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After county agrees to buy Gwinnett Place Mall, officials begin looking to its future

Gwinnett Place Mall has long been a source of consternation for local officials and ridicule among some residents who have derisively called it an eye sore or a dead mall.

It has long been a goal of county leaders, business officials and the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District to see the mall area revitalized. They have often heaped criticism upon the mall’s owners, Moonbeam, for big promises that ultimately went unfulfilled.

It will now be Gwinnett County government’s turn to try and revive the site after county commissioners agreed to buy the 36-year-old mall from Moonbeam, with the exception of four anchor spaces that Moonbeam didn’t own, earlier this month.

“It’s the best Christmas gift I could ask for,” incoming county Commissioner Kirkland Carden, who will represent the mall area starting Jan. 1, said. “We know the mall is just a shell. Its days are numbered, but what they gave us is a blank slate to work with and they did it at a time where we have four years to create a vision on that campus.

“Buying Gwinnett Place Mall was a great parting gift from the prior board to the incoming board.”

There is some optimism over the news that the county is buying 39 acres of the mall site for $23 million. Officials at the CID have often gnashed their teeth when the topic of the mall and Moonbeam came up over the years and said its struggles were holding the area back.

Gwinnett Chamber President and CEO Nick Masino also openly called for a change in ownership from Moonbeam in 2017.

Gwinnett Place CID Executive Director Joe Allen referred to struggles at the area’s namesake mall as a “dead mall problem” and applauded the county for purchasing the shopping center.

“To me, it’s a very bold move,” Allen said. “Across the nation, we’ve seen a lot of other communities take similar steps, follow this same model to redevelop their dead malls. So, to me, we’re now joining in that revival of success that these other communities have done.”

In a statement earlier this month, Masino said the purchase of the mall fell in line with other economic development and redevelopment efforts Gwinnett County has undertaken in recent years.

“In recent years, Gwinnett has invested in several strategic economic development projects, including the master-planned Rowen community, WaterTower, the OFS site, the Stone Mountain Tennis Center and more,” Masino said.

“I know I speak for all Gwinnett businesses when I say that we are thrilled that the revitalization of the Gwinnett Place Mall can finally begin.”

Planning for the mall’s future

On the campaign trail this year, Carden openly called for the county to buy the mall as he ran for the open District 1 commission seat.

But, now that the county will in fact be acquiring the mall, one question remains: What are the commissioners going to do with it?

Some ideas that Carden had included office space and housing, with walkability built in, but he said a plan for the area, that takes other projects in the area into consideration, must first be developed.

Northwood Ravin, for example, bought the former Sears anchor at Gwinnett Place in 2018 and is expected to redevelop it as residences so that will likely have some impact on plans for the overall mall site.

“The next step is going to have to be making some kind of comprehensive planning document and then maybe updating some other planning documents, like the trail plan for the county that may have trails that come in, or around, or adjacent to the Gwinnett Place CID area,” Carden said.

“Once we get that planning document created, then we’re going to have to go through a phase of selling it to the private sector, saying ‘Hey, this is our vision. What’s your place in it? Do you see yourself meeting our vision?’ “

Allen echoed Carden’s sentiments about the need for planning to be done to determine the mall’s future.

“I believe it will build upon many of the studies that the CID has focused on, making it a walkable, dense community that’s full of vitality and commerce,” he said.

The county and the CID have spent years trying to drum up interest in the area adjacent to the mall, including the establishment of the Venture Drive Redevelopment Overlay District by commissioners and the CID’s bid to promote what kind of redevelopment could be possible in the area.

Allen said he would like to see a walkable mixed-use development on the site.

“I remember of the heyday of the mall and that life was always part of that structure,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing that again on that site: people enjoying life.”

Carden said transit uses should be considered as part of the redevelopment plans. With the county commissioners having to take another stab at trying to address transit expansion after the defeat of a referendum on the issue in November, Carden is calling on the proposed heavy rail line that has been part of transit plans end at the mall.

It has long been proposed to end at Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

“That area is the economic engine of the county,” he said. “Its too important to this county and (commission District 1) to not have rail service, so whatever plans comes forward, you’re going to see me push for that and be very vocal about that.”

