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Chairman: County strong despite economy

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

DULUTH -- Charles Bannister isn't "breaking out the champagne," but Gwinnett's chairman said local residents have a lot to be optimistic about, during his annual State of the County speech Wednesday.

"I never thought I'd see the day when I would have to report to the Chamber of Commerce that our unemployment rate had improved to a seasonally adjusted 9.4 percent in December, but that's where we find ourselves today," Bannister said, taking a "deliberately positive" tone despite the rough economic times.

"The economic deterioration appears to be slowing," he said. "A few months ago, the numbers were all bad. Now, at least, they're mixed."

While the economy has left many Gwinnettians without a job and the county's foreclosure numbers are high, Bannister said officials can pat themselves on the back for a successful 2009 in recruiting businesses. The Partnership Gwinnett effort last year landed the county two Fortune 500 companies in NCR and Asbury Automotive, and the chamber has created a business relationship with China and a sister city relationship in South Korea.

And while the high unemployment rates have lead to high crime rates in other parts of the nation, Bannister said Gwinnett's police force made gains in 2009, showing decline in both property and violent crimes.

That was good news for Hugh Rowden, a Snellville man who was among the crowd of about 500 that heard the speech, presented by the Chamber and the Council for Quality Growth at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth.

"I'm encouraged," Rowden said. "I think that Gwinnett County has weathered the storm a lot better than a lot of places."

Chamber President Jim Maran said the tone was a big difference from last year, when Bannister gave two addresses because of the county's economic and political turmoil.

"We are starting to see a pickup, like a rising tide," Maran said. "Everybody is starting to feel better every day than they did the day before."

After last year's public uproar on a pair of tax proposals, sandwiched by budget cuts, Bannister promised Wednesday to foster a "new spirit of public communication and engagement" during the remainder of his time in office.

In addition to the Engage Gwinnett process, where residents are currently evaluating the county's finances, Bannister announced a new initiative to bring together leaders from local governments, the board of education, local colleges, legislators, health and business officials as well as community groups and nonprofits to tackle challenges such as water, transportation, education, public safety and health care.

Furthermore, he said, the economic situation is causing leaders to turn to creative solutions, such as the current study about privatizing the airport and using public-private partnerships to fund transportation.

To that end, Bannister said he was encouraged that the Georgia Department of Transportation has included the Sugarloaf Parkway extension's proposed second phase -- 13 miles from Ga. Highway 316 in Dacula to Peachtree Industrial Boulevard in Buford -- as a priority project to study the use of tolls.

While long-awaited issues such as the water wars and, locally, the service-delivery lawsuit with cities and the solid waste lawsuit have not been resolved, Bannister said the county is moving forward with the recent tax increase paying to hire more police officers and firefighters. Transportation projects have also progressed, thanks to county funds and stimulus dollars, and other improvements are in the works.

"We're not standing still. We're following Teddy Roosevelt's instruction: 'Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,' Bannister said. "Truth is, we're doing a lot. We're working harder and smarter to maximize our resources and make the most of a difficult set of circumstances.

" ... The state of your county is strong. I believe that as we work through the current hard times, we can and will emerge even stronger."