Staff Photo: John Bohn Chuck Warbington of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District, views a landscaped area built and maintained by his organization, at the intersection of Interstate 85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard, Norcross.
NORCROSS -- It may not have been the first one in Gwinnett, but the business leaders who agreed to create a community improvement district in the most blighted community in the county definitely had the biggest task ahead of them.
Once a bustling vision of the potential for a growing county, the place where prosperity landed first as farms converted to offices and shops, the area around Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Indian Trail Road had become an asphalt wasteland of dilapidated buildings, weeds and crime.
Some business owners felt abandoned, forgotten as bigger and better malls and glistening office buildings were constructed to the east.
But with the adoption of the community improvement district idea, they learned they could create a new fate for themselves, simply by banding together, collecting some money and putting pride back in the community.
Thus, the Gwinnett Village CID was born.
"When the area is down, people don't like to go there," said Shiv Aggarwal, a businessman who became the CID's first and only board chairman. "That's why the need arose to create some sort of organization like the CID. ... Whenever the business owners, when they want to take charge and do something, it helps."
And from the very first move the board of business leaders made -- to landscape the shoulders of Interstate 85 at Jimmy Carter and Indian Trail -- heads were held a little higher.
"It was controversial, the idea of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on landscaping, when there were issues with security," said Chuck Warbington, who has been the executive director of the CID since its creation. "But it was symbolic that there was a change in the area, ... This was our first PR brand that there is a new dog in town and somebody does care about this area. ... It had an immediate impact."
Six years later, the renewal of the CID is up for a vote this week among the 500 property owners.
Even though the deal comes with a caveat that owners must pay 5 mils of extra taxes to fund the operations, Warbington and Aggarwal say they expect the renewal to sail through with a wide margin.
"I am very confident because it's needed," Aggarwal said. "We all as property owners are committed and we want this improvement to continue."Curb appealThanks to the efforts of the business organization, people began to recognize the fact that Jimmy Carter Boulevard provided the first impression of Gwinnett to people leaving Atlanta. The "gateway," though, left much to desire.
When the CID began to take steps to landscape the roads, business owners took notice, Aggarwal said, and they began to invest even more money on beautifying their own properties.
"Curb appeal is everything," Aggarwal said, adding that he put a new facade on his Global Mall while the CID campaign was on. "People notice something is different."
Warbington said the community found a partner in the Gwinnett County Police Department's quality of life unit, which enforced codes such as keeping the grass clipped and signs up to code.
It also helped to have more police officers on the streets each day. And adding a security force to patrol at night helped the crime stats to drop.
In fact, over the past five years, the statistics have gone down dramatically each year in burglaries, robberies and car thefts.
"There was a free-for-all here," before the CID, Warbington said, calling the police and code enforcement officers the "heroes" in the effort to bring back the community. "That has been one of the most critical things."Tackling trafficWhile aesthetics and security have helped to bring pride and business back to the Gwinnett Village community, there is one big issue left for the business leaders: traffic.
Within months, Warbington noticed something missing. There were no government plans to address the issues on the Jimmy Carter Boulevard bridge over the interstate.
Knowing the aging bridge was not far from the need for a replacement, leaders got to work, eventually discovering a solution that not only promised to move cars through the area faster but wouldn't put a strain on the shrinking transportation funds.
The diverging diamond interchange idea, which has also been adopted by the Gwinnett Place CID for its Pleasant Hill bridge, would shift traffic to the other side of the road, allowing for right hand turns on and off the interstate. Construction is scheduled to begin this summer.
"That is going to be the talk of the town," Aggarwal said. "It's a unique idea."
But it only solves a portion of the problem in the congested corridor.
To combat the rest, Village leaders have become proponents to bringing transit into the county, proposing an extension to the MARTA line, although likely as a light-rail line, through the Norcross community and by Gwinnett Place Mall.
While the proposal has been controversial for decades, the CID leaders have seen in-roads in an annual poll conducted throughout Gwinnett. And seed money to begin the project was included in a regional transportation sales tax list on ballots in July.
"It got on the radar," Warbington said, adding that it likely would not have happened without the business district. "No one was championing it. ... We're the most affected. We're the organization where it makes the most sense. ...
"I consider that to be just as big as the quality of life things."Renewed hopeWhile things have changed in the Gwinnett Village community, Warbington and Aggarwal agree that the job is not done.
The diverse area has been hit by the economy, with a number of Hispanic businesses leaving.
While there is no major anchor for the community, there used to be: A huge fiber-optics plant where employment has dwindled from 4,000 to around 200. Warbington and other leaders have searched for a new use to revitalize the OFS campus, but nothing has worked out.
Talks of a potential gambling entertainment venue has renewed some energy, but it is far from a done deal.
And the major transportation initiatives are still in the works.
But finally, there is hope in an community where there was none.
"We had an area that nobody cared about. It was kind of no-man's land. No one person, even a commissioner, could do this. It had to be a group, like a CID," Warbington said. "I think having some stability (with the CID) really helps. ... I think the business owners are very happy."