The county already owns several parcels adjacent to the mall for transit purposes.

Taking Gwinnett Place’s current tenants and uses into considerationGwinnett Place has been used as more than a shopping center, however. With its large vacant areas, it was famously used as the set for “Starcourt Mall,” which played a major role in season 3 of the Netflix series “Stranger Things.”

Several other film projects have been shot in vacant spaces at the mall.

But, Gwinnett Place does still have tenants too. As of Wednesday, there were about 12 businesses or organizations that still called the mall home — and that’s not counting the three anchors: Macy’s, Mega Mart and Beauty Master which own their own spaces as well as adjacent parking areas.

The remaining tenants located inside the portion of the mall that Gwinnett County is buying are all collected in a section of Gwinnett Place located between Macy’s and Mega Mart.

Signs in the mall warn shoppers and other visitors that area between Mega Mart and the former Sears anchor — an area that includes the old food court, where a woman’s dead body was discovered in a stall in 2017 — is restricted and unauthorized access constitutes trespassing.

Carden said there is some interest from at least one of the remaining mall anchors in sticking around for whatever revitalization happens at the site.

“Macy’s, from what I understand, they are showing an interest in wanting to work with whatever that vision is that create,” he said. “So, we may not own those retail spaces, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work with them and they can’t have a place in the vision.”

' A dream come true' — Gwinnett County senior shares acceptance to Duke with her late mother

Like many high school seniors, Skylar Hughes’ plate is full just about every day.

In addition to maintaining a 4.1 grade-point average at Grayson High School, Hughes has two part-time jobs and an internship at the Yellow River Wildlife Sanctuary. She also has a considerable community service background, most notably with the DoSomething Club, which facilitates community-wide initiatives regarding mental health awareness and Black Lives Matter issues.

Suffice it to say, when nighttime rolls around, Hughes generally has no trouble getting to sleep. But on a recent Friday night, she found herself wide awake for long stretches as she had received an online notice about the status of her application to Duke University and wanted to wait until Saturday morning, so she could share the news with her late mother, Rasheda Hughes, who died in 2016.

“(The notice) came out at 7 p.m. on Friday (Dec. 18) and when it first came out I was very nervous,” said Hughes. 17, who for years had dreamed of attending Duke. “I have Duke posters in my room and Duke memorabilia and I’ve toured the campus, so it’s my dream school.

“I work two jobs, so when I came home from my second job it was like 2 a.m. and usually I fall straight asleep because I’m so tired, but that night I may have gotten three hours sleep. When I finally did fall asleep I had a dream about being accepted or being rejected.”

Early the next morning, Hughes went to Gwinnett Memorial Cemetery with her father, James Hughes, to open the email that she had been waiting for, in the presence of her mother.

“I was very nervous when I opened it and I knew I wanted to open it with my mom at my mom’s grave,” said Hughes. “But at 7 p.m. (Friday), it was pitch-black outside, so I decided to wait until the next morning and we got up early and drove down there and even then it took me another 10 minutes to click the button, because I was so nervous.”

“She waited until Saturday so she could open it at her mother’s gravesite,” said Hughes’ cousin, Laniece Blackmon. “Of course, she was so anxious because she’s wanted to go to Duke forever and she was freaking out. There were a lot of Kumbaya moments.”

In a well-circulated social media video, Hughes opened the email and learned that she had been accepted to Duke, where she plans to major in marine science and conservation.

“It was a dream come true,” she said. “I knew my mother wasn’t going to see me in my wedding dress and she wasn’t going to see me at homecoming or when I graduated eighth grade. She couldn’t come to my (ballet) performances or anything like that. It was really nice to be able to share a moment with her there.

“It was difficult because I knew she was going to miss out on so many parts of my life and I knew she’d hate that. I could be mobile with this, so I took my computer to the cemetery.”

Hughes’ plan to finance a Duke education (tuition hovers at about $80,000 per year) includes applying for nearly two dozen scholarships, but her fortunes improved considerably when family members established a GoFundMe page to lend a helping hand.

“We decided we wanted to start a GoFundMe and we talked to our uncle James for his blessing and he said go right ahead,” said Blackmon, who teamed up with her sister Ja’Nique Blocker to set up the fundraiser for their younger cousin. “We never imagined anyone would reach out. We just figured, ‘Hey, let’s go for it.’”

