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Central Gwinnett High students fulfill middle schooler's Black Panther dreams with Magic Wheelchair event

All eyes were on Alton C. Crews Middle School student De’Von “DJ” Johnson as he posed for pictures in a custom built Marvel Studios Black Panther-themed wheelchair and costume.

“This is crazy. This is crazy,” Johnson, 12, repeated.

A small group of teachers and staff gathered outside the middle school Friday at noon to get a look at Johnson’s new wheels, which were adorned to look like a replica of Black Panther’s Royal Talon Fighter.

The event was made possible by Central Gwinnett High School as part of the nationwide Magic Wheelchair program to dress up wheelchairs of children with disabilities in order to give them a special Halloween experience. This was the sixth year the high school participated in the program.

“He was a real celebrity today, a real superhero,” Megan Rose-Houchins, Central Gwinnett Fine Arts and Communications Academy coordinator, said. “He just embodies the whole idea of being Black Panther, and it was great to see that.”

Johnson suffered a near drowning in 2014. As a result, he began having over 30 seizures a day. Johnson’s mom Chaquita Titi said he had to undergo brain surgery to control the seizures, which left him in a wheelchair.

With extensive surgery, however, Johnson is learning to walk again.

Unlike years past where thousands of students gathered at Central Gwinnett High School’s football stadium for the wheelchair unveiling and Safe Trick-Or-Treat event, this year the high school staff decided to make Johnson his very own “movie.”

“My personal philosophy on 2020 and with my students is to try to not focus on the things we’re missing out on and try to focus on the opportunities that this new environment gives us,” Central Gwinnett Theater Teacher Michael Tarver said.

“So we really embraced the idea of making a movie this year. We wanted to do something different and make it special for DJ instead of him feeling like he missed out on something by doing it in 2020 instead of any other year. While it was a bummer not getting to work on this with my students like I normally get to, getting to work with a really close friend of mine and getting to work with the costume designer was awesome.”

Central Gwinnett brought in Fiona Leonard from Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern to design Johnson’s costume as well as Georgia Tech master’s student Eliot Kaplan to work on the electronics and coding on the wheelchair. They said it was their first time working on a “magic wheelchair.”

“It’s a really cool project,” Kaplan said. “I was really excited to make something that would make DJ excited, and then also as a technical challenge I got to learn a lot of really interesting new skills on the job. … Most of my experience is in code and not in electronics. That was really fun, and doing something nice for DJ was really exciting.”

Kaplan said the wheelchair comes with a touchscreen application to individually control 210 LED lights and also has seven different animations Johnson can choose from.

“I love, love, love Black Panther because he’s one of my favorites and he’s got all of the cool gadgets and team by his side,” Johnson said. “This is really awesome. I hope to go trick-or-treating in it.”

Titi said Johnson, who has Black Panther toys and clothes all over his room, spoke in his sleep the entire night prior to the event because of how excited he was to see the wheelchair.

“It’s so awesome and special,” she said. “He’s ecstatic. He’s always going around saying ‘Wakanda forever.’”

So when Rose-Houchins approached Johnson last spring to participate in the Magic Wheelchair program Johnson without hesitation said he wanted it to be Black Panther-themed.

“The best part every time is seeing the look on the student’s face when they see their costume,” Rose-Houchins said. “Getting to present this project to a student and seeing how their face lights up and everyone is here to cheer for them is just always such a moving and wonderful experience. That’s really a highlight of our year.”

Crews Middle School Assistant Principal Traci Baldwin said she is grateful for everyone who made the day special for Johnson.

“He is one of our favorites,” Baldwin said. “He has so much personality. We’re so glad he is part of our school, because he brings so much joy just with his smile every day. He’s special to all of us and we’re glad he was recognized with this honor. You can tell just from his smile how much he appreciates it — we all do.”

Tarver said they hope to upload the “movie” of the unveiling to YouTube by Halloween.

Collins Hill High School remembers legendary wrestling coach Cliff Ramos at memorial service

Friends and family remembered longtime Gwinnett wrestling coach Cliff Ramos as a man of many talents, but most of all as a great husband, father and grandfather at a memorial service Saturday morning.

The event was held at Collins Hill High School’s football stadium. Ramos died last week after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. As head coach at Collins Hill for 18 years, Ramos developed what many at the memorial service called “a wrestling powerhouse.”

