A new type of growth is news in '07

It's the season when journalists pull out their notebooks from the past year, scroll through their story archives and reflect on what made news over the last year. Daily Post reporters began a series of articles the day after Christmas with each writer identifying the Top 10 stories from their respective beats.

News that first comes to mind are those stories that garner the biggest headlines, i.e. Sugarloaf Country Club's Mansion Madam is a compelling story that had much of Gwinnett County buzzing. Big fires, murders, court cases and wild weather (floods, wildfires, ice storms and this year's drought) also often fall into the Big News category.

However, there are people and things making news that don't necessarily make the top of the front page, but will, in the long run, affect Gwinnettians much more than the headline-grabbing, short-lived calamity.

So from this perspective my top stories for 2007 all deal in some way or another with growth - not how much we are growing, but how we are growing.

Is growing slowing?

Housing permits down in Gwinnett? The school system overestimates student enrollment? Demographers extend the date they believe Gwinnett will hit the 1 million population mark?

What's going on here? Could things be slowing down?

Certainly Gwinnett has matured since the "ga-ga growth" of the '70s and '80s. Make no mistake: Georgia and Gwinnett continue to grow. Georgia ranks fifth of 50 states in population gain in 2007 and The Governor's Office for Planning and Budget says that by 2015, one out of every 11 Georgians will live in Gwinnett.

But growth today is different than 30 years ago when Gwinnett was looked upon as a bedroom community.

Some observations on how we grew in 2007:

Retail follows rooftops

The subdivisions came first and now we're seeing more retail strip centers. Take a drive up Braselton Highway into Barrow County, check out the multitude of shops at the new retail center on Duluth Highway at Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road, or take a look along just about any busy thoroughfare in Gwinnett and you'll know what I mean. One has to wonder how all these merchants can stay in business.

Skyscrapers coming?

We've yet to see any new high-rise buildings break the horizon, but they are coming. The urban lifestyle is a trend and at least five major multi-story residential/mixed use projects have been discussed, though none have broken ground. These projects would revitalize older parts of Gwinnett. A 21-story hotel is slated for the Mall of Georgia.

CIDs rebuilding

As undeveloped land grows scarce, more revitalization of worn neighborhoods will occur. Gwinnett County has three Community Improvement Districts wherein property owners have agreed to a self-imposed tax to fund such renovations.

You certainly have noticed the "Gwinnett Village" signs at exits along Interstate 85 and the spruced up landscape signaling you've arrived somewhere special. Changes aren't all aesthetic. New attitudes and a fresh business climate are emerging from the merchants. These CIDs will have enormous impact on how Gwinnett will grow.

And in the middle of Gwinnett Village, there's talk of an Atlantic Station-like development on the OFS property at Interstate 85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

Schools grow, excel

It's all about teaching and learning in the world-class Gwinnett County Public Schools system. GCPS adds thousands of students, hundreds of teachers, hundreds of classrooms every year and continues to set high scholastic marks in an environment that grows more culturally diverse. The largest organization - public or private - in Gwinnett County, GCPS will plan, finance, construct and open 15 new schools in the next couple of years. The continued success of Gwinnett students and the work force GCPS produces will weigh mightily on the future of this county.

At the secondary level, Georgia Gwinnett College welcomed its first freshmen this year. The new college made strides toward accreditation that will greatly broaden its educational offerings. And GGC will continue to fill out its master construction plan with a library, learning center and health building on tap.

Hospital's PATH

While our schools are busy focusing on achieving world-class status, Gwinnett Medical Center wants to become a world-class hospital system.

The health system announced its five-year Project PATH (Planning, Advancing and Transforming Health care). PATH visibly rolled out in 2007:

In June construction began on a second tower at the Lawrenceville hospital campus. The tower will add 155 beds and high-tech health services. GMC launched a campaign to bring open-heart surgery to its facilities. The application to add the service will be filed shortly and the hospital called upon the Gwinnett community to write letters of support for the open-heart program. Gwinnett is the largest county in the nation without an open-heart program.

Lawrenceville face-lift

Gwinnett cities have set the bar high for downtown development. Duluth, Buford, Suwanee and others constructed new mixed-use town centers, complete with new city halls, parks, greenspace, residences, restaurants and retail shops.

County seat Lawrenceville has taken a different path. Rather than build anew, the downtown area is being redeveloped. It's come a long way since five years ago when Emory Morsberger quietly acquired several downtown properties and began a renaissance.

But 2007 has been a watershed year for the historic courthouse square and environs. The Aurora Theatre group moved into a renovated church and brought with it singing, dancing and theater. A new downtown parking garage alleviates the pain of finding an opening spot on Clayton, Crogan, Pike or Perry streets. Several restaurants are thriving, the most recent addition being McCray's Tavern, a cozy restaurant that will be open for the late-night crowd.

The year saw construction of Honest Alley Exchange, a 16,000- square-foot, multi-use facility offering restaurant, retail and office space. Cornerstone on the Square, which broke ground in late October, will bring upscale townhomes and condominiums to the square. One nut still to be cracked is the traffic flow. Mack trucks barreling along Crogan at 40 mph are anything but pedestrian friendly. There is a plan afoot to reroute some through-traffic. To its implementation, I say the sooner, the better.

Partnership Gwinnett

Nobody has given more thought to how we are growing than the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and its Partnership Gwinnett initiative. PG identified the county's needs and lays out a plan to fill them. The PG blueprint allows decision makers to see the entire situation and make choices based on that broader spectrum. If planners, politicians, educators, developers and the other movers and shakers of Gwinnett take the plan to heart, generations to come will be the beneficiaries.

Growth continues to define Gwinnett, but it's not solely the rampant numbers that impress. Much more attention is being paid to how we grow. And that will top the list of news stories for years to come.

J.K. Murphy is publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@ gwinnettdailypost.com.