Atlanta - If this southern metropolis keeps growing the way it has the last few years, "we'll soon be calling Chattanooga a suburb," says veterinarian Nicholas W. Petty, who has practiced in the Buckhead area near downtown Atlanta since 1976.
ATLANTA — If this southern metropolis keeps growing the way it has the last few years, "we'll soon be calling Chattanooga a suburb," says veterinarian Nicholas W. Petty, who has practiced in the Buckhead area near downtown Atlanta since 1976.
It's not that the city of Atlanta itself is bursting its seams. The city proper is only the nation's 35th largest, mostly because it hasn't been able to annex territory the way many other booming cities in the West and South have since the last official Census in 2000.
But when you speak of "Metro Atlanta," as it's called here, you're talking No. 1 in the nation in terms of numerical growth.
Thinking big: William Michael Younker, DVM, on the future site of his new $1.9 million veterinary hospital in the Fayetteville, Ga., area south of Atlanta. (Photos by Rick Newby)
Metropolitan Atlanta, as defined by the Census Bureau, covers a sprawling 28-county area in and around Atlanta that added 890,000 residents between April 1, 2000 and July 1, 2006, growing from roughly 4.39 million to 5.30 million.
That's a whopping 20.89 percent gain — largest among the nation's 361 metro areas.
Most of Metro Atlanta's population spike has been in its northern suburbs and counties — places like Marietta (Cobb County), Roswell (Fulton County) Lawrenceville (Gwinnett County), Cartersville (Bartow County), Canton (Cherokee County) and Dawsonville (Dawson County) that lie along the Interstate 75 and Interstate 85 corridors.
Trying to meet demand: Administrator Ken Hodgkiss, left, and Dr. Jim McClearen, part owner of the new Cherokee Veterinary Emergency Clinic in Woodstock, Ga., see a huge need for emergency doctors.
And the explosive growth continues largely in those directions — north, northwest and northeast of Atlanta — although there's strong growth in other directions, too.
That explains Dr. Petty's facetious remark that Atlanta residents might one day regard Chattanooga, Tenn., 102 miles to the north along I-75, as another of their suburbs.
How has all that growth affected the veterinary profession in Metro Atlanta? One practitioner says there seem to be as many veterinarians in the area north of Atlanta "as there are Baptist churches."
One might assume the metro area's DVM population increased right along with the population to meet a growing clientele, but that's not the case.
Instead, during the same six-year period, the number of veterinarians in the 28-county area declined slightly, from 1,334 to 1,272, or about 4.65 percent, according to the Georgia Veterinary Medical Association (GVMA).
Building for the future: Dr. William Michael Younker expects to break ground soon on this site for his new $1.9 million Fayetteville, Ga., hospital, that will combine and expand his two present hospitals. The density of practices in his area is heavy, but "is about what it should be," he says.
The reasons partly reflect national trends in the profession but some are peculiar to the region, says Jim McClearen, DVM, of Acworth, Ga., the GVMA's president-elect who takes over that office in June.
"Some of this is speculation on my part, but I see three factors at work:
"First, many of the Baby-Boomer generation of veterinarians, including myself, have either retired and/or moved way out of the metro area. I live nearly 120 miles out now. Some older practitioners are selling out, if they can, or downsizing. Sadly, some who failed to modernize and keep their practices at a high enough level to make them sellable are having to walk away from them.
Booming metropolis: Atlanta and the 28 counties in its metro area keep adding population, but the biggest growth spurt is along the interstate corridors north of the city.
"Secondly, young doctors are finding it hard to start a practice while servicing their school debt.
"And a third probable factor is that most hospitals have far better-trained support staffs these days, so fewer vets are needed to handle many procedures."
Other census stats
What about the American Veterinary Medical Association's recent demographic report showing U.S. veterinary expenditures rising to nearly $24.5 billion, but the number of patient visits declining? How is that playing out in Metro Atlanta?
"Yes, we're noticing fewer visits here," McClearen says. "Those people who can afford good veterinary care are still coming in, which keeps the bottom line up, but the rest just do the best they can to get by. In my opinion, we've reached a price ceiling on many procedures. That's partly why more people are turning to the Internet."
