VARNELL, Ga. — Young Ko remembers how much his wife, Mia, missed New York City when they moved away years ago so he could take an engineering job in Connecticut.
Whenever they visited the Big Apple, Mia, who has a degree in fashion design, would say, "Now I feel like I'm alive," he said.
Now the couple live a world away from Manhattan in Varnell, a 2.5-square-mile city of about 1,700 residents in Whitfield County.
Two years ago, they moved their medical records business, Returnco, into a 1930s-era building in Varnell that previously served as city hall, police station and schoolhouse.
They've come to love the town. They even miss the sound of freight trains when they're away.
"She likes the surroundings," the Korean-born Young Ko said. "It's very beautiful. People are nice, We feel at peace here."
City officials are working to burnish Varnell's small-town charm and position it as a family-oriented bedroom community.
"If you could buy stock in a small town in North Georgia ... I think Varnell would be a very promising stock, because we have a bright future ahead of us," Mayor Dan Peeples said. "We just have a lot of room for growth."
City Administrator Jason Hall says Varnell's location is one attraction. The commute to Dalton, Ga., is 10 minutes, getting to Cleveland, Tenn., takes 15 minutes, and Chattanooga is half an hour away, he said.
"We have a lot of people that live here and work in Chattanooga," Hall said. "It doesn't take you but three or four minutes to get to the interstate."
Peeples said he tells people, "It's fine to work in Dalton. It's fine to work in Cleveland. But why don't you live in Varnell?"
Peeples took office five years ago, at age 30, and he's mapped out Vision 2020 -- improvements that he hopes the city will achieve by that year.
Some recent and planned improvements are:
• A new City Hall and police station under construction on the corner of Georgia Highways 201 and 2. It's due to open in March.
• A community center that opened in August. It's connected to the historic Varnell House, a structure that dates to the early 1800s.
• Creating a picnic area with a playground, pavilion and restrooms near the new City Hall on the site that previously housed city offices in a triplewide trailer.
• Plans to install sidewalks and streetlights near the new city buildings to help create what Peeples described as a "small-town feel."
• The recent construction of a free-standing, city-owned gym near Varnell Elementary School that's rented out for league sports, along with a walking track and large playground there.
Peeples aims for the city to complete a few projects at a time.
"When you do have a smaller budget, you can't do it all in one year," he said.
The city's taken advantage of community development block grants and inmate labor crews to get the most bang for its building buck.
"They did an amazing job with that house. It was painstaking," Hall said of the inmates' brick-by-brick renovation of the Varnell House, which still sports bullet holes from the Civil War.
New businesses, schools
A Food Lion supermarket and hardware store opened recently in Varnell, and Peeples has a list of other businesses he'd like to attract to make the city self-sufficient, such as a dentist's office and insurance agency.
"We're looking for more restaurants," Peeples said.
To that end, the City Council has approved Sunday sales of alcohol.
Peeples and Hall tout the quality of Varnell-area schools, including the new $45 million, high-tech Coahulla Creek High School.
The first-ever Varnell Blackberry Festival was held last year, an event Peeples hopes to expand.
"We're all about small, inexpensive community events," said Peeples, who'd like to start showing movies outdoors on an inflatable screen.
Harveyleen Rollins has spent her entire life in Varnell, including working for 43 years and nine days as postmaster at the city's tiny post office that traces its history back to 1834, when the area was part of the Cherokee Nation.
There's no mail delivery in Varnell, so people use the 458 post office boxes.
"You be nice to the people, and they'll just love you to death," is how Rollins interacts with Varnellians.
Retired teacher Gary Taylor dropped off mail Friday afternoon.
"It's been a nice place to live and raise three kids," Taylor said of his 37-year stint in the city.
That was confirmed in 2010 when Bloomberg Businessweek ranked Varnell as the "best place to raise kids in Georgia."
City officials are so proud of the designation that they've mentioned the article on city signs and will hang it in the lobby of the new City Hall.
"Too bad I raised my kids already. Maybe I would have done a better job if I had raised them in Varnell," Young Ko joked.
Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...