Under Ramos’ guidance, the school won nine traditional state and dual state championships, was ranked nationally five times, and helped develop numerous state champions and state placers. Ramos himself was also a member of the Gwinnett Sports Hall of Fame and National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“Coach Ramos was a man of unmatched determination and passion,” Nick Lukacs, who wrestled for Ramos at Collins Hill said. “Everything he did he did with planning, purpose and intent. He understood that in everything, especially in wrestling time is critical.

“… From the moment you came into coach’s life you were one of his people — wrestler, trainer, coach, referee or otherwise. Over the past week or so I’ve talked to so many of those people and they all had the same thing to say: ‘He knew me. He cared. He knew how to bring out the best in me and, most importantly, it didn’t stop when I left school.’”

Lukacs recalled the last few times he visited Ramos he could tell he was simply trying to keep it together for him and his other visitors. Lukacs said he wanted to pull him aside and tell Ramos everything that was in his heart — how much he loved him and how proud he was to call him a mentor and coach — but he didn’t take the chance.

“I though I didn’t need to say anything, because he had more time,” Lucas said. “I wish I had learned better from coach the value of time. With all the time he put into each of us over the years it’s remarkable to me that a man spread so thin could be great at so many things — wrestling, coaching, ping pong, golf, tennis, the list goes on. But what Cliff was surely the greatest at was being a husband, father and a grandfather.”

Ramos is survived by his wife Kathy, children Taylor, Trevor and Kara and five grandchildren. With Ramos’ family sitting in the audience, Lukacs faced them and thanked them for sacrificing some of Ramos’ time with them so that he could spend as much time as he did with his students.

“Coach’s records and accolades are not because he always had the most talented teams, but because he understood the mountain of time it takes to make something great,” Lukacs said. “He spent six days a week with us and spent part of his Sundays watching our tapes. ... I can’t begin to fully appreciate how much you have to love something or someone to devote that much of your time. I realize now that was coach’s love language, his means of praise of showing how much he cared.

“He was making sure each of us were the best versions of ourselves and at the end of the day there was no excuse to be anything but that. Coach’s achievements will speak for themselves, but his legacy will be remembered in the men and women who had the pleasure to learn from him — the former wrestlers that became coaches because of him, the families who put their kids in wrestling because of him and, yes, even the referees who were forced to be better because they were too worried about being proven wrong by the rule book Yoda.”

Ramos’ oldest son Taylor Ramos also spoke at the memorial service. He admitted he hadn’t prepared anything to say, but that as he was getting dressed that morning he came across a letter from his dad that he knew would create an impact.

Choking back tears, he said he decided to keep the letter to himself. Instead, he encouraged everyone to wave with both hands just as his dad had taught everyone to do in honor of his grandmother.

“You’re going to get mad at me for this, but you’re not going to hear anything in this letter,” Taylor Ramos said, “because he wrote it to me. He didn’t write it for it to be read at his memorial service or his funeral service. ... He wrote it to me, because he wanted a loving, caring, intimate moment with is son Taylor. It’s mine.”

Frank Doman, who had trained with Cliff Ramos when he first started his coaching career in 1976, said family meant everything to Cliff Ramos. He said he does not recall ever having a conversation with Cliff Ramos in which he did not mention his family.

“Wrestling was coach’s vocation, which he dearly loved, but his family was everything to him,” Doman said. “To me, coach was a teacher, a coach, an older brother, a mentor and a hero.”

Jim Tiller, a close friend and Cliff Ramos’ assistant for 15 years at Collins Hill, said he was proud of the fact that Cliff Ramos was able to accomplish the goals he had set out to accomplish while at Collins Hill.

“Cliff set the standard for wrestling in Gwinnett County and the state,” he said. “… We truly became a national program, as we were ranked nationally five times. He was proud of the fact Collins Hill finished at least top three in the state 15 years in a row. ... Cliff had another goal that Collins Hill would win state the year after he (retired). He wanted to leave the program in good shape. He accomplished that goal.”

After Cliff Ramos retired, he went on to become the director of wrestling at Greater Atlanta Christian School and helped produce the school’s first two state champions.

Gwinnett County Commission chairman candidates: Public safety, future growth are county's biggest issues

Gwinnett County’s biggest issue for its next county commission chairman to address varies depending on which candidate for the office you ask.

Republican nominee David Post said he sees public safety as the county’s biggest issue.

