Staff Photo: John Bohn The Evermore Community Improvement District, an association of property owners along U.S. 78, has landscaped new medians at several points along the highway between Snellville and Stone Mountain. Here, traffic passes landscaping in Snellville, viewing East.
STONE MOUNTAIN -- Every time he walked into another business, Kenny King knew that asking property owners to pay more taxes wouldn't be easy.
But with engineers already working on plans to add a median to U.S. Highway 78, threatening the future of the bustling business core, he and his neighbors clung to the only idea that could save their livelihood.
"It was a hard sell," said King, a landowner who worked to sign up property owners for Gwinnett's first community improvement district a decade ago. "But there was a need."
Many of the businessmen were familiar with Memorial Drive, a once-prosperous nearby DeKalb County route, where storefronts began to darken after a median separated traffic and made access to businesses more difficult. And they didn't want that to happen to them.
The CID concept was new to metro Atlanta, and selling a tax increase -- even a self-imposed one -- in a conservative county is a strange task. One by one, though, the owners signed on.
"I was glad that somebody stood up and took notice that we needed help," said Chris Garner, who was busy running his family's building supply store. He now serves as board chairman. "I knew there needed to be something done."
Ten years ago this month, the county's first community improvement district -- encompassing the 7.5 miles of U.S. 78 between Stone Mountain and Snellville -- was placed on the county tax rolls. Later dubbed Evermore, the quasi-governmental organization ushered in a new kind of community in Gwinnett.
Access and the economy
The beginning was the key to the Evermore CID.
With the median plans already in the works, leaders wanted more weight in the discussions, giving business owners some sway in the placement of median breaks.
Putting their own money into the mix added credibility, and sidewalks and other aesthetic features began to take root in the conversation.
Most agreed the end product was a success -- a safer road for commuters with as little distraction to business, and even a prettier environment.
Even a decade later, the business owners are still focused on the access issue. They have been working on a series of projects that will eventually create a parallel road nearly the entire length of the route.
Economic development has also been a big push, with many empty storefronts finding new use.
In fact, property values along the corridor rose by 33 percent before the economy turned in 2009. Since then, the values have returned to 2004 levels.
The economy has hampered the efforts, including stagnating aims to convert an Olympic tennis stadium at the western terminus of the CID into a concert venue or other mixed-use attraction.
Things haven't been easy. In fact, in 2010, a fight over the CID's director led to months of discord, the stalemate only ending with the death of a board member. Months later, the entire board, except for King, resigned in an attempt to move forward.
The journey over the last decade, though, has led the pack for a renewed effort at revitalization and a future of creating partnerships in the community.
Starting a trend
Within a few years of Evermore's creation, the owners of Gwinnett's oldest mall and its surrounding businesses banded together to form the Gwinnett Place CID and the businessmen in the aging Jimmy Carter/Indian Trail community signed up to create the Gwinnett Village CID.
More recently, people in areas of Lilburn and Braselton have created their own districts.
But that first effort was a test, and Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, who was the county administrator at the time, said many local officials didn't know what to expect.
"I believe that businesses were willing to sign up for the CID because they saw needs in the area and they liked the fact that decisions would be made by a board that represented the businesses that were funding the CID," she said, describing local government at its best.
She said the same repeated across the county.
"Businesses are looking for ways to improve their chances of success and to ensure they receive value for their dollars," she said. "CIDs offered a mechanism to generate funds that could be used to quickly and directly address issues, as well as to lay the groundwork for long-term improvements in partnership with local and state government."
Joe Allen, the executive director of the Gwinnett Place CID, said business owners in his area took note of the accomplishment.
"When we were forming the Gwinnett Place CID, knowing that the commercial property owners along Highway 78 had successfully formed a CID gave us inspiration during our formation period," he said, adding that the spread of the quasi-governmental organization has changed the landscape of Gwinnett. "We are bringing together partnerships that are working together to transform our specific areas of Gwinnett County. By strengthening those areas, we strengthen the county as a whole."
In the CIDs like Evermore, the business owners' willingness to put their money where their mouth is has driven success.
Along the U.S. 78 corridor, the nearly $8 million in property taxes collected since 2004 has been matched by about $8 million in federal funding for projects. Plus, transportation and other projects have benefited from another nearly $8 million in state and county tax funds.
For King and Garner, who grew up along the U.S. 78 corridor, bringing some attention back to their community not only meant their businesses (or in King's case, land) could survive. But it also brought a renewed sense of pride.
"After living here all my life, I definitely think it's better," Garner said. "The road is safer to travel and there's more shopping opportunities."
Nash agreed, adding that the sentiment has grown in all of the areas where CIDs were created.
"The CIDs have definitely played a major role in building a renewed sense of community in areas of the county that were struggling," she said. "Not only have the CIDs led efforts to improve public safety, aesthetics, redevelopment and transportation, but they work hard to manage perception. CIDs have (been) very effective in telling the positive stories about successes and promoting their areas."