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As it celebrates 75 years, Sugar Hill looks forward | PHOTOS

A rendering shows what Sugar Hill officials hope will become a bustling downtown area. (Special Photo)

A rendering shows what Sugar Hill officials hope will become a bustling downtown area. (Special Photo)

SUGAR HILL — Louis Grizzle has lived each of Sugar Hill’s 75 years of cityhood.

As a kid — 6, maybe 8 years old — he played in the gold mines. At night he and a friend would ignite what then passed for a “lighter” and wander deep into the earth. It must’ve been a mile long, and they knew to turn around when the flame went dark. The oxygen was running out.

“We never did get to the end of it,” Grizzle, now 85, said.

He was born in 1929 in a house on Level Creek Road. His family later lived in the bottom level of a home they shared with the Pirkles, one of the community’s most storied clans — one of their descendants, Gary Pirkle, would serve as mayor in the 2000s. The cemetery was across the street and the gold mines weren’t far away, on the land that would decades later become E.E. Robinson Park.

Sugar Hill was “nothing much but a small community,” but became a city in 1939. Grizzle’s father served as a councilman.

After graduating from Sugar Hill High School in 1947, Grizzle went to work at the Georgia Shoe Factory. It moved to downtown Sugar Hill a year later. Thirty years in education included stops as assistant principal at North Gwinnett High School and as principal at Suwanee Elementary.

For several years in the ’50s, Grizzle and his wife owned Sugar Hill’s very own bowling alley.

“Sugar Hill has changed so much,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe it.”

On Saturday, the city will host a massive all-day festival celebrating its 75th anniversary. It will tout its future while drawing inspiration from its past.

Grizzle will be the grand marshal of the parade.

A sense of place

Louis Grizzle’s generation is the minority, but, in a way, it’s also the inspiration for Sugar Hill’s future.

The city’s 20,000 or so residents make it Gwinnett County’s fourth largest, but only about 6 percent of the population is 65 and older. In the 2010 census, nearly one-third of the city’s population was under 18 years old.

Sugar Hill is a community of young families with a hankering for recreation, food and a sense of place. The city’s leadership is doing its best to oblige.

“It’s an exciting time to live here,” councilman Marc Cohen said.

Expanded E.E. Robinson and Gary Pirkle parks now provide a combined 129 acres of greenspace, trails and activity areas. An annual July 3 fireworks show is one of the biggest in the Southeast (and comes without mall traffic).

A new city hall went up in 2012, its copper top roof and accents becoming a signature of the downtown area. A town green was built across the street.

But the biggest step is still to come.

Last month, the city announced plans for the “EpiCenter @ Sugar Hill” — a downtown super complex that will consist of a gym, lap pool and community theater. The plan is to build those and, eventually, have restaurant, retail and office spaces go up around them.

“What we’re doing is we’re generating a destination and bringing more people downtown,” said Bob Hail, who recently retired as Sugar Hill’s city manager but is still consulting on the project. “… You’re driving a destination and then you want to support their food and drink and other needs as they’re down here. It all just builds on each other.”

Hail’s last act as city manager was to buy the land fronting W. Broad Street and next to City Hall. A debt-free city, Sugar Hill and its Downtown Development Authority will utilize SPLOST tax dollars to fund as much as half of the project and use cash for the rest.

No specific timeframe has been laid out for the full vision, but, for the first time in decades, Sugar Hill will have a true “downtown.”

“In the 1930s and ’40s, we had a cannery, we had gold mines. We had a shoe factory, we had a bowling alley, we had a movie theater,” Cohen said. “We had restaurants, we had gas stations. … And now we’re trying to bring some of that same style, that same feel, some of that same kind of commerce back into the city.”

On its 75th anniversary, Sugar Hill is looking to the past to create a brighter future.

A city’s love

For the past 23 years — nearly a third of the life of the city he loves — Louis Grizzle has had one job.

Each month, he, his wife and a band of volunteers from Sugar Hill Church have gone to city hall and gotten a list of names. Each month, they have hand-delivered a box of brownies to every single family that moves into Sugar Hill.

In June alone, 131 families moved in. Grizzle estimated that, through the years, more than 23,000 sets of brownies have been distributed.

“I guess God gave that job to me,” he said.

Much has changed since the 85-year-old’s days of gold mine galavanting.

Back then, his graduating class was 34 and his street consisted of four homes, each sharing one telephone line — when it rang three times, someone was calling the Grizzle house. Sugar Hill Baptist Church seated about 75 people and used lanterns for lighting and coal for heat.

Downtown was bustling.

Nowadays, North Gwinnett High School routinely graduates classes approaching 1,000 students, many of whom have more than one phone all to themselves. Sugar Hill Church has dropped the “Baptist” and can hold more than 2,000 worshippers.

There ain’t a whole lot downtown — but that’s changing.

“I think it’s a great place to live,” Grizzle said. “I must have. I’ve lived here all my life.”