0

Sports options signal county's independence

The proximity tells the story.

To consider Gwinnett County, this sprawling collection of small communities, a suburb of Atlanta sells the region, its people and its impact well short of what it's become. It's not a bedroom community for city workers, it's a metropolis of its own; a modern day expanse where subdivisions replace high rises, backyards replace balconies.

For Gwinnett and its residence the offerings within may not match, but emulate those to the south. Just consider its sports options.

First the ECHL minor league hockey team Gwinnett Gladiators moved into the Arena at Gwinnett Center. Off and on, the Arena Football Leagues' Georgia Force has also laid claim the the arena. The Gladiators came to Gwinnett in 2003 and the first incarnation of the Georgia Force followed. The Gladiators became a fixture in the county, the Force, less so, but the team returned in 2011 for its third go-around in Gwinnett. Clearly, people see this county as a source of support for minor league franchises.

But the offerings took a major step in 2008 when the Atlanta Braves and the county agreed to relocate the franchise's Class AAA baseball team to the county from its long-term home in Richmond, Va. With the move, the Braves and the county declared a belief that a stadium, just 30 miles away from its big league counterpart could sustain its own fans and support. In short, they declared Gwinnett a separate entity, removed from its former status as a suburban getaway.

The team and county built a $59 million stadium in less than a year and the Braves agreed to a 30-year lease, keeping the team housed in Gwinnett through 2039. By spring 2009, current Atlanta Braves starter Tommy Hanson threw the first pitch for the Gwinnett Braves.

The arrival of the highest level of minor league baseball meant more than just status. It mean 72 home baseball games and a venue ready to host concerts and other baseball games and tournaments. County high school teams as well as Georgia and Georgia Tech played games at the stadium, which became Coolray Field in its second year. This year they have hosted a small college tournament and will host a game between Kennesaw State and Georgia in March. The stadium will also host the final spring training exhibition game of the Atlanta Braves on April 3. The team's management has also sought to host college conference tournaments.

Things aren't perfect for the team in Gwinnett.

Other than a small samplings of games, attendance levels remained low for the first three seasons, not averaging even half of the stadium's more than 10,000-person capacity. General manager North Johnson, who joined the team following it inaugural season, acknowledges the problem, partially created by the economic crunch which coincided with the team's relocation. Since his arrival the Gwinnett Braves changed their ticket prices and options in an attempt to entice more fans to the stadium.

On the field, the team made the playoffs in its first year and remained competitive in the International League's South Division. Players like Tommy Hanson, Freddie Freeman and last year's rookie of the year Craig Kimbrel spent time playing in Gwinnett.

The G-Braves, even while they search for a deeper impact across the county and region, still offer an emblematic sign of the growth and potential latent in this county. Combined with the other sports entertainment offerings, Gwinnett continues to demonstrate a solitary economic strength removed from its urban neighbor. It's 30 miles from Turner to Coolray Field, but the two exist in separate worlds.

This story is part of the 2012 annual Progress edition, "Moving Gwinnett Toward One Million." To see the complete online edition, click HERE.