Tax allocation districts needed for revitalization

Sen. Curt Thompson

I grew up in Gwinnett County. I've seen neighborhoods go from rural to booming suburban and even to urban. And I've seen some neighborhoods and commercial areas of our county move into the aging and even run-down category. One reason I ran for the state legislature was to do something about this decline. After dozens of town hall and neighborhood meetings in the past three years, I remain convinced that revitalization is one of the top concerns in our community.

Within reach is a valuable tool that can help our older communities. I and several co-sponsors introduced Senate Bill 15 at the request of County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister. The bill would allow a referendum among Gwinnett voters to give the county commission the power to target areas as "tax allocation districts." The bill has passed the state Legislature and awaits the governor's signature and approval in a referendum by Gwinnett voters in 2006 to become law.

The commission could partner with private groups to revitalize and redevelop areas, selling bonds for infrastructure improvements such as burying utility lines and improving sidewalks, roads, water and sewers. This would enable an old shopping center to be converted into a new one with better shops, better public spaces and rear-facing parking instead of the massive parking lots that line our major roads with older strip malls.

It could help create live, work and play communities in our denser populated areas in order to alleviate traffic and recreate the old neighborhood feel that many areas from Decatur to East Atlanta have done. Tax allocation districts could even be used to lower or even eliminate the cost of the proposed toll road conversion on Ga. Highway 316.

The bonds would be repaid from the increased sales tax revenues generated by the proposed development. Funding by bonds allows us to pay up front for the improvements necessary to redevelop an area.

We don't have to wait for a developer to foot the bill, which is often too expensive for them to do when they have the option of using undeveloped land elsewhere. We avoid making the taxpayer pay the bill all at once from the county budget at the expense of other services. And we avoid a tax increase to make these needed improvements.

It is a competitive world. We want to attract businesses back to Gwinnett Place Mall and Jimmy Carter Boulevard. We'd like to create a technology corridor along Ga. 316.

We have to be able to compete. DeKalb, Fulton, Cobb, Clayton and Cherokee counties have all added this to their tool belts to encourage revitalization in their areas. Tax allocation districts have successfully been used to create the Atlantic Station project in Atlanta, build the Smyrna town square and develop live, work and play communities around the Decatur Square. They are part of the planning for DeKalb's Memorial Drive and Atlanta's "beltline." There are tax allocation district success stories nationwide, including renovation of historic theaters in Chicago, construction of a rapid transit station in Fremont, Calif., and financing of a shopping mall and aircraft maintenance center in Indianapolis.

Now it's Gwinnett's turn. We have areas ripe for just such a plan. Long expanses of Buford Highway, Jimmy Carter Boulevard and the Gwinnett Place Mall area could once again thrive, bringing new residents, jobs and services to areas of south, central and western Gwinnett.

Enactment of the measure by the voters of Gwinnett would simply allow Gwinnett residents to vote for themselves on how best to address our current economic needs. Please let Gov. Sonny Perdue know you support this bill and ask him to sign it and send it to the Gwinnett voters for approval in '06.

Feel free to contact me for more information. You can reach me at the Capitol at (404) 463-1318 or at home at (770) 696-4777. Help us enact this important piece of local legislation.

Curt Thompson is a state senator from Norcross.