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Gwinnett County commissioners vote to purchase Gwinnett Place Mall

Gwinnett Place Mall has been maligned by residents, business leaders and elected officials in recent years because of its struggles as tenants and shoppers left, but it may be about to turn a corner.

At the very least, it will have a new owner — and this one answers to the residents of Gwinnett County.

County commissioners, acting in their role as Gwinnett’s Urban Redevelopment Agency, voted to let the county buy 39.06 acres at the mall for $23 million. They then immediately turned around at another meeting right afterward and voted, in their capacity as commissioners, to approve a resolution ratifying the action they took less than an hour earlier as the URA board.

“I am very excited about this purchase and sale agreement, the first step towards closing on this property,” outgoing Commissioner Jace Brooks said. “Obviously the Gwinnett Place area is like the county’s central business district and this has sort of been like a glaring hole and I look forward to this purchase and working the anchors owners, as well as the (Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District) and the community to redevelop this area.”

The total acreage listed for the purchase matches the acreage listed in county property tax records for the interior of the mall and the former Belk property, all of which are owned by Moonbeam Properties. The purchase does not appear to include the Macy’s, Mega Mart, Beauty Master and former Sears anchor spaces, however.

The purchase of the mall may be something of an early Christmas gift for the incoming Board of Commissioners, which will only include two of the current commissioners as well as three new commissioners.

One of the incoming commissioners, Kirkland Carden, had advocated the county buying the mall when he was on the campaign trail this year. Carden will replace Brooks as the commissioner who represents the area that includes Gwinnett Place Mall once he takes office on Jan. 1.

“While 2020 has been an extremely challenging year, it could not have ended on a more positive note for the Gwinnett Place area and the county as a whole,” said Gwinnett Place CID Executive Director Joe Allen, who has long promoted the need for the mall to be redeveloped. “This is very good as we continue to deal with our dead mall problem. I think this is an amazing, bold first step for (the commissioners to take).”

Access to much of the inside of the mall had been blocked off in recent months with only one wing of the mall, between Mega Mart and Macy’s, still open to the public because it was the only part of the mall that still had a handful of shops or other tenants, including the Gwinnett County Republican and Democratic parties.

It was not immediately clear what the county plans to do with the property, partially because most of the commissioners who voted on the purchase will no longer be in office in a few weeks.

“The purchase of this property by the Urban Redevelopment Agency will help encourage the redevelopment of the whole Gwinnett Place Mall as contemplated in the county’s 2040 Unified Plan,” county attorney Mike Ludwiczak said.

With other properties that the county has purchased in recent years, including most of the OFS site off Jimmy Carter Boulevard and the former Olympic Tennis Center site near Stone Mountain, the county has purchased the property and then made plans to offer the site up to redevelopers as a public-private partnership to see what developers could come up with for the site.

Luxury apartment developer Northwood Raven already owns the former Sears anchor spot, including that anchor’s parking area, and is expected to eventually redevelop that part of the site with residences. The fact that Macy’s, Mega Mart and Beauty Master own their respective anchor spots adds complications to how the site can be redeveloped.

“Congratulations to Commissioner Brooks,” outgoing commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said. “I know that this is something that he has pushed for, I think, about his entire time in office. We know that this area is primed for redevelopment and we’ve finally getting to the point where we’ve got a willing seller that gives us an opportunity to move forward on it. I’m excited as well.”

Veronica Cope sworn in as Gwinnett's newest State Court judge

Veronica Cope says TV shows like “Perry Mason” and “Matlock” were part of her attraction to the legal profession when she was just 8 — but she also says the real world around her was a bigger influence than the television courtroom dramas ever were.

Cope, who is joining Gwinnett County’s State Court bench as one of a handful of African-Americans in the county’s judiciary, said she saw people being mistreated in the legal system. That was the real reason why the 45-year-old mother set her mind on becoming a lawyer while she was still in elementary school.

“I saw a lot of injustices growing up and my goal at that time, I said I wanted to be able to help people who couldn’t help themselves, or be a voice for the voiceless,” Cope said. “I was honestly a big fan of ‘Matlock,’ ‘Perry Mason’ (and) that kind of thing, but seeing those injustices at such a young age really put in me a desire to want to practice law and I’ve been pushing toward that goal ever since.”

While Cope has been working as a lawyer for years, she took her involvement in the criminal justice system to a new level on Monday when she was sworn in as Gwinnett’s newest State Court judge. She is only the second African-American, following Judge Ronda Colvin Leary, who was elected in 2018, to serve on Gwinnett’s State Court bench.

Gwinnett also has one sitting Juvenile Court judge, one sitting Superior Court judge and one incoming Superior Court judge who are African-Americans. Cope said it is important for defendants, particularly African-Americans who may feel the criminal justice system is slanted against them because of the color of their skin, to see people of color among the judiciary.

“Representation does matter,” she told well-wishers at her swearing in ceremony. “It shouldn’t matter, but it does.”

The last two years in particular have seen the Gwinnett County judiciary become more diverse, going from no African-American elected judges — Tadia Whitner, who now serves on the Superior Court bench, was previously a Juvenile Court judge, but Juvenile Court judges are appointed — to now having at four them elected at various court levels in the county.

That is in addition to an appointed African-American Juvenile Court judge, the county’s first openly gay judge in Superior Court and its first Vietnamese-American judge in Juvenile Court.

