Gwinnett County commissioners agreed Tuesday to issue $36.5 million in bonds to purchase 103 acres of land at the OFS site overlooking Interstate 85 in unincorporated Norcross for redevelopment.
In their role as the Urban Redevelopment Agency board, the commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of issuing the 20-year revenue bonds. Commissioner John Heard cast the dissenting vote.
The move is complex because the Board of Commissioners also serves as the URA Board. After the commissioners voted at a called URA meeting, they approved a resolution approving the issuing of the bonds in their role as county commissioners.
“I’m just really excited to be at this point,” Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said. “I’ve talked about the importance of this site in the past in terms of (being) right there at the entrance to Gwinnett County on I-85. One hundred acres at that site is an exciting possibility in terms of what will likely go on that site.”
The bonds are expected to be put out for grading by bonding agencies next month, and then put out for pricing in December, according to Gwinnett Chief Financial Officer Maria Wood. County officials expect to close on the purchase in mid- to late-December.
The value of the bonds is more than $2 million higher than the $34.32 million purchase price that county officials touted in May when the commission voted to give itself permission to buy the OFS property in its role as the URA board. Nash said the bond amount is higher to cover additional costs, such as insurance.
As he did Tuesday, Heard also cast the lone vote against the purchase in the spring.
“I felt that government has its place and being in the development business is not one that we need to partake,” Heard said after Tuesday’s vote. “There’s experts in that area that should be doing it and we should supporting of the process, but we don’t need to be investing in and leading the process. I think it’s inappropriate to be using tax dollars in that way.”
Since the county is using revenue bonds instead of general obligation bonds, it doesn’t require voter approval. The county plans to pay back the bonds using revenue brought in from filming projects at OFS.
The facilities at the site are already a major draw for filmmakers, and Gwinnett leaders project the revenue generated by filming at the site should be enough to pay off the bonds.
The ultimate plan is to redevelop the property, although county officials have not yet decided what the site could be used for. In the past, proposed uses have ranged from a film-centric mixed-use development to a casino.
A request for information will be put out to developers once the county takes ownership of the property, but Nash said there are some preferred uses.
“Certainly an urban-style mixed-use development would be ideal,” she said. “The film industry continues to use that site … so I don’t see that going away. I think we will continue to have a place for that on the site.”
One possible use is a multimodal transit hub, which the county already plans to build somewhere on the Jimmy Carter Boulevard corridor, but has not chosen a site for yet. The fact that Gwinnett has entered into a contract with MARTA for transit service, pending voter approval in March, increases the importance of that site for transit uses, Nash said.
The commission chairwoman does not see a transit use conflicting with an urban mixed-use for the site.
“There’s still plenty of space to do the kind of mixed-use development, even after we set aside a gracious amount of acreage for the multi-modal station,” Nash said.
OFS will keep part of its large property at the I-85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard interchange. On the more than 100 acres county officials are acquiring, they plan to leave the buildings on the site standing for now.
In some ways, the county’s plans for redeveloping the site are similar to its plans for redeveloping the former Olympic tennis center site near Stone Mountain. The county acquired that site from the state-run Stone Mountain Memorial Association in 2016, and the tennis center was demolished last year.
The county plans to partner with a developer at some point to redevelop the tennis center property.
The big difference between the tennis center site and the OFS site is that the URA did not get involved in the acquisition of the tennis center site.
Heard said it also differs from other big ticket projects, such as the county’s $60 million Water Innovation Center in Buford, because of how it will be used and how it is going to the private sector.
“The Water Innovation Center is a job creator meant to attract new businesses,” Heard said. “The Stone Mountain Center is a project that was government-owned and had to transition to the private sector, and we were the vehicle to do that. Efforts that we’re doing at Gwinnett Place Mall is incorporating infrastructure for development projects.
“But this, buying property to resell, is different.”