In the first three days of the GoFundMe campaign, more than $18,000 had been pledged from some 2,000 donors.

“I’m so appreciative of that,” said Hughes, who plans to minor in public policy or environmental studies and policy. “I looked at videos and there were so many nice comments that I was overwhelmed. People were so kind and positive and supportive. I don’t have the vocabulary to express how grateful I am.”

“Surprisingly, it’s taken off on via social media, where everyone saw her video,” said Blackmon. “I think it started with Duke posting the video in their Instagram story. Over the course of the past three days, she gained 300 followers on Instagram and she was also leveraging things like TikTok and Facebook to get the video out there, and we wanted to help in any way we could. It’s been folks across all the social media platforms seeing the video and sending $5 her and $10 there.”

Although well aware the Duke decision could have gone another way, Hughes said she held off on applying to other universities in order to seek an early decision from the school. But she didn’t want to forward any applications anywhere else until she knew Duke was out of the picture.

“I have Duke posters in my room and Duke memorabilia and I’ve toured the campus, so it’s my dream school,” said Hughes, who last year was picked to participate in Duke’s Marine Science Field of Studies program in the Gulf of Mexico. “…I was going to apply to 20 schools but I didn’t want to waste a lot of money on applications. So I decided to wait and I was so nervous because I knew if I got deferred I’d have to spend all Christmas break re-writing my personal essay.”

“I think she was more into marine biology and then she started researching marine biology programs and that’s when her eyes went straight to Duke,” said Blackmon. “Duke was her one and only. She applied for early admission and she wanted to wait and see what happened before she applied anywhere else.

“She knew she’d hear back in December and she knew she’d have enough time to apply to other schools. But Duke was definitely her priority.”

For more information on the GoFundMe page for Skylar Hughes, visit www.gofundme.com/f/skylar-hughes-journey-to-duke-university?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=unknown&utm_campaign=comms_lywk+skylar-hughes-journey-to-duke-university.

Gwinnett police arrest suspects in murder at apartment complex near Norcross

An Alpharetta teen and an Atlanta man have been arrested in connection with the murder of Andrew Thomas, who died after he was shot at a Norcross-area apartment complex last month.

Gwinnett police announced on Wednesday that their homicide unit arrested Alpharetta resident Dallas Shank, 17, and Atlanta resident Quindarius Clemon, 23. Shank, who was arrested on Dec. 18, and Clemon face aggravated assault and felony murder charges.

Police were called to an apartment complex located off Seasons Parkway in unincorporated Norcross shortly before 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 22. Officers arrived to find Thomas in front of one of the apartment buildings with at least one gunshot wound.

Thomas was taken to a local hospital where he later died.

Cpl. Collin Flynn said investigators believe Shank and Clemon purposely targeted Thomas but they have not determined a motive at this time.

Anyone who has information about the case is asked to call detectives at 770-513-5300 or Crime Stoppers at 404-577-8477. They can also visit www.stopcrimeATL.com. There is a cash reward offered by Crime Stoppers for information that leads to an arrest and indictment.

Tipsters are asked to reference Case No. 20-0088554.

With Senate runoffs on the horizon, Asian-American Democrats looking to make voices heard

The Latino community’s importance to the Democratic Party, particularly in closely contested races like the Jan. 5 runoffs, has been documented in the past. But their is another group that some Democrats say are just as important to their party: the Asian-American community.

With the two U.S. Senate runoffs — where Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock are challenging Republican incumbent Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively — expected to be tight, Asian-Americans in the Democratic Party are working to make sure their community’s voice plays a role in flipping both seats.

“I think the Asian-American community really demonstrated its influence this past election, where we saw a huge surge in turnout, particularly among first time Asian-American voters,” said state Rep. Sam Park, a Korean-American Democrat from Lawrenceville who is taking over the Gwinnett legislative delegation’s chairman.

There’s a reason why Democrats in Gwinnett are trying to reach out to the Asian-American community as the internationally-watched U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia loom: they make up a noteworthy chunk of the county’s electorate.

