Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson paused for a second and chose optimism as she reflected on the defeat of the county’s transit referendum.
Hendrickson addressed the issue of transit on Friday during a Council for Quality Growth fireside chat featuring herself and three other new chairwomen from counties around metro Atlanta. She had been a proponent of passage of the referendum that was defeated very narrowly in November, the latest in a series of transit referendum losses in Gwinnett spanning decades.
But, the county’s new chairwoman didn’t see the loss as a door closing on transit expansion in Gwinnett.
“I was hoping our referendum would have passed by the time I got into office, but it didn’t, it failed for the fourth time I think,” Hendrickson said. “But, it just forces us to take a step back and look at our approach and what we need to do to put our heads together to come up with solutions.”
There has been talk in the past about how soon another transit referendum could appear on the ballot.
At first, the obviously choice might seem to be November 2022, which is the next major election guaranteed to draw a large voter turnout. But a vote on extending the county’s special purpose location option sales tax is expected to be on that ballot and some county leaders, including new commissioners, have expressed concerns as to whether having both measures on the same ballot could result in both failing.
The other option that is being looked at is November 2024, which is the next presidential election.
Either way, Hendrickson said the county can’t afford to give up and do nothing to address transit since the county is projected to be home to 1.5 million people by 2050.
“We have transit challenges in Gwinnett County,” she said. “We are about to add another 500,000 people to the region over the next couple of decades and Gwinnett County is going to acquire many of those folks that are moving in.
“We are a destination for the region and we have to figure out how to get people around. We have to figure out how we can contribute to people’s quality of life for people who don’t own a car, for people who don’t want to use a car for a means of transportation.”
Hendrickson also pointed to the economic impact expanded transit, or a lack of it, can have on Gwinnett. Officials in the business community have long touted transit as an economic development driver and there have been cases in the past, such as WestRock in 2017, of businesses leaving Gwinnett to relocate to areas in metro Atlanta that have transit access.
“We have to be competitive in the region if we’re ever going to attract high paying jobs and attract the talent that we need to recruit those jobs as well,” Hendrickson said. “So, it’s a challenge that we have to address.
“We are working in partnership with many of our community improvement districts (and the) state. Our new congresswoman, Carolyn Bourdeaux, is on the (U.S. House transportation committee) and so we’re going to put our heads together with her as well to see how we can draw down funding to support transit infrastructure projects and improvements. The CIDs are working with us on studies for local transit expansion, but we’re also looking at how we can address traffic engineering, road improvements, all of the things can help make us that premiere destination for businesses.”
Hendrickson also talked about housing issues at the fireside chat, pointing out that Gwinnett has begun work on a comprehensive housing study. That study will look at the market in the county and the housing options that are available.
The chairwoman, who is now a member of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s board by virtue of her new position in the county, said she would like to join the ARC’s affordable housing committee to help the county leverage the regional commission’s resources to tackle housing issues.
“We have a large workforce, and I like to use workforce housing instead of affordable housing because that is essentially what it is,” Hendrickson said. “But, for our workforce, and I’ll speak for Gwinnett County government alone, 56% of our employee base represents public safety officials but they live outside of the county because they cannot afford to live in Gwinnett because of the housing prices.
“You have to earn a salary of at least $50,000 to be able to own a home in Gwinnett. Well, the base salary for our police officers is below $40,000. So that’s something that we have to examine, have to look at, so that we can retain our employees in our county and so that they can live and work in our county and enjoy the benefits of being both a resident and somebody who works in the county as well.”