Spotlight On: Mason Ailstock, President & CEO, Rowen Foundation
January 2023 — In an interview with Invest:, Mason Ailstock, president of the Rowen Foundation, which is overseeing a new mixed-used knowledge, community development in Gwinnett County, talked about the development and the growth it will provide to the overall state of Georgia as it hopes to attract companies big and small in industries that include agriculture, medicine, robotics, AI, advanced materials, precision agriculture, biotech, energy, life sciences and the environment, while also offering low-barrier access to businesses and residents.
What have been some highlights for the foundation over the last 12 months?
Environmental sustainability and economic equity are at the core of what we do so we are following the US Green Building Council Site Certification process and we have a small- women- and minority-owned business enterprise goal of 30% for all of our contracting. We also wrapped up our design guidelines, which focus on sustainability and renewable energy and redundancy and things like fiber connectivity and broadband. This will ensure that companies that come into Rowen will have all the different services and utilities they need to be successful while also having a physical environment that takes advantage of being in a nature-rich region.
How has Rowen been handling economic challenges?
There is an awareness of the global economy and the challenges in the field of construction where supply has been impacted in different ways. We have worked closely with our design and contracting partners to make sure we get accurate bids that are competitive but that also integrate a level of flexibility, knowing that uncertainty needs to be taken into account but that it shouldn’t stop progress from being made. It is a thoughtful strategy when it comes to balancing the global economy and figuring out how to make informed decisions
What aspects of the state’s business ecosystem stand out to you?
There are three areas that come to mind. The first would be our higher-education institutions. We have amazing R1 universities in Georgia Tech, Emory and UGA on our board of directors as well as Georgia Gwinnett, and we have an exceptional technical college system that provides degrees for a variety of employment opportunities while also having the No. 1 HBCU in the country, Spelman College, which graduates more Black women in STEM education than any other HBCU in the nation. We have tapped into that pipeline at the highest level.
The second is the diversity of the workforce and scale. It is pretty hard to compete with what we have to offer in that respect and we are able to tap into that depth and diversity to offer it as a point of engagement for companies looking to Georgia and the Atlanta Metro.
The third is our programmatic drivers around medicine, agriculture and the environment, as well as the many intersecting and enabling technologies. They are strengths of the state and the institutions we work with and that is a great resource as we think about the future of humanity with local and global implications, and how we think about the environment, climate change, renewable energy, social and community health. Georgia is leading in those aspects and Rowen is well positioned to support a bold vision for the future.
What can business and residents look forward to at Rowen?
It is going to be an engaging and fun place to be where individuals from a variety of backgrounds can come together to take on global challenges. Rowen will be a place where people can experience nature and the environment while also seeing the future as they are surrounded by companies working on new technologies. There will be an opportunity to live at Rowen, start a business, volunteer, or connect with international industry leaders, so it is going to be a dynamic place. It will really have a low barrier to entry and for people to be engaged. We don’t want everywhere to have high rent rates or feel it is inaccessible. The question is how big of a table we can make and how many chairs we can bring to it so everyone has an opportunity to participate.
Are there specific industries or businesses you would like to attract?
Certainly, the agriculture, medicine and environment sectors as well as the areas that they connect, which includes things like robotics, AI, advanced materials, precision agriculture, biotech and life sciences. Those are all sectors we are interested in reaching out to at all scales, whether it is companies looking to expand their global footprint or new startups.
What are some of the key priorities for the site regarding development and construction?
Our first phase is about $30 million worth of work and will take about 15 months to complete. It’s not just roads but complete streets, with a multi-use trail on both sides along with locally sourced native landscaping, several lanes of driving and we’ll manage our stormwater in the median to reduce the overall width of the roads. We are also removing a concrete curb and gutter, which are significant contributors to greenhouse gas and climate change in the construction field. It’s really this full system of moving people around Rowen’s property and that isn’t even touching on what’s under the ground, which is power redundancy with fiber and broadband connectivity.
What differentiates Rowen from other innovation parks and communities?
We have multiple higher-education institutions as our priority touch point in how we think about people first and leveraging our place to serve those people. That connection to talent and the future workforce is a huge differentiator. We are not looking to just monetize land.
With the foundation being a nonprofit steward of Rowen in perpetuity, we are positioned to best serve those companies and we can walk along with them as the community grows so they can continue to be successful, grow and build connections. We have a responsibility that goes way beyond real estate and buildings.
One of the things that makes a place like Rowen successful is that it is always evolving and being reimagined. There is not a finish line in the sense of answering all the questions and crossing a finish line. There is always a “what’s next?” culture in the community that Rowen serves.
How will Rowen function as an anchor for the wider Atlanta region and how will it help address those challenges around workforce and housing?
Georgia has never had a project like Rowen that is of this scale, nonprofit-led, multi-institutional and multigenerational. Rowen is another feather in the cap for us as a state to put forward when we are competing with other states and even countries when it comes to attracting talent and industries.
Every region in the country is dealing with solutions to housing and we want to be a contributor to those solutions along with transit connectivity. We are thinking about regionally connecting through public transit and internally how to move people around 2,000 acres.