Seven cities to vote on referendum
Election 2007

Editor's Note: Today begins a series of stories to be published in the Gwinnett Daily Post leading up to the Nov. 6 election. Coming Tuesday, a look at those running for mayor and council seats in Auburn.

A year ago, Gwinnett County voters didn't like the idea, with more than half voting against a complicated financing strategy to fund redevelopment.

But officials in seven local cities have enough faith in the idea, which was responsible for the construction of Atlantic Station, to put it on their own ballots this November.

"I think it's definitely what the city needs," said Sugar Hill Councilman Steve Edwards. "I think Sugar Hill's got so much potential and with a (tax allocation district) it's going to push us over the edge for the areas that need improving."

Some believe the cities have more of a shot at a favorable outcome, since turnouts are smaller and voters are often more informed.

In many places, business owners have begun campaigns to push the redevelopment referendum, which would allow the governments to set a tax allocation district and sell bonds backed by the expected growth in tax revenues because of increases in property values after redevelopment. Those bonds would pay for infrastructure improvements.

"Cities have the ability to do that effectively because they have smaller areas geographically and they have local leaders to spread the word," said Skip Nau of the Norcross Downtown Development Authority. "I think it's communication. It's all about getting the word out."

Nau said Norcross' Buford Highway corridor and the area around a proposed city park would benefit from a district, and residents will reap the rewards of new development without a tax increase.

"I can't imagine why anyone would be against it," said Thor Johnson, the president of the Lilburn Business Association, who believes the U.S. Highway 29 corridor could benefit.

He points to Atlantic Station, a high-end mixed used center built in place of an old steel mill in Atlanta, as an example of what could happen locally.

"That was a pile of rubble that no one would touch," he said of the location before it became a tax allocation district. "It was a mess. There wasn't an investor that would take that on."

With so many cities keen on the idea this year, Johnson said he hopes revitalization can become a countywide effort.

"I hope it represents some element of momentum and combined vision of something that is good," he said.

For three of those cities, Buford, Braselton and Loganville, referenda are the only items on the ballots, although Loganvillians will also consider a liquor question.

While those areas, along with Sugar Hill and Suwanee, are often thought of more in terms of new development than revitalization, leaders said they don't want to miss an opportunity to allow a district in the future.

Loganville Councilman Mark Kiddoo said there likely isn't a need for a district in the short-term, he believes the downtown area could need a boost in the next decade or two.

"It's merely a formality to prepare ourselves for something that might be needed in the future," he said. Even if the residents say no, "it's something we need to listen to."

Norcross, Lilburn and Duluth officials, though, are intent on turning around declining portions of their cities.

In Duluth, mayoral candidate Jim Johnson is campaigning more for the redevelopment referendum than for his own race. He has spent a couple hundred dollars on fliers to pass out when he goes door to door.

"Without additional funds, a new mayor can't accomplish a whole lot because budgets are tight," he said. "We need to be innovative about how we approve growth. ... We have a big opportunity in Duluth."

The education process has been difficult for many of the city champions, since people often mistake a tax allocation district for a tax increase or a means to eminent domain, neither of which apply.

"It's financing mechanics and economics 101, and most people flunk that," Johnson said. "I think citizens need options," he added. "The city is not going to make progress in the next few years without economic development."