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The Boomers Who Tried Moving to Florida and Ended Up in Appalachia

An older, wealthier population is transforming a rustic region into a bustling retirement haven, giving local governments something they haven’t had to handle before: explosive growth

By Cameron McWhirter, WSJ

March 13, 2024

DAWSONVILLE, Ga.—Helen Anderson, known as “Granny Helen” to friends and family, remembers when Dawson County had only about three residents who owned cars.

One was her father, a poor chicken farmer who helped the family scratch out a living by driving down from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to Atlanta to sell moonshine.

“We wouldn’t have lived if we didn’t make whiskey,” said Anderson, 86, who has lived in this North Georgia county all her life.

These days the stills and many family farms are gone. Cars and trucks congest what were once sleepy country roads. Wineries on hillsides near Dawson and high-end retirement communities are starting up or expanding.

Dawson is changing in ways big and small, as baby boomers known as “halfbacks” transform southern Appalachia—the moniker a reference to how many first moved from the Northeast and Midwest down to Florida before settling somewhere in between.

The influx of retirees flooding into southern Appalachia is transforming the region from poor, serene and rustic to a bustling retirement haven. Many longtime Floridians are moving up also, as well as northerners moving directly into the area.

From April 2020 to July 2022, the population in counties in southern Appalachia designated retirement or recreational areas grew by 3.8%—more than six times the national average, according to Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the University of Virginia.

Lakefront houses built in recent years are for sale for as much as $3 million. Assisted-living complexes offer on-site movie theaters, piano lounges and beauty salons. Chain restaurants, box stores and medical facilities are springing up on land that only a few years ago was pasture and forest.

Arguments erupt regularly on Dawson Facebook pages over newcomer-spurred traffic, which has been a shock to the folksy culture for which this Republican-dominated county is known.

“They ought to go back where they come from,” Anderson said of the halfbacks, pursing her lips.

The boomer migration to North Georgia, east Tennessee, the Carolinas and western Virginia is reshaping housing prices, traffic patterns, restaurant options and how local governments cope with something they haven’t had to handle before: explosive growth.

Dawsonville, Ga.

Drawn by lower housing costs and living expenses, lower taxes, lower insurance costs, low crime, warm weather (but with seasons) and less chance of hurricanes, an older, wealthier population is arriving and demanding a level of services from governments and businesses that neither had to provide in the past.

Take retiree Ed Helms, 75, and his wife, Johnnie Helms. The couple moved up from Panama City Beach, Fla., about four years ago to a gated community called Big Canoe, which sits half in Dawson and half in a neighboring county. The couple spent years living around the U.S., including Richmond, Va., Annapolis, Md., and Puerto Rico before moving to Florida.

They left Florida to escape hurricanes, congestion and rising costs, and North Georgia has been a perfect move, he said. Ed Helms now spends his days golfing and his wife paints. He’s noticed more traffic and buildings in the area, but nothing compared with Florida.

“Our property insurance was going sky high,” said Helms, who retired after decades of working in mergers and acquisitions. “We got tired of being unable to find a place to sit in restaurants. Everything was getting out of reason. We wouldn’t go back for anything.”

The halfback phenomenon got under way in the 2000s, but stalled during the recession. Modest growth resumed, but halted when Covid struck. Now it’s come roaring back, reaching previous peaks with no signs of slowing down.

Each year since 2020, an average of 328,000 people from other parts of the U.S. moved to the five-state region of Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, according to the University of Virginia’s Lombard, who has been analyzing the trend.

Photos of Johnnie Helms and her husband, Ed, from their traveling days before moving to Georgia. Johnnie, in dark blue, attends a meeting ahead of an art show at the Big Canoe community, where she moved with her husband.

In the 2010s, net domestic migration for this five-state region averaged 140,000 annually. While not all of those states are part of the federally-designated Appalachian region, Appalachia saw significant growth, especially in rural counties that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated retirement or recreational, he said.

From April 2020 to July 2022, the population in the 221 counties of southern Appalachia grew by 2.1%, compared with 0.55% for the U.S. as a whole, according to Census data.

While northern sections of Appalachia, including West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, continue to face economic challenges, southern Appalachia—below West Virginia and southeast of Kentucky—is booming.

No county in the region had more growth in recent years than Georgia’s Dawson, which saw a 12.5% increase from 2020 to 2022, reaching just over 30,000, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In Dawson, the population aged 65 years or older reached 21% of the county in 2022, up from 14.1% in 2010. Many moving to the region are wealthier.

Average adjusted gross income for people moving into southern Appalachian counties rose $6,991 on average from 2018 to 2021, compared with a national average increase of $5,940, according to Internal Revenue Service data. In southern Appalachian recreation and retirement counties, incomes increased by $10,095 on average.

The average income of those moving into Dawson County rose $13,084 during the same period to $80,000.

Dawson’s home prices rose 46% compared with 39% nationally, according to Lombard’s analysis of Zillow housing prices. Other Appalachian areas like Dawson saw similar spikes, the analysis showed.

The Appalachian Regional Commission, established by Congress in 1965 to improve the economy of a swath of the nation extending from upstate New York to northeast Mississippi, has tracked the change in the southern part of the region in recent years, with many counties growing faster than northern Appalachian areas.

Gayle Manchin, the commission’s co-chair and wife of Sen. Joe Manchin, (D., W. Va.), said she believed the Covid-19 pandemic helped fuel interest in Appalachia because people wanted to get back to nature and leave crowded areas. She expects southern Appalachian growth to continue as more Americans retire.

