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County quickly becoming one of nation's most diverse

LAWRENCEVILLE - In what demographers consider a blink of an eye, Gwinnett County has gone from a "lily white" county to one of the most diverse in the nation.

An influx of foreign-born residents has helped drive that change - so much so that one in five people living here in 2003 were born outside the United States, according to the Census Bureau.

Romanians, Laotians, Cubans, Nigerians, Mexicans, Filipinos and a host of other nationalities have made Gwinnett County home in such numbers that one think tank has even labeled the county a "mini Ellis Island."

The new residents come seeking a better life, and they are drawn by the same things that have brought people to Gwinnett County since the 1970s: affordable housing, jobs and good schools.

It also doesn't hurt that the county now has several large ethnic communities, with stores, restaurants and newspapers that can help them stay in touch with their roots while putting down new ones.

Not all, though, come from overseas. In many instances Korean-Americans and other ethnic minorities are relocating to metro Atlanta and Gwinnett County from other large cities, like Los Angeles and New York City, where they have lived for years if not decades.

"One guy I met from L.A. said, 'This is pretty much heaven,'" said Jin Ho Chung, a Korean-American developer working in Gwinnett County.

The man, Chung said, was referring to the lower cost of living here and the ability to get more home for his dollar.

About 70 percent of the Koreans moving to Gwinnett come from elsewhere in the U.S., while the rest are immigrating from Korea, estimated Eugene Lee, head reporter for The Donga Daily News, a metro Atlanta newspaper.

Parthiv Parekh, editor of Khabar, an Asian-Indian community magazine based in Norcross, said "real estate values and good schools" bring Indians to Gwinnett County.

However, the Indian community itself is a big draw, he said.

"A certain amount of congregation brings a comfort level," Parekh said. "After you get enough grocery stores and restaurants and places to worship and people, that draws more people. It's like you are the hub."

Parekh, though, said Indian-Americans are less concentrated than other ethnic minorities and have spread more evenly throughout metro Atlanta - an observation backed by data from the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Indians coming to Gwinnett are typically relocating from elsewhere in the U.S., Parekh said.

Only the influx of immigrants and settlers to Gwinnett County in the 1800s when it was still a frontier land can compare to the inflow of foreign-born people now, according to a county report issued in 1997.

According to the Census Bureau, one in four Gwinnett residents speaks a language other than English at home, and 13 percent of the county population speaks Spanish at home.

Overall, Hispanics make up the largest ethnic minority in Gwinnett County, followed by Asians. In 2000, Hispanics represented 10 percent of the population, or 64,137 people, while Asians comprised 7 percent of the population, or 45,993 people, according to the Census Bureau.

By July 2002, an estimated 87,000 Hispanics lived in Gwinnett, giving it the largest Hispanic population in Georgia, according to the other Census Bureau numbers.

The hundreds of homes built in Gwinnett each year and other construction activity have lured Hispanic immigrants in search of work.

Bart Lewis, the Atlanta Regional Commission's research chief, said construction jobs are probably the biggest draw.

"Hispanics have very much been a basic source of labor for the construction sector," Lewis said.

For immigrants, word of mouth is most likely how they hear about Gwinnett County, said University of Georgia demographer Douglas Bachtel.

"It doesn't matter if it's someone from south Georgia or the Midwest or Ireland or Bosnia," Bachtel said. "People write or e-mail or telephone home and say, 'Hey, I moved to this place and it's pretty cool and you can stay with us until we get you situated.'

"That is how migration has occurred ever since it started."

But not everybody has what it takes to pick up and move to a new country.

"That is the beauty of migration - not everybody does it," Bachtel said.

"I like to say immigrants have more pizzazz. There is something different about them. They tend to be more driven and they are looking for new lives for themselves and their kids.

"They are likely entrepreneurs and hard workers, and those are the exact types of people you want in your community.

"They're a community economic development tool. They relocate and then they open a business or a restaurant and buy a house.

"It's like the history of America, and that's why we are the greatest country in the world."

Although the increasing cultural diversity might present short-term challenges for Gwinnett, it will benefit the county in the long run, said Gwinnett Planning Division Director Steve Logan.

"In my opinion it is going to give Gwinnett a very unique opportunity," Logan said.

"There is going to be a tremendous amount of vitality and creativity that comes out of these ethnic groups, just as there has been with other ethnic groups that came to this country, whether they were German, Irish or whatever.

"We're basically all immigrants or sons of immigrants."