Media Coverage

Gwinnett County: Diversity and Growth

By  Randy SoutherlandGeorgia Trend

August 2023 — Gwinnett County has long been a destination for people and businesses. At various times it has been the fastest-growing county in America.

In 2022, Gwinnett boasted 975,353 residents while also becoming the most diverse county in Metro Atlanta. All those new people also transformed what was once a rural farming region into a conglomerate of bedroom communities.

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Attentive Leader: County Commission Chair Nicole Love Hendrickson: photo Woodie Williams.

“Gwinnett County is the fastest-growing county in the state, and we are always paying attention to this growth,” says County Commission Chair Nicole Love Hendrickson. “From a policy perspective, you always have to ensure that you’re providing enough available housing, that you have the infrastructure to support the population growth, that you have clean, safe access to water. You’re also addressing congestion and traffic and mitigation [with] transit and transportation [infrastructure]. All of those things are impacted by growth.”

The key to ongoing growth is now reuse and redevelopment.

“We’re running out of land, but we’ve been running out of land for 20 years,” observes Nick Masino, president and CEO of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. The new reality is “a lot more redevelopment is happening,” he adds.

Closer to major transportation arteries like I-285, “it’s become financially viable to literally buy a building, tear it down and redevelop it,” Masino says.

That means an increasing number of new and desirable commercial properties are starting to transform the real estate landscape.

Thinking Ahead

One of the biggest of these is the 2,000-acre Rowen development along Highway 316 near Dacula. The mixed-use development is billed as a “nonprofit-led knowledge community,” according to the Rowen Foundation, which is leading the development.

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Knowledge Community: Rendering of the Rowen Village, above, and from left, Rowen Foundation Board Chair Sachin Shailendra, First Lady Marty Kemp, Gov. Brian Kemp, Rowen Foundation Pres. Mason Ailstock, Gwinnett County Chair Nicole Love Hendrickson and former U.S. Rep.Carolyn Bourdeaux break ground for the Rowen research development.

Rowen Groundbreaking July24 2023The site is expected attract several tech and innovation companies and produce up to 100,000 jobs while contributing $8 billion to $10 billion annually to Georgia’s economy. Along with offices, labs and other commercial activities, the plan is to build multifamily and dense housing to create a true community, according to recent announcements.

“And once [Rowen] comes to full completion, it is going to be a world-class research hub for agriculture, science and the environment,” says Hendrickson.

The role that nonprofits can play in promoting economic development is also reflected in the Water Tower in Buford. This think tank and incubator promotes research, training and programming for water utility companies.

Maintaining and enhancing water infrastructure is key to serving a growing population, according to Hendrickson. The county recently signed an “historic water storage agreement” with the state that “will secure our water supply for the next 30 years and beyond,” she says.

Nowhere is redevelopment and reuse more evident than in the county’s 16 municipalities. Each has invested in renovating, revitalizing and sometimes even creating downtowns to give character and focus to their communities.

The city of Peachtree Corners has become a destination for technology companies. Billing itself as a “smart city,” this town transformed itself into a hub for not only tech companies, but also medical device makers and auto firms seeking to develop self-driving vehicles.

City officials have invested both time and resources into fostering technology ranging from a course for testing autonomous vehicles to an incubator for companies developing products running on the new 5G network.

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Adaptive-Reuse Project: Rendering of South End Norcross, an entertainment and retail destination: photo Studio Sogo

The city itself grew out of Technology Park Atlanta, a 500-acre research and technology park constructed in the 1960s. With this sprawling office park and growing city center, the city could offer autonomous vehicle developers a test track that included real streets with other vehicles and sidewalks with pedestrians.

The Curiosity Lab, the city’s incubator for tech companies, is full, and officials are planning to expand into another building.

“We decided to take our public right-of-way, the part of it that’s located within this 500-acre Technology Park, and turn all that right-of-way into a living laboratory for companies to use for their purposes,” explains City Manager Brian Johnson.

Those activities include “testing and demonstration to enhance and perfect product they ultimately want to scale, or [in] some cases it’s just a site for companies to demonstrate new technology for key customers and potential partners in the Southeast,” he says.

This year, Audi of America Inc. announced it was launching a program to advance cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) practical deployment pathways in Peachtree Corners.

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Adaptive-Reuse Project: Rendering of South End Norcross, an entertainment and retail destination: photo Woodie Williams.

C-V2X applications allow vehicles to communicate with city-owned streets, traffic signals, crosswalk signals and other infrastructure, as well as with bicycles and even pedestrians. By emitting signals that can be picked up by an equipped vehicle, the car and drivers will know when they’re approaching other roadway users.

“We are also now attracting international attention,” says Mayor Mike Mason.

The French American Chamber of Commerce is moving into the city. Canada is launching its first ever electric car tour at Curiosity Lab, and Brandon Branham, executive director of the Curiosity Lab and assistant city manager for Peachtree Corners, addressed the Ecomotion conference in Israel.

