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Rebirth in works for Norcross plant

NORCROSS - A Pennsylvania firm known for breathing new life into old industrial sites is buying the massive OFS plant that borders Interstate 85 near Norcross, said a community leader.

Some things still must be finalized, but Preferred Real Estate Investments would redevelop part of the 120-acre property at Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85, said Chuck Warbington, executive director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District.

"I think it's very positive," Warbington said. "They specialize in taking industrial facilities and redeveloping them. You're dealing with somebody who has done this nationwide."

Japan-based OFS BrightWave, which owns the 3 million-square-foot fiber-optic plant that was once a top Gwinnett County employer, would continue using about two-thirds of the property, Warbington said. It would retain control of a five-story tower used in the production of fiber-optic cable.

Preferred Real Estate Investments refused to comment on whether it is buying the industrial land that sits in the middle of an urbanized area targeted for revitalization by both Gwinnett County and commercial property owners in the community improvement district.

Warbington, though, said he was shown preliminary plans calling for a hotel, condos and shops on the highly visible tract.

"They were very conceptual plans," Warbington said. "They are looking to do kind of a hotel-conference center and some condos and some retail on a portion of the property."

The condos would go above the shops, said Warbington, who received no indication that high-rises are being considered.

"It's going to be more in the five-to-eight story range," he said.

Some things still must happen for the deal to be completed, Warbington said. It is common for developers to make their purchase of land contingent on it being rezoned by elected officials for the type of buildings they want to put on it.

At one time the sprawling plant was owned by Lucent Technologies and it flourished with nearly 3,000 workers, making it one of the county's largest employers.

However, by the time Lucent sold the facility to OFS in late 2001, the high-tech industry was in a tailspin and the demand for fiber-optic cable was falling sharply.

OFS later cut nearly 2,000 workers and shifted production elsewhere.

In February 2005, a huge piece of the land was put on the market, and about 50 interested parties looked into buying it. By winter the field was narrowed to three potential buyers, and by December one was chosen to enter serious negotiations.

Those involved in trying to rejuvenate the Norcross area have high hopes for the OFS site. They think its redevelopment could serve as a catalyst for revitalization - one that would bring in new businesses and residents.

Preferred's Web site said the $1.5 billion company transforms "over-looked, aging facilities into one-of-a-kind mixed-use environments." Its expertise is buying "large, complex sites."

Gwinnett County commissioners approved zoning rules in December that allow high-rises and mixed-use developments in business centers along I-85, including the Jimmy Carter Boulevard corridor.

Beforehand, there was little opportunity for developers to blend restaurants, offices, shops and residences on the same tract.