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Recruiting begins for tax district

LAWRENCEVILLE - If it takes a village to rejuvenate Jimmy Carter Boulevard, then a group of business people in the Norcross area is about to begin recruiting villagers.

In coming weeks an organization working to transform the unincorporated area between Norcross and Lilburn into "Gwinnett Village" will hold 16 meetings with commercial property owners.

Their goal is to convince the landowners to join a self-taxing district that would tax its members and use the revenue to fund community improvements, like landscaping, litter removal or security patrols.

The money can also be used to attract state and federal funds, making much larger projects possible, such as new sidewalks and road upgrades.

Such districts have already been created along U.S. Highway 78 between Snellville and Stone Mountain and around the Gwinnett Place commercial center.

County officials view the community improvement districts as an effective revitalization tool, and their members view them as a way to speed up costly projects that would otherwise take years or never happen at all.

Plans to add security patrols in the form of off-duty cops have gotten the attention of property owners that are being recruited in the Norcross area, where crime is an issue.

Chuck Warbington, executive director of the Southwest Gwinnett Village Community Improvement Association, said after the district finishes signing up members and is approved by county commissioners, it will hire off-duty, uniformed police officers to patrol the area's thoroughfares in their squad cars.

"That's the biggest question we get from property owners we approach: 'What are you going to do about security?'" Warbington said.

Before that can happen, though, the district backers must convince a simple majority of the commercial property owners to agree to the 5-mill tax rate the district would levy. At that rate, another $2,000 would be added to the tax bill for a $1 million property, Warbington said.

For every $750,000 worth of property the district signs up, under state law it can force in another $250,000 worth of shopping centers or office buildings.

The Gwinnett Village boosters have set an enrollment deadline of March 15. After that they will submit their paperwork to the county so officials can review it and send it for a vote before the county commission.

So far 45 property owners with almost 100 parcels have signed up. In the end the district could have between 400 and 500 pieces of land, Warbington said.

One backer has contributed $29,800 to the district organization efforts. The city of Norcross provided the grant because the district would include a stretch of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Buford Highway that is inside the city limits, said Norcross Mayor Lillian Webb.

"It goes hand in glove with what we're trying to achieve in the Buford Highway corridor, which is kind of a gateway to the city and our downtown," Webb said.

Keith Shewbert, a Norcross resident who is helping district organizers, said the potential security and infrastructure improvements would let the area attract shiny, new development.

"In the next several years a whole new wave of development is going to come out of Atlanta, and if we can bring up the area, it will be poised to benefit from that. Otherwise it will pass us by," Shewbert said.

District organizers - and a county report - say a community improvement district would help stabilize and rejuvenate the swath of neighborhoods and business corridors between Norcross and Lilburn, including Jimmy Carter Boulevard, Beaver Ruin Road and Indian Trail Road.

The unincorporated area is plagued by crime, graffiti, traffic, outdated infrastructure, vacant shopping centers and neglected houses. Half of the homicides in Gwinnett County in 2004 occurred there.

The first three meetings will be: Tuesday, Greater Atlanta Christian School, 11 a.m.; Wednesday, La Quinta Inn, 11 a.m.; Thursday, Greater Atlanta Christian School, 11 a.m. For other meetings, call 770-449-6515.