Repurposing and Revitalizing

Drive through a downtown and you’re likely to see new buildings under construction along with historic structures being freshened up for new uses.

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Focal Point: Rendering of Snellville’s The Grove at Towne Center: photo contributed.

Fast-growing Norcross is one of those cities making the most of its existing assets. South End Norcross is an adaptive-reuse project converting buildings once used for automotive repairs into mixed use with the goal of creating an entertainment and retail destination. Among the new uses for this area is a food hall that will be anchored by South End Smokehouse and other eateries. Several other businesses are expected to move into the development, including new locations for ice cream shop Butter & Cream and Refuge Coffee Co.

Snellville has been reinventing and revitalizing itself and, in the process, becoming a gateway to the county’s population growth.

The city celebrated its founding in 1923 with a massive overhaul that is creating a real downtown. The city itself grew up at the intersection of Highway 78 and 124 where the founders of the city, Snell and Sawyer, operated a general store.

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Massive Overhaul: Rendering of Elizabeth H. Williams library, to replace the 33-year-old Snellville branch on Lenora Church Road: photo TSW.

“We’re having a rebirth as we are building a downtown,” says Mayor Barbara Bender. The new 18-acre Grove at Towne Center was created as a mixed-use development and focal point for community activities and events. The area takes its name from a grove of trees that was long a gathering point for events.

The development effort includes nine new buildings with retail, restaurant, office and entertainment space, a parking garage and apartments. The complex includes the new two-story, 22,000-square-foot Elizabeth Williams Library. The library takes up the first floor while the city is leasing the second floor. It includes THRIVE Coworking, which will provide office and workspace to the city’s growing entrepreneurial community, according to Bender.

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Updating Old Town: Lilburn Mayor Tim Dunn: photo Becky Stein.

Snellville also has its share of medical services. Across the street from the Grove, Northside Hospital is constructing an outpatient surgery center and medical offices.

Downtown revitalization is also giving new life to outdated areas in Lilburn. The city is getting ready to transform an old Builder’s Steel industrial fabrication and storage site into a mixed-use development.

“Probably 10 years ago, we all recognized that end of Railroad Avenue was just a mess,” says Mayor Tim Dunn. “It was desolate. It was a bunch of old warehouses, and it wasn’t even properly paved or maintained.”

Today, all that is changing. Plans are underway to redevelop the existing structure into a restaurant and entertainment venue. Rangewater Real Estate announced plans for a 275-unit apartment complex and 700-space parking deck.

The goal is to bring new economic development, housing and connectivity to Old Town Lilburn, according to Dunn.

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Supporting Business: Aerial view of Duluth’s downtown: photo contributed.

Duluth has also spent the last decade redeveloping its downtown and surrounding areas. New restaurants, shops and residential spaces have sprung up, and change is continuing at a rapid pace.

In the downtown, a historic building will be getting new life, while a brand-new structure is rising. Nearby, a new apartment complex is expected to get underway soon, according to Mayor Nancy Harris.

“These are key projects for our downtown,” says Harris. “We’ve had a real focus on how we increase our downtown traffic so we can support the restaurant and the other retail businesses.”

Part of that plan has been boosting residential development. The goal is for 2,000 units that are walkable to downtown, she explains.

Over the last decade, Sugar Hill has gone from a community with no identifiable downtown to one with a vibrant and still growing city center.

“We’re a work in progress,” says Sugar Hill Mayor Brandon Hembree. A new city hall in 2013 represented the first real investment in downtown and it marked a change in direction.

The downtown got two big boosts with the Bowl at Sugar Hill, a 1,750-capacity amphitheater for headliner concerts and events, and the E Center, a community fitness center. It’s also home to small businesses, a coffee house, bakery, ice cream shop and a brewery.

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Positive Change: Sugar Hill’s E Center is a community fitness center in downtown: photo contributed.

Both developments spurred apartment construction that made the area a walkable destination for a growing number of full-time residents.

Lawrenceville is also making the most of its assets, both historic and human. The new Perry Street Chop House, which opened this year in the old Western Auto building, offers fine dining. The structure is an example of adaptive reuse of one of the city’s older structures.

Lawrenceville has long focused on promoting the arts. There’s the city-owned Lawrenceville Arts Center campus, managed by Aurora Theater. The School of the Arts at Central Gwinnett High is a $20 million facility that fosters arts education. It was made possible by a $1 million contribution from the city.

“It’s the first time in the history of Gwinnett County that a municipality literally gave cash to the board of education to build a school,” says Mayor David Still.

It’s no surprise that the city has also made public art a priority. It recently unveiled its first kinetic wind sculpture, Sinclair. This original sculpture by artist Anthony Howe was installed in the city’s Gateway Park. The structure is visible not only in the park, but to motorists driving by.

Education and Training

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Promoting the Arts: Lawrenceville Mayor David Still at the Lawrenceville Arts Center: photo contributed.

One of the most important keys to a vibrant and growing economy is education. In the 18 years since its founding, Georgia Gwinnett College has maintained a laser focus on providing degree programs that lead to jobs for local residents.

