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As Wal-Mart opens, face of Lovejoy is changing

By Justin Boron

The open doors at the Wal-Mart Supercenter may signal a new era of growth in Lovejoy. But it is the acres of exposed red clay in the area surrounding the store that hold the future of the burgeoning city.

Wal-Mart held its grand opening Wednesday, culminating a year's worth of development that has permanently altered the appearance and way of life in Lovejoy.

Gone are the woods that used to shroud U.S. Highway 19/41. In their place, Wal-Mart, McDonald's, and Eckerds have risen to become the commercial forefront of the county's south side.

But there is more to come, said Lovejoy Mayor Joe Murphy.

A ride along Hastings Bridge Road - the city's main thoroughfare other than Highway 19/41 - reveals acres of cleared property in the area east of Talmadge Road.

A revamped mobile home park and a 350-home neighborhood will fill the lots soon, Murphy said.

Close to the Henry County border, another tract of land is being cleared for development. Murphy said no plans have been submitted for the project

The pace of growth hasn't bothered nearby residents, who say they were caught in a shopping no man's land.

Stuck in the scantily developed area between Jonesboro and Griffin for years, residents either battled traffic to the north or took the long drive south for groceries or errands.

Now, they say Lovejoy will become their new commercial hub.

Peggy Dixon, 52, comes to the city from Hampton to do laundry on Talmadge Road and said she is eager for the convenience the new shopping center will bring

"It'll be closer for me to go to Wal-Mart to pick up supplies," she said. "We normally have to go to Griffin to do a lot of the stuff that we have to do."

Likewise, Dolores McLeod, 70, said the area afforded more opportunities than in previous years.

But some Lovejoy fixtures like Dorsey Nursery or Barge Tires have feared Wal-Mart's convenience may be bad for business.

While Wal-Mart works like a magnet in attracting new smaller businesses, it has often diminished the success of existing business.

Spring - Dorsey's busiest season - will determine Wal-Mart's impact, said several Dorsey employees who would not give their name.

The store is already drawing new chain restaurants like O'Charley's, Ruby Tuesday's, and a Fire Mountain, which Murphy said is owned by the company responsible for Ryan's.

"(Wal-Mart) is going to promote more commercial business on Tara Boulevard," he said.

County Commissioner Wole Ralph, whose commission district includes Lovejoy, cautiously agreed.

"What you don't want is for Lovejoy to become a haven for development (that is) not allowed in the unincorporated (part of the) county," he said.

Ralph, who promised in his campaign to bring high-end development to the panhandle, said the county and Lovejoy will be working together to ensure the development doesn't get out-of-hand.

But already, there are housing tracts popping up in every area of the city, which Murphy said will grow to almost 8,000 for the next Census in 2010.

Across the street from Wal-Mart's new shopping center, there are several new neighborhoods, some of which are still under construction.

Once they are complete, the strip of property along Lovejoy Road will swell with about 800 family units.

The neighborhoods range from single family houses and town homes like in Southfield Station to the 255 apartments in the Lakeside Villas complex.

Although the developments' aesthetics diverge from the type of housing found in the northern area of the county, the price is still low.

Signs advertise houses between $130,000 and $150,000.

Many citizens near the panhandle area have said they worry that lower prices will draw crime and transient residents.

The southern panhandle area of the county has been cordoned off from suburban growth through zoning restrictions in the past. But as the price of land continues to rise in the county's last bastion of semi-rural property, it has become difficult for city and county officials to stave off over-development.

The cost of commercial land has quadrupled in the past three to four years, Murphy said.

Lovejoy residential property has seen a similar rise, almost tripling in the same period.

With the real estate market bulging in the area, the dollar signs of growth appear to override the idea for a slower pace of development.

Mike Ali, a 44-year old Lovejoy resident and business manager at the Conoco gas station on Talmadge Road, looked out onto a landscape of red clay from which hundreds of houses will grow and said he didn't mind.

"It's good for me. A lot of people will come in here," he said.