Nestled in the Appalachian Foothills, Appealing Dahlonega, Georgia Boasts a Scenic Setting, Lots of Festivals and a Gentle Pace
Cost of Living: Below the National Average
In the Appalachian Mountains foothills about 70 miles north of Atlanta, gentle Dahlonega (named after a Cherokee word for "golden" and pronounced Dah-lon-ega) got its start as a boom town during the Georgia Gold Rush of the 1820s, as nearby mines attracted men with gold fever and an itch to get rich. By 1848 most of the gold had been dug out, and the gold rush in a territory called California was beckoning. To keep miners in Dahlonega, local legend has it that the state's geologist stood on the courthouse steps, pointed to the Appalachian Mountains, and exclaimed, "Thar's gold in them thar hills!" The miners, unimpressed, took their pick axes and mules and headed west anyway, leaving young Dahlonega to fend for itself.
Fend for itself it did, and quite well, too. Dahlonega not only survived the ravages of the Civil War; it became the site of North Georgia College and State University, a miitary college (in 2013, the school combined with Gainesville State College and became the University of North Georgia with 6,000 students). With the development of the Chattahoochee National Forest to the north, Dahlonega also became a popular tourist destination.
Today, this peaceful hamlet (population 6,500) is popular with nature lovers, families, vacationers, military retirees and non-military retirees (30% of residents are age 45 or better). They come for the outdoor recreation but also find genuine Southern hospitality, natural beauty and a gentle pace.
The cost of living is 9% below the national average, and the median home price is $220,000. Dahlonega has grown by 25% over the last decade, and town leaders are happy with its budding appeal as a retirement destination. The crime rate meets the national average. Thirty-five percent of residents have at least a college degree, and nearly 75% of locals identify as Republican and attend church.
Most dwellings, everything from manufactured homes to custom built residences, are on wooded lots. River Knoll is a 55+ town home community, and Achasta, for all ages, is a higher-end development with leafy lots and tony single family homes.
Georgia is a tax-friendly state for retirement. Social Security is tax-exempt, as is up to $35,000 in other retirement income for people age 62 to 64. For residents age 65 or better, up to $65,000 in retirement income is exempt. Real estate is assessed at 40% of fair market value. Homeowners age 62 or better who earn $10,000 or less per year may have $10,000 of their property's assessed value exempt from school taxes. Homeowners age 62 or older whose family income does not exceed $30,000 annually may qualify for a partial exemption from state and county property taxes. For those age 65 and better who earn $10,000 or less, $4,000 of their property's value is exempt from state and county taxes as well. The state sales tax is 4%, and the income tax rate ranges from 1% to 6%. In Dahlonega, the annual taxes on a $220,000 home are approximately $2,200.
Dahlonega has a definite rural quality, but its cute, touristy public square has galleries, eateries, shops, bookstores and red brick sidewalks. It is anchored by the historic Lumpkin County Courthouse, built with gold in its walls and now home to the Gold Museum, which packs in more history than many museums twice its size. Some traditions never end, and even to this day, newlyweds walk around the square three times for good luck and a successful marriage.
Many of Dahlonega's restored downtown commercial buildings, dating from the mid-19th century and early-20th century, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During its gold rush heyday, Dahlonega was the site of a U.S. Mint that produced gold coins, which, if happened upon today, are worth a pretty penny.
The downtown square is also the site of several festivals, including the annual Bear on the Square Mountain Festival, held every April to commemorate the day a bear meandered into town. The Arts and Wine Festival is a juried art competition each May. The Gold Rush Days is an event that brings 200,000 visitors to town for a weekend of gold panning, great food and music every October.
For theater buffs, local and touring performances take place at the community Holly Theatre. The University's soccer and basketball teams always need new fans. Bird watching, canoeing, hiking, fishing and camping in the serenity of the Appalachians are all close at hand.
The region around Dahlonega is also known for its wine production. Five wineries are located just outside of town, and most of them have a tasting room in town. To celebrate the local wine culture, the Georgia Wine Country Festival is held each June and lets attendees sample some delicious vintages while enjoying hand-dipped chocolates, wagon rides and music.
The Crimson Moon is a gourmet restaurant that transforms into a music venue at night when the lineup includes acoustic guitarists and fiddle players. The homey Smith House boasts some of the South's best country cooking. Several lodges and spas offer relaxing massages.
There are some fun shops and a large outlet mall is just south of town along State Route 400 (there is also a Wal-Mart). About an hour beyond that, the Atlanta metro area (nearly six million people) shimmers with all of its world class amenities, including an international airport.
Senior services provided by the Lumpkin County Senior Center include nutrition programs, transportation services, education programs (legal, taxes, diabetes, blood pressure, etc.), a library lending program, an energy assistance program, outreach services and referral programs. Members also enjoy bible study groups, bingo, card games, movie days, shopping jaunts and more. The Center is open Monday through Friday.
The popular Lumpkin County Library is open Monday through Saturday and has classes, book discussion groups, an interlibrary loan program, public computers with Internet access and volunteer opportunities. When not spending time at the library, residents often partake in the University's good selection of continuing education classes and lectures.
Public transportation is supplied by the county in the form of a two vehicle, appointment-based van service that operates Monday through Friday.
Chestatee Regional Hospital has 49 beds and is accredited by the Joint Commission. It is a short-term facility, a part of the Atlanta-based SunLink Health System, and it accepts Medicare patients. Atlanta has a dozen hospitals and medical centers if more in-depth care is required. Decatur, just east of Atlanta, has a VA hospital.
With its elevation of 1,450 feet, Dahlonega winters can be chilly with temperatures in the 30s and 40s. Summer temperatures are generally in the 70s, 80s and low 90s. On average, the area receives 62 inches of rain and a trace of snow each year. Ice storms can happen. The sun shines 225 days of the year. On the comfort index, a combination of temperature and humidity, Dahlonega is just below the national average.
Dahlonega does have a few drawbacks. It is remote. The poverty rate is above the national average, although much of this is attributed to the student population. Some parts of town have seen better days. Tourists and college students are a constant presence, although there are fewer tourists in the winter and fewer students in the summer. The chance of a tornado striking is 92% above the national average.
All that said, most retirees who live in Dahlonega think they have struck a bit of retirement gold. The early prospectors may have left, but nearly everyone else who has come has wanted to stay, enjoying comfortable small town living just down the road from a great American city.
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