“I think diversity of the bench is important because it gives people faith in the justice system,” Cope said. “It allows people to know that there is diversity of thought — not just diversity of race, but diversity of thought, diversity of ideas. We have different cultural backgrounds represented on the bench, and sometimes it does make a difference.

“I think, as I mentioned earlier (during the ceremony), sometimes if you walk into a courtroom or courthouse, and there’s nobody that looks like you, you might feel like you’re not going to get a fair trial or fair opportunity to be heard. You feel like you might not walk away with justice being served.”

Cope’s arrival on the State Court bench is something that was three years in the making, dating back to 2017, when she announced a run for a seat on the Superior Court bench that was open in 2018. She did not win that seat, but she told attendees at her swearing in that she feels like she wasn’t elected to that seat because God decided she was needed more on the State court bench than the one for Superior Court.

She even ended up running without opposition for the seat that she will hold.

“It’s a blessing,” she said after the ceremony. “I’m excited about serving in this capacity. I feel like it’s a part of my purpose, to serve the citizens of Gwinnett county as a judge. I think that all of my experience over the last 19 years have prepared to serve in State Court, so I’m just thrilled.”

But, Cope’s story is about more than the color of her skin, and her full story was highlighted during her swearing in.

A native of North Carolina, she talked about completing her education as a young mother and going on to become a lawyer, as well as how she looked up to her brother and developing a love of basketball because he played it.

Cope and other speakers at the ceremony also talked about her being a “double Tar Heel” — meaning she has two degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — and how she is a fan of the Dallas Cowboys.

She also talked about how she felt as if her mother, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2005, was with her at the ceremony.

“You can’t see her, but I can feel her,” Cope said afterward. “She gives me strength when I feel like I can’t go on, and I know that’s her influence on my life. I know people would often ask when I was running, ‘Howdo you do it? How are you everywhere at the same time?’ I know that it’s her spirit and it’s God moving me to my purpose, so I know that she’s with me.”

Her sons gathered around her as she was sworn in by the man she is replacing on the bench, State Court Judge John Doran Jr.

Doran heaped praise upon Cope before he administered the judicial oath to her.

“I was so privileged to meet Judge Cope after I came over here to work on State Court,” he said. “She practiced many cases in our division (as a lawyer) and she was always well-prepared, knew the law (and) had an excellent, excellent professional demeanor.

“But, there was something else about Judge Cope that I must mention: she was the kind of person, the kind of lawyer that had such a strong presence, such strong dignity in a courtroom that was characteristic of the very best trial lawyers.”

Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine rolling out across Georgia this week

ATLANTA Georgia health-care workers and nursing home residents will start receiving immunizations against COVID-19 this week as the state Department of Public Health gets its first shipments of a vaccine produced by Pfizer.

The first shipment of 5,850 doses arrived Monday at two locations in Coastal Georgia equipped with ultracold freezers required for storage and temperature control of the vaccine. Additional shipments are expected later this week at facilities in other parts of the state.

“Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end of this pandemic,” Christy Norman, vice president of pharmacy services at Emory Healthcare, said Monday during a news briefing.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control during the weekend issued an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine, the first to emerge from the U.S. pipeline targeting coronavirus. A second vaccine produced by Moderna is expected to receive federal approval for distribution this week.

“This is really exciting for us,” said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiologist at Emory. “We’re going to have access to a vaccine that looks in initial clinical studies to be highly effective.”

Approval of vaccines to combat COVID-19 is being sped through what usually is a lengthy process by the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed because of the pressing nature of the pandemic, as cases of COVID-19 diagnoses, hospitalizations and deaths continue surging across the country.

As of Sunday, 476,044 had been diagnosed with coronavirus, and 9,205 had died from the virus.

But Sexton said the rush to get the vaccines into American arms did not compromise safety. The technology behind the vaccines was thoroughly tested in clinical trials before the pandemic began, she said.

“The researchers were able to use lessons learned,” she said.

Sexton said Americans should not be concerned about the side effects accompanying the vaccines, including soreness in the arm, fatigue or a slight fever.

“These are not serious, life-threatening or dangerous,” she said.

Sexton said health-care workers will be in the first group to get the shots because of concerns that the surge in coronavirus hospitalizations is straining the health-care workforce.

“Even if they have a mild case [of COVID-19], they’re out of work 10 days,” she said. “We’ve got a real concern for staff to take care of patients.”

Sexton said the prioritizing of health-care workers for vaccinations includes not just doctors and nurses but custodians, transporters and other hospital workers.

“All of these people are considered health-care workers and are prioritized,” she said.

The other group getting top priority to receive the vaccines – residents of nursing homes and other elderly-care facilities – will be served through a partnership the CDC has set up with CVS and Walgreens.

Sexton said the next group to receive vaccinations after health-care workers and residents of elderly-care facilities probably will be essential workers who must leave their homes despite the pandemic, such as grocery store employees and delivery truck drivers.

Another group that will receive high priority are seniors and Georgians suffering from chronic illnesses that leave them vulnerable to the virus, she said.

While many Americans have expressed reservations about getting the shots out of safety concerns, Sexton said the number of willing participants is going up, probably due to the impact of the surge in cases.

Medical experts have said achieving “herd immunity” against COVID-19 – the threshold for making further spread of the virus unlikely – is getting 60% to 70% of the U.S. population vaccinated.