“I want to make Gwinnett County a safe haven for all citizens and businesses,” he said.

Democratic nominee Nicole Love Hendrickson, however, said addressing the county’s anticipated future growth is the top issue.

“We have to plan now for our future,” she said.

Post and Hendrickson are running to fill what will be an open commission chairman seat and replace retiring Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, who has led the county’s government for the last decade.

Post is a retired sheriff’s deputy and security consultant who has decades of experience in the public safety and security field. He said he decided to run for chairman because he believes his business background — he has run a security and management business — can help the county in a post-COVID-19 economy.

“I’m now semi-retired and want to continue serving, for my two daughters and four grandchildren who all live in Gwinnett County, and of course my community,” he said. “We are facing many economic challenges as a result of the COVID-19 impact, and I believe that I have the business experience and acumen to attract new businesses, which will drive revenue without increasing taxes for our citizens.”

Hendrickson is Gwinnett County’s former community outreach director, having overseen programs such as Gwinnett 101 and the Gwinnett Youth Leadership Commission. She said she decided to run for chairman because she believes other communities across the U.S. that will begin to look more like what Gwinnett does today will look to the county to see how it has addressed its growth and diversity.

If Hendrickson is elected, she would make history as the first African-American person to serve as the head of Gwinnett County’s government.

“I am running for chairman because I have spent more than a decade driving decisions that improve our county and wellbeing of our residents,” she said. “I am a part of Gwinnett’s success story. As a young professional, a community leader and a mother, not only do I represent the changing demographics, but I value having a strong and healthy community where I am raising my son.

“I also believe in building an inclusive county where different voices are valued and our diverse residents have a seat at the table.”

As for what they see as the big issues facing the county, and what they would do to address them, the candidates having their own differing views.

As part of his plan to address public safety, Post said he would make it his No. 1 priority as chairman. He sees public safety as having a spillover affect that can benefit economic development.

“This is a time to gain understanding and cooperation with all related departments and the cities of our county, to drive the business opportunities to increase the county revenue and reduce the individual tax burden on our citizens,” Post said. “If we get the public safety element right, the rest of the business plan will follow with the correct management and relationships. This also fits my plans for economic development of our depressed areas within the county.”

But, Hendrickson said there are several areas the county needs to look at to address future growth. These areas range from planning and zoning to roads, stormwater and sewer systems, she said.

Improving land use and zoning policies is key to that, according to Hendrickson.

“Every zoning decision has an effect on transportation, housing options, our school system and our environment,” she said. “As growth occurs, we need to put the infrastructure in place so that it is well-managed. We also have to plan for an upgrade our aging infrastructure which includes our stormwater, roads, sewer system.

“And last, we need to have a comprehensive transportation system in place; one that addresses our traffic congestion, improves mobility throughout the county, increases transit options for residents, and connects us to the region. Being the 2nd most populous county in the state, we have to make the right investments to improve transit in our county.”

Hendrickson also said the county’s voters need to pass the transit referendum that is appearing on the Nov. 3 ballot alongside the chairman’s race.

But, there is another issue Gwinnett County’s next commission chairman or chairwoman will have to deal with: the COVID-19 fallout.

Post said improving safety in all areas of the county, whether it be parks or business and retail areas, will help the county’s economy recover from the pandemic. He also said the county will have to look at where resources are best used to help the community recover.

“There is no magic wand but hard work, great communication and well thought out programs will help do this,” Post said. “As commission chair, I would examine the current, and proposed heavy expenditure plans to ensure that they are the best fit and benefit to our citizens.

“I believe that by investing in our existing, depressed areas, e.g. Gwinnett Place Mall, we can attract businesses that will provide revenue without us having a major capital outlay, as the foundations are all already in place.”

Hendrickson said she thinks the county’s Triple A bond rating and budget planning done by Nash and county finance staff over the last decade have positioned the county to whether the economic impact of COVID-19.

“My plan is to adopt a similar budget process while building on the success of providing world class services like water and sewer, roads, parks and public safety,” she said. “We also need to address the devastating impact COVID has had on our small businesses, our families living below the poverty line, and the strain this has put on our non-profit community.

“Building alliances with public and private sector partners can help us strengthen our ability to serve these communities. I also believe we should explore ways to fund these shortfalls through federal relief such as CARES Act funding, to help mitigate the likelihood of this happening again.”

