Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Suwanee city officials and those involved with the project cut the ribbon at the Suwanee Police training facility and substation on Monday.
SUWANEE -- The property that had previously been home to a Waffle House and BP station, and had lost about half its value in the economic downturn, was home to a proud ceremony on Monday for Suwanee officials.
In an area most recently known for closed businesses and vacant store fronts, Suwanee's new police substation and training facility brought dozens of elected officials, dignitaries and residents to see a rare sight. Suwanee is the only city in Gwinnett County with this kind of facility, which also houses the second indoor firing range in the county.
"It was a real eye sore at the most prominent point of entrance to our city," former Mayor Dave Williams said. "We still have some other work, obviously, the city has to do. Within eyesight there are five or six failed businesses. Hopefully this is going to reverse the wave of disinvestment that the city's been having. We really wanted this to be a little bit of a beachhead against negative activities that happen in these interstate districts."
The idea of such a police presence was first mentioned by former Mayor Richard Trice about 14 years ago to newly appointed police Chief Mike Jones. Trice said this week that the message to send to would-be criminals is "it might not be a good idea" to commit a crime in that area.
"We needed something there," Trice said. "We didn't need to go four miles over to the main station. We're going to need something over there."
Mayor Jimmy Burnette, who was on the City Council when discussions began more than a decade ago, said Monday was a proud day for the city.
"As years progressed other things were on the list, and finally we got to a position to sort of make things happen," Burnette said. "It's special to create things that make this community a better place to live."
Jones often recalls an interview several years ago with a bank robber who hit a Suwanee bank, and had plans for more, but saw police cars near Interstate 85, and traveled to North Carolina where the suspect robbed another bank.
Now the one-story facility, which is 7,100 square feet and cost about $1.99 million, is a reality that officers will begin working in this week.
"As we have matured as an agency and grown, becoming nationally accredited and certified, training becomes very, very important," Jones said. "We have to train in all areas. One area we focused on was the firing range and virtual room. It's hard to train on them if you don't have the facilities to do it."
Those training elements of the facility are a four-lane indoor firing range, training rooms with mats for defensive drills and classrooms with state-of-the-art technology like a SMART Board. Jones said Gwinnett County Police is the only other agency in the county that has an indoor firing range.
Jones said it's impossible to measure the impact of the building's presence.
"It's like we put a police car here 24-7," Jones said.
Jones said the goal of the facility is to make training easier and more accessible for his officers.
Suwanee officers previously traveled for training in places like Shadowbrook Baptist Church, Braselton, Jackson County and the outdoor firing range at the Lawrenceville Police Department. The new facility provides savings on overtime and expenses
According to a 2009 study, City Manager Marty Allen said Suwanee police officers spent 5,200 hours in training, and about half was spent outside of the city. To put in context, Allen said 2,600 hours represents more than one full-time officer.
In part because it's a one-of-a-kind facility among cities in the county, Jones said he wants to host specialized training that all neighboring agencies can benefit from.
"We wanted to become a regional leader in training whereas, we want to setup a training, invite city and county police departments if we have special training that all of us can use," Jones said. "We just don't get the speaker or the instructor that often, we can utilize this facility and setup the training. Specialized training that we normally would not get."
Jones added that an economic bonus is area hotels and restaurants would get a boost from those trainings, too.
The proximity of the building also allows officers to stop in for an hour or so on a slow day, Jones said, and work on an area of the job that may be a weakness.
"If he's having problems with his shooting, we can work on that with him," Jones said. "The more training they have, then it becomes reactionary, they don't have to think about it."
Groundbreaking and construction for the facility, which is located at 2966 Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road, began in January. The building was designed by Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh and Associates, and built by Hogan Construction.
Allen said the modern design of the building near the road was an important part of the message city officials are trying to send, which is to eliminate crime, and make the area more pedestrian friendly.
"This is one piece of a multi-part effort to sustain long-term viability of the area and the city overall," Allen said.
Jerry Spangler, the director of architecture for Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh and Associates, said his company has served as a design advisor for the city, and suggested what buildings should look like along Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road and in the Gateway area.
"We've had success, but this is what we're proud of," Spangler said of the substation. "The city trusted us, but we wanted it to be state-of-the-art."
Spangler said the bricks at the substation are similar to the bricks at city hall, and the approach is "forward leaning," but still has historic references.
"There was a desire to push buildings toward the road," Spangler said. "People feel OK to walk up and down the sidewalk."
The city purchased the property for $750,000 in 2011, Allen said, but that price also included a provision that the city keep the annual rent revenue from a billboard that is on the property. Those payments will total about $324,000 during the term of the lease, so the net expense for the property to the city is $426,000.
Williams said that price was far less than what the property was originally listed on the market. And Trice added that the city bought it without going into debt, which was a positive.
"The downturn in real estate gave an opportunity for the city," Williams said. "The city wouldn't have been able to pay what we acquired the property for. We wound up acquiring it for less than half of what the asking price had been five or 10 years prior. The economic conditions presented an opportunity for us, but it's been a priority."