As of Nov. 1, the most recent date that voter registration democratic data is available fro the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, there were 56,260 voters of Asian or Pacific Islander descent registered to vote in Gwinnett. That constitutes nearly 9.7% of the 582,917 people registered to vote in the county at that time.

That number also meant there were 2,000 more Asian-American registered voters than Latino registered voters in Gwinnett on the eve of the Nov. 3 general election. There were only 54,258 registered Latino voters at that time.

Only Whites and African-Americans have more registered voters in Gwinnett County.

“Gwinnett is an incredibly diverse community and the Asian-American community is incredibly important for turning (Democrats) out as well as the African-American community, the Latinx community and everybody,” said Aloke Prabhu, an Indo-American who is working in Gwinnett as a regional field director for the Democratic Party ahead of the Jan 5 runoffs.

“We want to make sure that our campaign is talking to every single voter, making this campaign as accessible as possible because it really is going to take everybody to come out to knock on the doors, to vote on election day or absentee for us to win this thing.”

But, there are challenges in doing outreach to the Asian community versus other communities.

A major one is language.

The Asian community also includes far greater lingual diversity that the Latino community, where the primary languages are Spanish and Portuguese. Outreach to the Asian community as a whole means being able to communicate in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Mandarin, Hindi and Thai among many other languages.

“It’s definitely challenging because the Asian-American community has a lot of different little groups,” Prabhu said. “One of the things is the first barrier is obviously language and to that, our field has put together a program that reaches out to Asian-American that has literature, and also our voter protection hotline, in I believe four to five different languages including Hindi, Vietnamese, Mandarin and, I believe, Cantonese among others.”

Prabhu said the Democratic Party is also doing a lot of “Asian-American to Asian-American outreach” where people from a particular Asian-American community speak to other members of their community about candidates.

But, like the Latino community, not all members of the Asian community align themselves with the Democratic Party.

The first Korean-American to serve in the Georgia General Assembly, former state Rep. BJay Pak, was a Republican from Lilburn and Jacqueline Tseng, a native of Cambodia, was the Gwinnett Republican Party’s secretary and first ran for the party’s nomination for the 7th Congressional District before switching to run for the county commission’s District 1 seat earlier this year.

Democrats are making a push to get Asian-American voters on their side, however.

“Traditionally, I think a lot of Asian-Americans, certainly Koreans (and) older Chinese — older Asian-Americans tend to be conservative,” Park said. “But, I think given how far the Republican Party has moved, (Asian-American voters) are now more inclined to be swing voters, not because of ideology, but because of the real day-to-day impact that the lack of actions or leadership have had on their own lives.

“So many Asian-Americans are small business owners and they have been on the front line of the challenges that this pandemic has caused.”

Park said terminology used by President Donald Trump to describe COVID-19, such as calling it Wuhan Flu or Kung Flu, has not helped either.

“Asian-Americans also, along with dealing with the challenges of the pandemic, have faced a wave of discrimination and violence” because of rhetoric, Park said.

Aloke Prabhu helped organize a get out the vote canvassing kickoff event for Democrats near Sugarloaf Mills in Lawreneville on Monday, with Park as one of the speakers.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who is of both African-American and Asian-American descent, had been scheduled to speak at the Lawrenceville event but had to pull out at the last minute so she could be in Washington for a Senate vote on the latest COVID-19 relief package.

Prabhu said having Harris, who is of Indian descent on her mother’s side, as vice president is a benefit to Democrats as they reach out to Asian-Americans. He said he quit his job and went to work for Harris’ campaign in Iowa, when she was running for president, because he was inspired by her.

“It definitely helps to have representation,” Prabhu said. “Obviously Georgians want to see a White House, a Senate and a House that represents their values and looks like them.”

Park said the fact that Harris was coming to Gwinnett for the second time in as many months — she headlined a speech at the Infinite Energy Center on Nov. 1 — speaks volumes about the county’s importance in the national political landscape.

“Gwinnett is the political epicenter of change in the state of Georgia, and given the importance that Georgia plays in our ability to determine the course of this country, I think it says a lot about Gwinnett,” he said. “With Gwinnett, we’re so diverse, you know, Black, White, Asian, Latino, young, old.

“I think Gwinnett represents the future of this state.”