Growth at heart of State of the County address

Two years into his term as chairman of the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners, Chairman Charles Bannister's vision for Georgia's second-largest county is still unfolding. He's interested in forging a new future for the growing and diverse population and landscape. "By keeping all parts of the county attractive and up-to-date, we can control our own destiny," Bannister said. "We can draw new investments in housing. We can attract new employers and corporate headquarters with high-paying jobs. We can build on the strength of our diversity and offer a multitude of new shopping, dining and entertainment opportunities. Some say we're overgrown and overdeveloped, but I believe the best is yet to come." Here are some of the major issues Bannister addressed in Thursday's speech.

Cooperation

Just months after agreeing to a $25 million deal to help Gwinnett Hospital System expand its Lawrenceville facility, Bannister is calling for a renewed spirit of cooperation between agencies.

He talked about Partnership Gwinnett, a Chamber of Commerce-led effort to envision the county's economic and social future. Leaders from the business community, cities, education, health care, tourism and other avenues are working to bring the plan into action.

The county government has also donated land to develop Georgia Gwinnett College and partnered with the chamber to lure businesses to the community.

"Government can never solve all the problems," Bannister said. "We need your help, your advice, your investments, your time, your talents and above all your dedication to building a better Gwinnett County for our children and grandchildren."

Transportation

In the past several years, Gwinnett's transportation efforts have increased, Bannister said.

In 2006, the county awarded $110 million in road construction contracts for 57 projects, compared to $43 million for 38 projects in 2005 and $29 million in 2004.

With the Georgia Department of Transportation's projects to widen Ga. Highway 20 and Ga. Highway 120 and improve the intersections of Pleasant Hill Road and Buford Highway and Interstate 85 and Ga. Highway 316, a total of $325 million in road projects are under way in the county.

In addition, the Gwinnett Transit system carries 1,900 passengers a day on its express system and 5,100 riders a day on local routes.

"We here at Gwinnett County will continue to work with state and federal agencies to pursue other transportation initiatives to relieve traffic congestion on our roads," he said.

Water

Water has become a major issue for Gwinnett to keep up with the 25,000 residents who move to the county each year while also preserving the planet, Bannister said.

In 2006, the county accomplished two important initiatives to ensure there is enough clean water for its residents:

•Achieving a permit to return the county's treated wastewater to Lake Lanier while addressing environmental concerns.

•Creating a stormwater management agency to address the erosion and pollution caused by rain rushing off of roofs and pavement.

"We will continue to be good stewards of our most precious natural resource - the water in our lakes, rivers and streams," Bannister said.

Economic development

A year after Gwinnett officials agreed to offer tax incentives to lure businesses to the county, Bannister reported a shift in the tax base away from residents.

"The residential share of the tax digest went down while the commercial went up, and we expect to see improvement again this year," he said. "A balanced mix is a good thing for all of us because, frankly, it costs more to provide government services for residential properties than it does for commercial."

Through the incentive program, officials were able to convince Hewlett-Packard to locate a $240 million data center in Suwanee. Leaders also agreed to allow high-rises in the county and step up code enforcement to improve the county's business atmosphere.

"We must never forget that much of our success depends on the availability of good jobs in our community," Bannister said. "We need a balanced environment where people can live, work and play without having to leave Gwinnett."

Recreation

Gwinnett's track record of recreation has been well established, and the Parks and Recreation division was named one of the top four in the nation by the National Recreation and Park Association in 2006.

But the voter-approved sales tax has allowed even more in the past 12 months, Bannister said.

Last year, the county opened 10 new or renovated parks, broke ground for three more new parks and bought 200 acres for the service.

In October, the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center opened near the Mall of Georgia. The education facility is a joint venture with the Gwinnett Board of Education and the University of Georgia and is the county's first "green building."

- From staff reports