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Company drawn by incentives

SUWANEE - For years, roughly half of the employees at Firearms Training Systems (FATS) have left their Gwinnett County homes and wandered across the Chattahoochee River into Forsyth County for work.

On Monday afternoon, the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce announced those employees would have a little shorter commute as the company relocates its facilities and more than 400 employees to the Gwinnett County side of Suwanee.

FATS, which creates virtual weapons-training programs, was acquired by a British company, Meggitt Defense Systems, in October and has since merged with one of Meggitt's other businesses. This created a new company, Meggitt Defense Systems FATS/Caswell, and a need for a larger space.

Meggitt Defense Systems decided to relocate the company to Gwinnett largely because of the tax abatements offered it - a relatively new strategy employed by the county to attract businesses.

"There's not one single factor that made us choose Gwinnett, but (the tax incentives) made a major boost," said Ron Mohling, president of Meggitt Defense Systems FATS/Caswell.

Meggitt will receive an estimated $515,822 in tax abatements from the county, schools, state and city of Suwanee over the next five years, according to a report by Alfie Meek, director of Gwinnett's economic analysis division. The report said the county's portion of those taxes is an estimated $155,533.

"I think the Gwinnett County tax incentives is what closed the deal," said Nick Masino, the chamber's director of economic development.

The abatements are a small price to pay, Masino said, to keep Gwinnett residents working within the county. Homeowners cost more money than they pay to the government, and it's important to bring in large companies to shift the tax burden from residents, he said.

This is just the second time Gwinnett has given a company tax incentives to lure it into the county. County commissioners agreed to start offering incentives in late 2005 and did so for the first time with Hewlett-Packard, which decided to bring 140 jobs and $240 million in business investment to Gwinnett in May 2006.

The county decided to go that route again with Meggitt Defense Systems to bring its $80 million in capital investment and more than 400 jobs to the county. Masino said the company's jobs have an average salary in the high $50,000 range.

Mohling said the need for a new facility arose in February when FATS learned it would join operations with Meggitt Defense Systems Caswell, which designs live fire range equipment, target systems, controls and services.

Since the Georgia operations were larger (roughly 300 employees), the company decided to move its roughly 100 Minnesota employees south.

"It was easier to move the Minneapolis company here than the other way around," Mohling said.

But the move to Gwinnett meant more space was needed, and so the company began looking around metro Atlanta for a new location.

Since not all the Minneapolis employees wanted to make the move to Georgia, Mohling wanted to move somewhere with a strong base of workers in the technology industry.

The company felt Gwinnett, with Gwinnett Technical College and the new university, would be a good location.

"I think they've created an environment of education and an attitude of attracting particular high-tech companies," Mohling said of the county.