issues Coordinating Council. She is also a member of the American Anthropological Association and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.

Reading, gardening, hiking, and kayaking are a few of Carrie’s hobbies, and she organizes and facilitates a DEI/social justice-focused book club in her community.

Melissa Levy has worked at NADO as a Regional Development Researcher since February 2023 and is the Principal Consultant at her own firm specializing in wealth-based economic development consulting. With a career spanning nearly 30 years, Melissa brings a breadth of knowledge to her role as a Regional Development Researcher. Melissa provides in-depth research, coaching, and training on regional economic resilience, rural wealth creation strategies, and economic development.

Melissa is a North American Food Systems Network trained AgriCluster Resilience and Expansion (ACRE) facilitator and a WealthWorks coach, facilitator, and trainer. In addition to her professional work, Melissa serves on the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Council, on the board of the Hinesburg Community Resource Center, and on the Hinesburg Economic Development Committee.

A true outdoorswoman, Melissa enjoys cross country and downhill skiing, paddleboarding, hiking, biking, and kayaking, as well as yoga, and teaching Tai Chi.

Program Manager Krishna Kunapareddy began her role with NADO in February of 2023 after 14 years of service at Boonslick Regional Planning Commission in Missouri. Krishna manages NADO Research Foundation’s Planning and Environmental Linkages and Center for Environmental Excellence projects. In addition to researching and writing, Krishna also conducts virtual workshops on innovative tools and techniques related to transportation planning.

She holds an undergraduate degree from Andhra University and a master’s from JNT University in India, as well as a master’s in city and regional planning from the University of Texas at Arlington. Krishna is also a certified Smart Cities Academy Practitioner and holds the Location Advantage certificate from geographic information system software company ESRI.

In her spare time, Krishna volunteers with Mentors4College helping high schoolers better plan for their post-high school paths. She is also a dedicated advocate for documented H4 Dreamers.

Krystal DeLeon joined the NADO team in October of 2020 as Database & Grants Manger, but in January of 2022 transitioned to her current role as Operations Manager. Krystal keeps NADO running through behind the scenes work of invoicing, solving any database issues that may arise, producing membership reports, and much more. Her organizational skills and thorough knowledge help the NADO team operate more efficiently across all departments.

Prior to NADO, Krystal was the Conference Services Coordinator for State Services Organization. She is a Certified Meeting Professional (CMP), a licensed realtor, and holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Liberty University. When she’s not keeping NADO’s operations in order, Krystal enjoys running and rock climbing, and adventuring with her husband and son.

Senior Program Manager Bret Allphin joined NADO in April of 2022 bringing with him a wealth of knowledge after a 20-year career with Buckeye Hills Regional Council in Marietta, Ohio. In addition to his bachelor’s in political science and master’s in public affairs, Bret is licensed Geographical Information Systems Professional (GISP). He is NADO’s go-to team member for all things mapping while also supporting members with transportation and economic development technical assistance services.

An avid sports aficionado and former collegiate athlete, Bret enjoys cheering on his Cincinnati Reds, hitting the trails on his mountain bike, and improving his golf game whenever possible. Bret is an involved community member in Marietta dedicating much of his spare time to serving on local nonprofit boards.

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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.

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