'A place to imagine'
Norcross launches new ad campaign to brand the area

NORCROSS - A classy, urban timepiece in black graces the left side of the advertisement. A motto in white announces that "something extraordinary is about to happen" in the "hip, creative option to mediocrity" located a "few minutes north of Atlanta."

Where is this trendy place, you ask?

Nowhere else but Norcross, the city where imagination isn't just child's play; it's law.

Mayor Bucky Johnson recently signed the Imagination Proclamation, vesting the future of Norcross in the creativity of its citizens. Since then, the "imaginary" ideas of the Downtown Development Authority and the City Council have progressed toward reality. The DDA recently released an ad publicizing upcoming events and Norcross' brand as "a place to imagine." The ad is the first of the DDA's $300,000 advertising campaign for 2008. The press release said it will appear in "Atlanta Now," a visitors' guide distributed to major hotels, attractions and visitor centers throughout metro Atlanta.

According to Mayor Johnson, the ad summarizes the intent of the Imagination Proclamation - to cultivate new thought while preserving the old.

"We're doing everything we can to keep the charm of Norcross as we change," Johnson said. "We're not trying to get rid of the charm; we're trying to enhance what we already have."

Refusing to let their city be pigeon-holed as suburbia, Johnson and Skip Nau, the chairman of the DDA, are creating an urban persona for Norcross through tangible development in the town. From quaint antique shops to brand-new Cuban and Italian restaurants, downtown Norcross is teeming with variety, mixing the new and the old. According to Nau, the $4 million renovation of Lillian Webb Field will get the ball rolling. The new park will have two fountains, a waterfall, an elaborate bandstand and the Gateway Plaza at the entrance.

The DDA will also build new residences surrounding the park. According to Nau, two residential buildings will flank the entrance to the park on Jones Street, and 10 live-work condos will line College Street. Nau said the condos and flats will overlook the park so residents can experience the soul of small town life without having to live in a traditional subdivision.

"People are looking for new urbanism: inner-city life outside of the perimeter," Nau said. "Here, they can go to a coffee house, the park or an Italian restaurant all within walking distance, without traffic jams, but they'll still know neighbors on the side of the street."

Nau and Johnson both said the target demographic of the ad campaign is not any single group; rather, said Nau, it consists of everyone who will become "vibrant additions to the overall community."

Indeed, the eclectic mix of events on the new advertisement, ranging from a rock and roll concert to a British vintage car "fayre," reflects the diversity of the people they hope Norcross will attract.

One of the ad campaign's goals, according to Johnson, is to involve the citizens and businesses in Norcross in getting excited about the city. In a time when the country's economy is slumping, the DDA has tried to provide incentives to downtown Norcross businesses to keep developing. The Façade Grant Program provides matching funds to downtown properties and businesses to improve their exteriors, and the Downtown Merchants Incentive Loan Program offers assistance to established local businesses that need funding.

"It's both an internal and external ad campaign," Johnson said. "We're trying to create some momentum and interest within the city and from without."

The DDA is also hoping the ad campaign will promote redevelopment initiatives, Nau said. The Buford Highway quarter is to be revitalized with storefront retail, additional residences and public park space. In addition, the DDA plans to enhance parks in Norcross, redevelop the Skin Alley area and bring more period-style signs to downtown Norcross to preserve the historic feel.

For the most part, Norcross residents are looking forward to improvements in their city.

"It's exciting," said Yanin Fernandez, owner of Mojito's, a new Cuban restaurant in downtown Norcross. "We love the area and their goal to unite the community to take advantage of the multicultural diversity that we have here in Norcross."

Other Gwinnett cities, such as Lilburn, retain a provincial outlook and could learn from Norcross' example, said Marlene Marcus, an administrative assistant.

Peter Park, an owner of Metro Appraisers on Buford Highway near downtown, said that redevelopment is a good step for the economy.

"Immigrants play a big role here and that's a good thing," Park said. "If development goes well, more people will bring business."

Joanne Lewis, a social worker, remembers taking her kids to Webb Field and welcomes new development.

"I love the improvement and the assortment of businesses in the downtown area," Lewis said. "It just hit me though that not a lot of African-American people are going there anymore."

However, Skip Nau emphasized that Norcross' strength is in its diversity, saying, "Redevelopment may change the mix of diversity, but will enhance it - not hurt it."

In the end, said Mayor Johnson, change in cities occurs, regardless.

"If you don't do anything, change is going to overtake you; if you're actively involved in the change, you're going to be able to change in a positive way," he said.

SideBar: Coming Thursday

See Thursday's Gwinnett Daily Post for coverage of the groundbreaking of the Lillian Web Field.