Gwinnett County officials are planning a major medical, environmental and agricultural mixed-use research park in the Dacula and Auburn area that is expected to rival the Research Triangle Park in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina and Tech Square in Atlanta.
The nearly 2,000-acre development, known as Rowen, will be located along more than two miles of State Route 316 on the Gwinnett side of the Gwinnett-Barrow County line. A map of the site shows it will stretch northward to Winder Highway at the county line.
Research parks are places where multiple companies locate and set up scientific and technological facilities to conduct research for new developments and innovations in their respective fields, but Gwinnett officials see a mixed-use community being developed within Rowen as well.
Officials from the county and the Rowen Foundation expect it will generate an estimated 18,500 jobs in the next 15 years and eventually as many as 100,000 jobs in the long-term.
“We have been looking for a project in the 316 corridor that could really activate that corridor and mainly with the idea of bringing in good jobs,” Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said. “We’ve been looking at various options for that ...
“We refer to it as a ‘visionary knowledge community’ that will be focusing primarily on agriculture, the environment and medicine. We’re talking about a major job creator for the county.”
County commissioners met late Tuesday afternoon, after press deadline, to vote on the issuance of $70 million in bonds by the Gwinnett County Development Authority, and an intergovernmental agreement between the commission and the authority on repaying the bonds, to move forward with the project. The commissioners unanimously voted to approve the measure.
The bonds are intended to primarily cover land acquisition and some infrastructure costs.
Nash said county officials are “thrilled” about the project.
The development is a long-term project that is expected to take decades to build out, with $1.15 billion in construction costs in just the next 15 years, and eventually a total of $6.89 billion in construction costs to fully build it out.
By 2035, the estimated annual labor income generated at the research park is expected to be $1.655 billion. Once it’s fully built out, that total income is expected to be between $8 billion and $10 billion.
“The jobs we are visualizing being created at this location will range from somebody starting their career to someone working in the service industry, PhD’s that are working on global problems,” Nash said.
“This is not just an academic think tank. This is a living, breathing community focused on research and innovation.”
The Rowen Foundation is a nonprofit established specifically to own the land, and plan and manage operations for the research development.
“Setting up a nonprofit foundation to run a project like this is really considered a best practice,” said HR&A Partner Bob Geolas, who is working with the county and the foundation on the effort.
“The Research Triangle Park has operated this way for over 60 years and no one, I think, would question how successful that has been. It’s run by the Research Triangle Foundation which allows it to be separate from sort of the political ups and downs that come along. It also provides a stable staff with a stable direction to make sure the vision and purpose of the project is maintained. And being in a nonprofit, it has to maintain a level of transparency and accountability to the public.”
Geolas has spent three decades helping build and run research parks, including serving as the Research Triangle Park president and CEO for five years, and working on the Centennial Campus at North Carolina State University and Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research.
“When I look at what Gwinnett County is putting forward here, I not only see a project that is going to be an incredible opportunity to improve quality of life in Gwinnett County, I see a project that has the potential to be a real global player,” Geolas said.
The reasons why Geolas sees Rowen has having that global potential include what he called “an incredible site in a region of the world that is known for being a strong growing economy,” as well as the talent pool in Gwinnett and the rest of metro Atlanta and the strength of higher education in the area.
Rowen would be located between two of Georgia’s four research universities, the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Gwinnett Technical College and Georgia Gwinnett College are also nearby.
Northside Hospital and Eastside Medical Center have multiple campuses in Gwinnett County and Northeast Georgia Health System serves the county from campuses in Gainesville and Braselton as well.
“This site is going to sit much like Research Triangle Park,” Geolas said. “It’s going to sit right in the middle of the action and that’s a huge advantage.
“So, from my perspective and from my years of not only leading parks and advising parks all over the world, I think this is probably one of the most exciting projects I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s going to have a tremendous impact on the quality of life for Gwinnett County.”
Some of the acreage is already owned by Gwinnett County, and Nash said county officials have the remainder of the property under contract to purchase. They expect to close on the purchase by the end of the year.
About $60 million of the funds from the bonds is expected to go toward land acquisition.
In addition to having research facilities, the development is expected to have a residential component.
“When we say knowledge community in reference to this, we mean a community that has all of those aspects,” Nash said. “Yes, there’s going to be employers, there’s going to be research facilities, there’s going to be offices, but there’s also going to be residential areas, a town center, the connection to public space in terms of the park areas and trails and so forth.
“We really are visualizing this as a community. The emphasis is going to be on research and innovation in those three areas that we have mentioned — agriculture, the environment and medicine — and most of happens on the site is going to revolve around those three science areas in some way or the other, but it really is not going to be just another office park or not just another research park.”