Still, demand for veterinary services is strong in Metro Atlanta, particularly so for emergency care. Every veterinarian DVM Newsmagazine contacted for this article cited an acute shortage of emergency-care doctors.
"While there are more doctors moving in all the time, there's still an overall shortage, a big demand," says McClearen. "The greatest need is in emergency practice, while specialty practices seem to be faring best. They seem to be the most lucrative and are on the rise."
Here are snapshot views of what's happening in veterinary medicine in the northern, downtown and southern parts of Metro Atlanta, based on our interviews with practitioners who live and work there:
ASKED TO DEFINE Atlanta's current biggest growth areas, McClearen quickly cited several hot spots: Gwinnett County (county seat, Lawrenceville), 30 miles northeast along I-85 and I-985; Paulding County, which bills itself as "the fourth fastest-growing county in Georgia and ninth fastest-growing in the nation;" Cherokee County (county seat, Canton), northwest of the city and bisected by I-575; and "everywhere up along I-75 northwest toward Cartersville and along Highway 400 northeast to Dawsonville."
McClearen, who retired and sold his small-animal and exotic-pet practice in Acworth a year ago, joined with some partners to open two emergency hospitals, the Cobb Emergency Veterinary Clinic in bustling Marietta and the newer Cherokee Emergency Veterinary Clinic further north in Woodstock, Ga., which opened its doors a year ago in October. McClearen served as project manager for the $2.2 million Cherokee (County) facility, overseeing design and construction of the 8,400-square-foot clinic.
Finding enough emergency veterinarians to fully staff the two emergency centers has been a problem, though. "We're open 14 hours weekdays and 24 hours on weekends at both locations," says administrator Ken Hodgkiss. "We have four doctors at Cherokee, which right now handles mostly outpatient care, and four at the Cobb clinic, which handles mostly critical-care cases. Our goal is to have a total of 13 doctors between the two of them; when we get there, we will be open 24-7."
"Atlanta is big on emergency care. There's so much demand. It's just very difficult to find enough good doctors to staff these places," McClearen says. "Not many want to be on call, or work the hours and holidays and weekends required. Longevity in emergency care is about three to five years and then they're burned out."
Because of heavy workloads and busy lifestyles, unless they're retired it's also hard to find veterinarians to volunteer to serve on committees or otherwise work for organizations like the GVMA and the Greater Atlanta Veterinary Medical Society (GAVMS) that are trying to meet the challenges facing the profession in the state and metro area, says McClearen.
Another longtime veterinarian who's experienced the effects of the north-side population boom is Dr. Henry E. Bohn, who sold his Marietta practice, East Cobb Veterinary Clinic, in 2005 and now works as an associate there, saying "now after 40 years I can go home most evenings at 6 p.m. and relax a bit."
Marietta (Cobb County) "is pretty much growth-saturated and built out now," says Bohn. "That's particularly true of the eastern side of the county; there is still some room left in the western part, but in Marietta there are no more new subdivisions.
"What's happening here," Bohn continues, "is that people are buying perfectly good homes, tearing them down and building bigger ones. There are more seniors here, and they have pets. But overall, you have fewer and bigger houses so that means fewer pets overall, and there are more day practices than ever. When I started my career, my clients came from within a radius of 20 miles; now the radius is three to five miles."
Still, business is good, Bohn says. "The number of client visits may be down some, but most everyone I know says their gross is as good as it's ever been, or better."
Like McClearen, Bohn sees emergency medicine as having the greatest need. He says he has helped form three emergency clinics in the area, and is among those who partnered with McClearen in the Cobb County and Cherokee County emergency clinics.
THE PRACTITIONER WHO jokes about Chattanooga becoming a suburb says "there's also a lot of in-town movement in Atlanta, more than many realize."
"There's a lot of condo construction in our area," says Nicholas W. Petty, DVM, who operates the Pharr Road Animal Hospital in Atlanta's near-downtown Buckhead area.
