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Business central: Redevelopment, renovations bring new ventures to Gwinnett Place area

Top left to right, Kaiser Permanente's new expansion, a new shopping center and the new restaurant The Lobster House, under construction in the former Smokey Bones location, are all examples of improvements to the Gwinnett Place community.

Top left to right, Kaiser Permanente's new expansion, a new shopping center and the new restaurant The Lobster House, under construction in the former Smokey Bones location, are all examples of improvements to the Gwinnett Place community.

DULUTH -- Drive absent-mindedly down Pleasant Hill Road or Satellite Boulevard and you might miss it, but make no mistake -- change is happening around you.

A flurry of new businesses, redevelopment and renovations has taken place in the area surrounding Gwinnett Place Mall in recent months, and isn't showing any signs of slowing down.

"It's a very exciting time for the history of Gwinnett Place," said Joe Allen, the executive director of the area's community improvement district. "Within the next 12 months, you're going to see a lot of physical changes."

Those physical changes will come in the form of planned "streetscaping" projects and the beginning phases of the diverging diamond interchange at Pleasant Hill and Interstate 85.

Already happening, though, is an influx of business redevelopment.

Four new stores inside the actual mall aside, several restaurants have recently made their debut or will soon. Existing sites, including the KFC on Mall Boulevard and the Bruster's Ice Cream on Pleasant Hill, have remodeled or reopened with a fresh coat of paint or new ownership.

The state's largest QuikTrip gas station has opened in the former Macaroni Grill location near Sweetwater Road, and the Mall Corners Shopping Center has been redeveloped with an AT&T store and several other new businesses.

Large corporations like NCR and Kaiser Permanente have recently expanded their Duluth operations.

A massive, shining silver mantle already on display, Gwinnett Place Ford offers the most striking symbol of the area's budding resurgence. The dealership owned and operated by Casey Coffey has poured money into its in-progress expansion, buying out nearby vacant shopping centers and making use of previously uninhabited land.

"You can drive up and down Satellite Boulevard and see multi-million-dollar properties and businesses that are thriving," Coffey said. "We are very confident in our location as being a great place to do business here in Gwinnett."

Kenny Ly is the director of operations for The Lobster House, a Buckhead-feel "lounge restaurant" that is scheduled to open in two to three months in the former Smokey Bones location.

"There's less traffic going on in Gwinnett Place Mall, but Pleasant Hill itself has always been a busy place," Ly said.

"Based on what I see right now, I expect (the restaurant) to do very well."

The resurgence in Gwinnett Place can be attributed to, in part, the cautious recovery of the economy as a whole, and Allen expects the area to "continue to stabilize and push up." The influence of government programs and other tools will likely help that.

At the start of last year, greater Gwinnett Place was officially recognized as a tax allocation district, or TAD. Also called tax increment financing, TADs offer economic development incentives benefitting "underutilized areas targeted for redevelopment."

In short, the government financing supports projects that produce increased property values, reduce crime, create new jobs and revive underused commercial land.

Allen said he also expects the area to soon qualify as an "opportunity zone," which would give businesses tax credits for the creation of new jobs.

All that will be needed for Gwinnett Place to battle its biggest demon -- a much-maligned public perception.

"I think that's our greatest enemy, perception," Allen said, "especially for people that have been in Gwinnett a long time ... We think we remember how things were way back when. And there have been some changes in this area."

Among those changes, though, Allen is quick to point out, is that crime in greater Gwinnett Place has decreased in each of the last four years. In 2010, 1,504 illegal signs and 8.5 tons of trash were removed from 10 miles of roadway through CID-led efforts.

Gwinnett Place, Allen maintains, is still "the county's central business district."

"I think people know there's still a lot of vitality in this area," he said.