How Can Georgia’s Small Cities Survive in The Future?

October 6, 2021

By Donovan Rypkema, Principal, Place Economics

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” The opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities may be one of the most quoted phrases in English literature, but it is very applicable today for Georgia’s small cities.

The worldwide pandemic and corresponding economic uncertainty is a once-in-a-century occurrence, and there is no definitive end in sight.

The pandemic is complimented by another longer-term trend that has impacted many Georgia small cities — the departure of the young to larger metropolitan areas. These two challenges might argue for the “worst of times” description.

However, there are three countervailing forces that, if small cities are smart, could mean, if not the best of times, at least times of exceptional opportunity.

First, preferences on where to live are changing. Early in the pandemic, there were news stories claiming an exodus from cities into less dense areas. As of today, that pattern seems to have been largely exaggerated. But over the last two years, there has been a significant shift in people’s preferences on where to live. A Gallup Poll released earlier this year asked,

“If you could live anywhere you wished, where would you prefer to live?” a question Gallup has asked regularly for 20 years. Through 2018 there was a steady decline in those who answered, “Small town or rural area.” But beginning in 2019 and continuing through 2020, there was a reversal of that trend with nearly half (48%) of American adults giving that as their response as compared to only 39% two years earlier. Further, among those already living in small towns or rural areas, three in four expressed a preference to continue living there. This may be an early sign that the decades long flight from rural to urban areas may be reversing. Second, a potential asset for smaller communi-

ties is housing affordability. While every county in Georgia has an affordable housing challenge that needs to be addressed, the relative affordability of housing in smaller towns has the potential of providing a competitive advantage. This is particularly true for those in fields who can “take their job with them.”

The survival of your town in the future is dependent on the actions its leadership takes today.

The large share of the population who was able to work remotely during the pandemic has demonstrated to both employers and workers that going to the office every day wasn’t necessarily a requirement. If a worker can receive the same paycheck in a small town in Georgia that she was receiving in Atlanta, the smaller share of her paycheck going to housing can mean a significantly higher quality of life. That does mean, however, that smaller communities need to make sure they get their share of the $65 billion in the pending infrastructure bill that is targeted to providing broadband internet access to rural areas and lower income populations.

Third, a virtually unnoticed trend during the pandemic has been the huge increase in early indicators of new business creation. One of the strongest such indicators is the number of applications for an Employer Identification Number (EIN), usually a prerequisite for starting a business. In Georgia in the years 2017 through 2019, there were an average of around 160,000 EIN applications a year. In 2020 that number jumped to 273,000 and in 2021 is on a pace to reach 380,000. Where are those businesses going to locate? Many of them could choose a small Georgia city for home.

For your city to be a beneficiary rather than a victim of the future, three actions are critical:

1: Your city is likely to be a recipient of large amounts of federal money through three pieces of legislation: the American Rescue Plan Act, the pending Infrastructure bill, and likely affordable housing funding. Money from each of those sources needs to be invested in long-term capital assets, not shortterm operational expenses.

2: Develop strategies to maintain and enhance the quality and condition of your older stock of houses and commercial buildings.

3: Recognize that the quality of life, not how cheap the land or low the taxes, will be your competitive edge for those wishing to move to small towns and who will be part of a wave of new businesses in Georgia.

The survival of your town in the future is dependent on the actions its leadership takes today.

To find out more and to contact Donovan Rypkema visit,

This article was originally featured in the September/October 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.

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