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This was going to be the year that Keith Barclift pushed Catoosa County to develop a comprehensive long-range plan.

Upon taking over as director of the county's Economic Development Authority last spring, he made such a plan a priority and was building toward it, he said recently.

But the pandemic threw even the best-laid plans out of windows around the world.

Barclift is now hoping to utilize a community housing initiative offered through the Georgia Municipal Association to lay the foundation.

"We don't have any kind of development program at work in the county," he said. "Until we get to that point, we're just picking and choosing things [to focus on]. I think this is going to get us to that point — 'we need to do this to get this.'"

A big "this" in that equation is making the county attractive and affordable to entry- and mid-level professionals in the 18-35 age range.

"When I see [requests for information] come through for either office parks or back-office type stuff and manufacturing, they want to know what that 18-35 range is," Barclift said. "[It's] kind of the workforce population where, if we were to attract a larger corporation, that'd probably be what they're looking for."

But most young professionals cannot afford the $300,000-plus housing developments currently going up in the county, he said. And they often come with kids.

The study won't just look at what housing is currently available and what the county could use more of, but also where to put developments so that they don't tax infrastructure like roads and schools.

"Where to put neighborhoods so you don't have to repave a road when you have [200] or 300 cars on that road every day; how do you get multi-use developments coming in and ways to incentivize that and, if there's a gap in what they need, how do we fix that gap — that's the kind of stuff I'm hoping to get out of this," said Barclift.

Already the county is growing due to its "bedroom" status to Dalton, Chattanooga and even Atlanta, said the county's public information officer John Pless.

From 2000-2010, Barclift said, the county's population jumped 50%. He expects that to come down to around 10% for the decade ending in 2020, but Pless pointed to the now widespread ability to work from home as a factor that could drive growth back up, especially when coupled with the county's strong public school system, fast internet connectivity and abundant green space.

Barclift estimates 200-plus new homes are built each year "to satisfy those needs of people coming south," adding that Catoosa is second to Knoxville in terms of Hamilton County transplants.

That growth is being felt by those who already call Catoosa home.

"I think there is public concern over how many houses are going up. We hear that at the [county] commision level," Barclift said. "We don't have the data saying this is why we need these things over here.

"We don't really have a handle on the needs of the community, the future needs of the community, the future workforce needs of the community and future workforce housing."

NEXT STEPS

The county will find out in October whether its joint application with the cities of Ringgold and Fort Oglethorpe netted it a spot among the five or so finalists. If not, Barclift said an independent housing study is an option, albeit an expensive one. While he said costs can range from $50,000 to $200,000, "you get what you pay for."

Should the county be accepted into the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing, it will only be responsible for the cost of room and board during site visits, though even that will probably be minimal with the program going largely virtual this year, said Barclift.

With around 20 people already invited to sit on a committee related to the effort, he expects progress one way or the other.

"I think either way, the county is very much interested and invested in making sure we have a grasp on the housing market in Catoosa County," Barclift said.

Contact Jennifer Bardoner at jbardoner@timesfreepress.com.

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