Just as in many other major cities, "More people are getting tired of the commute and coming back downtown to live," says Petty, a veterinarian 35 years who has practiced in the Buckhead area since 1976 and in his present location since 1990.
Petty is familiar with the urban sprawl to the north of downtown, but observes that "areas to the south and southeast have grown and improved, too, such as East Point. (Southeast of downtown, just north of the airport, it labels itself the "crown jewel" of Atlanta's suburbs.) And Henry County (southeast of Atlanta) is just going bonkers with growth," says Petty.
"There are plenty of vets in our (downtown) area, but the competition hasn't really hurt anyone. We're doing well enough. There's a lot of money in Atlanta."
Another DVM who agrees Buckhead is a good place to practice is Dr. M. Duffy Jones, who grew up within walking distance of Peachtree Hills Animal Hospital, which he opened two and a half years ago.
"It's a great business, better than I could ever have anticipated," says Jones, who assists the GAVMS by maintaining its Web site.
"I hit in my first year the business target I expected to reach in my fourth or fifth year," says Jones, who received his DVM degree from Tufts University in 1999.
"The economy — high gasoline prices and the like — hasn't seemed to affect us that much here. No veterinarian I know in this area has seen a profit decline; they're either holding steady or improving."
"Here in Buckhead, it's expensive to get in and stay in, but we have good clients. There are a lot of empty-nesters here who want to provide very good health care for their pets."
An Atlanta native, Jones is familiar with the entire region's growth patterns, noting that, even though most of the population boom is to the north, there still is strong growth in all directions around the city.
"I DON'T WANT to say too much that's good about this area; don't want to let the secret out," William Michael Younker, DVM, says with a chuckle.
He owns two practices in Fayetteville, Ga., near the planned community of Peachtree City. Fayetteville is the seat of Fayette County, two counties south of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, nestled between I-75 and I-85. No interstate routes pass through Fayette County, and that's a good thing in Younker's estimation.
"For years, say until the late 1980s, we were an airline community. Nearly everyone either worked for Delta or Eastern, or knew someone who did. We're more diverse now.
"We were also once known as the most-married county in the USA, which literally meant just that — we had the most married couples," Younker says.
"It's still a very family-friendly place, very stable, lots of kids. There are dogs and cats galore. It's always been a very good environment for professional people."
Younker, last year's GVMA president, will combine his two day practices — the Huntington Creek Animal Hospital and Lafayette Center Animal Hospital — into one later this year. He'll break ground next month on his new 8,500- to 9,000-square-foot Fayette Veterinary Medical Center, costing about $1.9 million. He expects to open it by late summer or early fall.
"There was a need to move one of the hospitals, and this proved to be the best solution," Younker says.
Besides operating the two hospitals, Younker also runs the Southern Crescent Animal Emergency Clinic in Fayetteville, serving nearly all of south Atlanta. "I'm on the board and oversee the business and personnel side there," he says. "The emergency clinic has four fulltime doctors and a large support staff."
How does Younker assess the state of the profession in his area and why in his opinion has the number of DVMs in Atlanta decreased slightly despite the population boom?
"The general economy in Atlanta has been rather flat in the last year or two — not bad, but it's tightened up. In my two practices, we have fewer veterinarians on staff than in the past. One who left wasn't replaced. I have the same tech staff I had seven years ago; we simply work harder and more efficiently. Plus, we're picky when it comes to choosing new staff; we look for the best, but they're hard to find. Georgia and Auburn grads, for example, usually already have jobs by their junior year, so there are very few of them available to hire in their senior year.
"Also, our support staff is much better trained now than ever, and I suspect it's that way around the city, which may help explain the fewer number of vets. Sometimes I think I'd rather hire another tech than another vet. The techs take up the routine procedures and give me more time with some patients. "
The density of veterinarians in the Fayetteville area south of Atlanta "is about what it should be," Younker says.
"We're growing, but not as fast as some places. There's explosive growth, for example, over in Coweta County to the west and Henry County to the east. It's almost out of control there.
"But, as everyone knows, most of the boom is up north of the city. I grew up in Marietta, and I've seen what's happened there during my career. There must be as many veterinarians up there as there are Baptist churches."