The population growth in southern Appalachia has caused a need for more affordable housing for workers serving the new people moving in, she said. The influx of wealthier, older Americans has created challenges for governments working to expand services, including broadband, water and wastewater services, roads, health services and housing.

“Can we keep up with it?” she said, adding that many people moving into the region “are used to having their needs met pretty quickly.”

Founded in 1857, 214-square-mile Dawson has long been known for its natural beauty, including Amicalola Falls, now a state park. The southern start of the Appalachian Trail is nearby.

Generations here eked out a hardscrabble existence with small farms. During prohibition, many made money by making illegal corn whiskey and driving down Georgia State Route 9, nicknamed “Thunder Road,” for sale in Atlanta. The practice continued for decades and the county became known for its illegal liquor and fast cars—so bootleggers could outrun authorities. The cars eventually led to what is the sport of Nascar. Today, the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame is in Dawsonville.

Dawn Johnson grew up in Dawson County. The 56-year-old’s grandfather—nicknamed “Pukey” because his moonshine was so powerful it made people vomit—regularly sent alcohol down “Thunder Road.”

Johnson now is director of the county’s senior services and said the population she serves has doubled in the last decade. The challenges can be small, but complicated. Some older people are from ethnic backgrounds she’s never encountered in Dawson before—Italian and Vietnamese—and her staffers are trying to figure out what meals to serve them.

“It’s been a real struggle,” she said. “The changes are nonstop.”

In the 1950s, the county’s population shrank as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created Lake Lanier, which partially sits in Dawson, flooding places where people once lived. But the lake led to waterfront development, drawing visitors.

By 1970, the county only had about 3,600 residents, 35% less than the county population in 1890.

In the 1980s, the state finished construction of a major highway, Georgia State Route 400, which connected North Georgia with growing metro Atlanta. By 2022, the Census estimated Dawson’s population topped 30,000.

Many longtime locals worry the county will become an extension of Atlanta’s notoriously congested suburbs.

When Billy Thurmond was a boy, most roads here were made of dirt. Now 64 and chairman of the Dawson County Board of Commissioners, he said he is regularly stopped at the local Walmart and asked about development and traffic issues. There’s a twist: Many of those complaining are people who moved to the county in recent years.

“People who have moved here now want us to put up a gate and stop anybody else from moving here,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Construction of homes within a new subdivision in Dawsonville. The area has seen rising home prices.

Dawson County resident Joe Everton fishes in the Amicalola Creek in Dawsonville. Dawson County has long been known for its natural beauty.

Medical calls to eldercare facilities in the county are increasingly taking up resources. County officials are considering splitting up staff, to dedicate some to just emergency calls, freeing up teams to respond to fire calls, said County Manager Joey Leverette. Traffic congestion has grown so much that county officials are asking voters in May to approve a one-cent sales tax dedicated to roads.

“It’s a game changer,” Leverette said. “If we don’t get the funding, we’ll just have to keep plodding along as best we can.”

Asked about what other demands have been made on local government by retired newcomers, Leverette sighed. “Pickleball courts.”

The 2024 fiscal year budget was $43.4 million, up from $37.3 million just the year before. The public-safety budget, which includes fire and EMS, rose 16%. A recent county presentation about its latest land-use plan listed 15 major commercial projects under way in the county. Six were medical facilities.

Chris Gaines, another county commissioner, said he saw his challenge as trying to manage the inevitable growth “without changing what makes us desirable in the first place.”

The growing retiree population has healthcare facilities, nursing schools, and builders scrambling to meet demand.

In 2017, Lanier Technical College, a state community college that has a campus in Dawsonville and four other communities in North Georgia, graduated 90 people from its nurse-aide program. In 2023, the college graduated 169 nurse aides. Many graduates are guaranteed jobs with local hospitals, according to Amy Howard, who coordinates nurse-aide training at the Dawsonville campus.

The weekly Dawson County News recently posted a story to its Facebook page about the U.S. Census Bureau projecting more growth for the county. The garnered emojis: 25 angry, 23 sad, and 8 likes. One person commented: “The entire south and southern living is being ruined.”

Julia Hansen, the reporter who wrote the story, said much of her time is spent covering debate over growth. Recently she covered a Republican Party gathering where county officials came to discuss development projects. (Donald Trump carried the county in 2020 with about 83% of the vote).

“Of course, it turned into a discussion about traffic and nothing else,” she said, adding the population growth has been “like a freight train” since 2021.

Dawson County residents Charles Ahrendt and Helen Anderson at the Dawson County Senior Center.

Linda Bennett, 81, has lived in Dawson County most of her life. She and her husband raised chickens on their farm. Widowed, she now lives in a house not far from Georgia Route 400. She loved country living but fears the influx of new residents will change North Georgia forever.

“It has grown so much; it is just unreal,” said. “With all the houses and apartments they’re building, it’s not going to get any better. How could it?”

People moving in say they love the area and have no regrets. Karen Rickards grew up in Delaware. She was a manager for a check-printing company and lived around the U.S. with her husband, eventually settling in Tallahassee, Fla. When he died in 2017, Rickards methodically researched retirement locations around the South—including the Florida coast.

The 73-year-old determined, “I just don’t like heat and humidity.”

Now settled into Dawson, where she lives with three dogs and a cat, she’s become one of the newbies wondering how many more newbies Dawson can take.

“They are building house after house after house,” she said. “Atlanta’s moving up here, no doubt.”

Write to Cameron McWhirter at

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