Gwinnett County leaders confirm Rowen project was major driver behind county's new economic development millage rate

Gwinnett County leaders are not officially saying the new economic development millage rate that is appearing on property tax bills in the county is only designed to pay for the massive Rowen project, but they are saying it helped spur the tax’s creation.

Gwinnett Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, County Administrator Glenn Stephens and HGOR Founding Principal Bob Hughes, a consultant on the Rowen project, discussed the development this past week during a presentation to the Gwinnett Chamber. Much of the presentation focused on aspects of the project that county officials have discussed publicly, but they did address the new tax at one point.

“What’s in place now is not dedicated to any specific project but the 0.3 mills that was put in place is based on what’s necessary for Rowen, for the immediate future,” Nash said after the presentation. “Then, future boards will have decisions to make about whether they keep it in place once Rowen no longer needs it, or whether they use it for other type projects.”

Rowen is a massive “knowledge community,” or multi-use research park, development that will be built in eastern Gwinnett at state Route 316 and the Barrow County line with biomedical, agricultural and environmental research facilities, as well as residential, commercial and recreational components. It is being pitched as something on par with areas such as the Research Triangle in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina.

The development includes nearly 2,000 acres of land between Dacula and the county line, and it is expected to generate as many as 100,000 new jobs in that part of the county once it is more fully built out — something that isn’t expected to happen until decades from now.

More immediately, it is expected to generate about 18,500 new jobs by 2035.

Nash said the county expects the economic development millage rate will be needed for at least 10 years to help pay off the up to $72 million in bonds being used to fund land acquisition and the start-up of the project.

Rowen project hailed as 'a new chapter' for Gwinnett, Georgia

It's that kind of vein of past developments, such as the Western Electric Plant or Technology Park, that Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash sees the Rowen research park project fitting into: a transformative project that will have an impact on the county that will be felt for decades.

The bonds themselves are 20-year bonds, but the commission chairman said they could be paid off faster “if the project takes off quickly and land sales move rapidly.”

Stephens told the chamber the economic development millage rate showed up on property tax bills this year for the first time. The tax is expected to generate $10.3 million in property tax revenue this year alone.

“The board (of commissioners), to get this project rolling, established an economic development millage rate that we’re allowed to do, under state law, up to 1 mill,” Stephens said. “It’s a small tax that will be on all of our — if you’re a Gwinnettian, it will be on your bill. It’s already on your bill ...

“The resources we get from that tax are plowed back into economic development projects, and in particular now the Rowen project.”

Rowen is expected to benefit from being located between several local colleges and research universities, including: the University of Georgia; Georgia Institute of Technology; Georgia State University; Emory University; Georgia Gwinnett College; and Gwinnett Technical College.

“When somebody said it would be the only state mega site inside the five-county metro area ... I was like, ‘Wait a minute, that is a game changer in and of itself,’” Hughes said. “And the second thing is we realized there’s a $405 billion a year economy and we’re sitting in the middle of it, and you look at all of the institutions around that.”

Hughes said the addition of Mason Ailstock and Bob Geolas, who worked at Research Triangle Park, to the team creating Rowen helped as well.

“They brought that depth of knowledge to this,” Hughes said. “That’s when we really began to realize we had something bigger, way bigger, than any of us had imagined.”

Rowen is not the only economic development project the county is involved in, however. The county is also working on redeveloping the former Olympic Tennis Center site in south Gwinnett and the majority of the OFS site off Interstate 85 at Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

“We started a ways back with this board being willing to take on redevelopment projects and securing control of land at key economic development centers,” Stephens said.

Although the millage rate will generate funds to help pay off the initial debt on the project, the development will actually be put in the hands of the non-profit Rowen Foundation, something Stephens said is an industry best practice for projects such as this.

“If you’re going to do something this large, with this much potential impact, and have it actually be successful, one thing it can’t be is owned by the government and controlled by political bodies,” Stephens said.

But, while the project is complicated, Nash said said Rowen will be good for Gwinnett County. The county, which already has close to one million residents, is expected to add about half a million more residents to its population over the next few decades.

The chairwoman said Rowen and other economic development projects that the county is working on can help address future employment needs.

“This is an exciting project,” she said. “We are looking forward to what it’s going to do. It’s only one of the things, though, that we’ve been working on to bend that trend — that’s the phase I use. We recognize we need jobs for all of those people who are headed to Gwinnett. We want them to be good jobs, but they need to be jobs of all different levels.”