The first students from the college’s Bachelor of Arts in cinema and media arts production are now graduating.

“And that program was developed with [help from] the growing film and television production industry in the Atlanta region,” says George Low, GGC’s senior vice president of academic and student affairs and provost. That program is one of GGC’s fastest growing with more than 500 students currently enrolled.

GGC is building a talent pipeline for workers skilled in motion picture set lighting, production design, production for film and television, professional editing and sound design.

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Laser Focus: George Low, GGC’s senior vice president of academic and student affairs and provost: photo contributed.

Cities have also stepped up to encourage small business and entrepreneurship.

“Norcross has a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem with a mix of startups, small businesses, larger companies,” says Norcross Mayor Craig Newton. The new $12 million Norcross branch of the Gwinnett County Public Library includes a 1,500-square-foot makerspace, he adds.

A few years ago, Snellville’s economic development manager partnered with a marketing teacher at South Gwinnett High School to create what would be the prototype for an entrepreneurship program for students countywide, according to Bender.

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New Amphitheater: The Bowl at Sugar Hill seats 1,750 people.

“We’re very entrepreneurial out here,” she says. “We’ve got a lot of new startup businesses, and we also partner with the school system. There are even pieces of the program down in the middle schools, and some of the elementary schools have entrepreneurship programs going.”

Young aspiring entrepreneurs can apply for a “student business license.”

Gwinnett is also asserting itself as a destination for conventions and other gatherings. Its reputation received a boost with the completion of the $200 million expansion and renovation of Gas South District. Located in Duluth, the Gas South Convention Center is part of a 118-acre, mixed-use entertainment destination.

Along with doubling its exhibit space, the project added new ballrooms, meeting spaces and a food hall along with two new parking decks. Between meetings, visitors can take in a host of outdoor improvements including a park, green spaces, trails and hardscapes around a lake.

“[These features create] a walkable district around the convention center, which is something that really wasn’t there before,” says Lisa Anders, executive director of Explore Gwinnett.

A 348-room Westin Hotel is slated to open early next year. Combined with the expanded convention center, bookings for larger meetings have soared, according to Anders.

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Highlighting Assets: Norcross Mayor Craig Newton: photo Joann Vitelli.

Gas South District officials are also developing plans for mixed-use development that could transform the area into a full-time entertainment and residential destination. Among ideas being discussed are “experience businesses” such as a movie theater or a bowling alley to be located close to the arena and new hotel.

Officials are also exploring multifamily developments to create a full-time residential base to support restaurants and other new businesses.

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Encouraging Creativity: The Norcross branch of the Gwinnett County library includes a 1,500 square-foot makerspace, with 3D printers: photo contributed.

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Entertainment and Conventions: The Gas South Convention Center in Duluth: photo contributed.

As Gwinnett has grown it has also learned to adapt. To move beyond its identity as a bedroom community, it transformed itself into a jobs center and revamped and revitalized the appealing character of its many downtowns. Through each of these changes, the county has remained faithful to its roots and its heritage.  With all the change, much that was good about the old days has been preserved even as growth has become a prime characteristic of this Metro Atlanta county.

Local Flavor

Entrepreneurial Endeavors

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Supporting Startups: Gwinnett County Economic Development Manager Mark Farmer at Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center with, Director Philip Hartley, center, and Manager Stephanie Sokenis: photo Woodie Williams.

Along with ready access to education and job-training programs, Gwinnett is jump-starting job growth by promoting entrepreneurship. While corporate headquarters relocations and plant openings get the headlines, most jobs are still created by small businesses. And many of these small firms start as one- or two-person operations.

“You won’t find Fortune 500 CEOs any more passionate about what they’re doing than somebody who’s starting up their own business,” observes Gwinnett County Economic Development Manager Mark Farmer.

Supporting these entrepreneurs is a long-term strategy, according to Farmer. “We do this with an eye toward the company growing over time, and hiring people and paying taxes and all of the things that you want companies to do to enrich the economy.”

One tangible example of that commitment came this year when pharmacist Jennifer Hong became the first graduate of the Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center. She was one of 25 business owners in the inaugural class at the center.

“Jennifer’s journey with the center is an ideal illustration of our mission,” says Center Manager Stephanie Sokenis. “We work to empower small businesses and entrepreneurs and guide them through start-up and growth with education, workspace and connection to resources. Jennifer came to us with a great business idea and a drive to make it a success,” she says. Located in downtown Lawrenceville, this county-owned incubator and business education center is operated in conjunction with Georgia Gwinnett College. It provides business education classes and workshops along with coaching and even connections to funding sources and customers. “It’s a really complicated thing to create a new business,” says Phillip Hartley, the center’s director.

Hong’s goal was to grow her medical billing and credentialing business. The center says its program helped her expand her client base, navigate business obstacles and make remarkable strides in opening a second business – her own pharmacy in Gwinnett.

“She fully utilized our services and stands as a model of how the many who’ll come after her can do the same,” says Sokenis.