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New City Hall to be heart of Sugar Hill

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

SUGAR HILL -- Sugar Hill is in building mode. The new Gary Pirkle Park is getting nice reviews, and now the city is preparing to start work on its downtown streetscape this summer, then its $8.5 million City Hall this fall.

And if things pan out as Gwinnett's fourth-largest city intends, it's so long anonymity, hello distinction.

"We're doing what people asked us to do," said Sugar Hill Community Relations Director Don Kelemen. "People said they wanted a downtown, a place to say, 'Here's where Sugar Hill is.' The sense-of-place issue has been bugging people here for a long time."

But, reminded Downtown Development Authority member and former city councilman Nick Thompson, "We've always been a town along Ga. Highway 20 and still are."

The 300-square-foot, turn-of-the-century-style city hall is the anticipated centerpiece of a planned town center some day bustling with shops and restaurants, with residences nearby. Yet creation of any town center, however modest or flamboyant, is expected to remedy Sugar Hill's self-perceived lack of identity and catapult it aside recognizable downtowns of Buford, Lawrenceville, Duluth, Norcross and Suwanee.

"We want to have downtown as a destination," Thompson said.

Eight years in the planning, the 3/4-mile stretch of Broad Street between Peachtree Industrial and Ga. Highway 20 is about to be transformed to the 19th-century, complete with wide sidewalks, old-fashioned double-globe street lights, on-street and underground parking, with much construction of brick and stone. Ultimately, the city hopes a revitalized downtown will entice developers who will eventually build restaurants, coffee shops, barber shops and the like, creating an all-in-one place to live, shop and recreate.

That's a quantum leap for Development Authority Chairwoman Dawn P. Gober, a 54-year-old lifetime resident of Sugar Hill who remembers walking across sleepy Ga. Highway 20 to buy candy for a nickel. The planned downtown is millenniums from her recollection of only a volunteer fire department dotting Broad Street.

"This is hopefully the beginning of the beginning," she said. "It takes a while to do something like this. ... If not for the (down) economy, we'd probably be farther along than we actually are."

Few know the years of work that's occurred already, before even the first shovel turns. It took years to negotiate right of way across 35 parcels, as well as design a regional retention/detention pond and coordinate underground utilities.

"It's an ever-changing thing," City Manager Bob Hail said. "We've been tweaking this a long time."

Like the $7 million for recently opened Gary Pirkle Park and the 18-acre expansion and renovation of E.E. Robinson Park, the estimated $14 million that Sugar Hill expects to spend on downtown by 2011 will come entirely from SPLOST and the city's capital improvement budget. The city prides itself on not incurring debt for such things.

"We could have been turning dirt five years ago in haste, and maybe be in debt," Thompson said.

Sugar Hill hopes the street scape, once begun, will lure developers.

"Like the movie, we're hoping that if we build it, they will come," Gober said. "We're waiting for somebody to bite off that first chewable piece."

Kelemen pointed out that developers, cash rich after months of being reluctant to build, might come as the economy thaws.

"If they're looking for a project, we're the place to come," he said. "Sugar Hill is a prime location with great demographics. We're visible, yet compact and easy to get to."

Presently, Sugar Hill is easily missed between Suwanee to Buford. En route to Lake Lanier, drivers might not even realize they're whizzing through a city whose population has grown in 20 years from 930 to 17,000. Sugar Hill's downtown boasts little more than a church, cemetery, town green, community center and a smattering of businesses and homes. Its current city hall, too small for council meetings, stands next to an annex, barely big enough.

Until now, Sugar Hill has never had a true downtown, only a collection of buildings with no focus. Soon, with high visibility from both Peachtree Industrial and Ga. Highway 20, the city hopes to welcome passers by into a modern city center, but with the character and feel of old Georgia.

From the start, Sugar Hill considered it essential that residents participate in the design process. They've even been welcomed to submit proposed drawings for city hall. Precision Planning has been chosen as the project's architect.

"When (residents) have input in the process, they have more of a sense of ownership, not just that the city is spending their money to do this or that," Hail said. "The more people know about what's going on, the more they appreciate what you're doing and appreciate what it ultimately comes out to be."