A pair of accidents led to an explosion and two fatalities early Saturday morning and the fire occurred after the accidents shut down Interstate 85 for hours and Butch Conway announced he will not seek re-election after 24 years as Gwinnett County sheriff.
Here are last week's top stories in Gwinnett:
Victims ID'd in fatal I-85 accident that involved explosion, fire
Two accidents on Interstate 85 led to an explosion and a fire that shut down the interstate, in both directions, for hours and caused drivers to flee on foot near Jimmy Carter Boulevard Saturday morning, according to Gwinnett County police.
Gwinnett firefighters and police both responded to the scene of the accident, which occurred at about 7:50 a.m. on I-85 northbound near Jimmy Carter Boulevard. There were two fatalities — identified Saturday night as Norcross resident Emerald Lynn, 31, and Snellville resident Yonas Worku, 44 — and police said fuel leaked from the truck into a storm drain and caught fire.
Police said a silver Volkswagen Passat driven by Lynn had stopped in the second from right lane on the interstate after it had been in an accident with another vehicle. That accident was separate from the one in which Lynn and Worku were killed.
Worku had been driving a Freightliner truck with a fuel tanker trailer filled with about approximately 8,500 pounds of fuel, according to police.
“Worku approached the rear of Lynn’s stopped vehicle, and for unknown reasons, was unable to stop or avoid a collision,” police said in a statement. “After the initial collision, both vehicles separated from each other before the tanker truck spun sideways across four lanes of traffic, causing it to flip multiple times.
“Both vehicles came to rest adjacent to one another, and both were quickly engulfed in flames. Both Lynn and Worku died from injuries sustained during the incident.”
The fire quickly became a massive incident that affected northbound and southbound drivers, with northbound closed, at least partially, for up to 10 hours. Southbound lanes were also closed for a few hours. DeKalb fire officials aided their Gwinnett counterparts in battling what ended up being multiple fires.
“While arriving to the scene, officers observed a large explosion from the area of the reported accident,” a police spokesperson said. “When they arrived they located an overturned tanker truck and a passenger car fully engulfed in flames.”
Police said the fuel that spread into the storm drain caught fire underneath the interstate and the flames emerged from a storm drain near Crescent Drive on the southbound side.
“This resulted in multiple fires and large smoke stacks on and around both Interstate 85 northbound and southbound,” a police spokesperson said in a statement. “As a result, traffic on Interstate 85 southbound was diverted onto Beaver Ruin Road.
“Several drivers that were stopped on the Interstate were evacuated on foot from their vehicle and took cover behind nearby businesses. Fire personnel addressed all active fires until it was contained to the accident scene and eventually completely extinguished.”
Northbound traffic was diverted at Pleasantdale Road in DeKalb County.
Georgia Department of Transportation officials said the southbound lanes reopened early in the afternoon, but the northbound lanes remained closed for several more hours, starting at Interstate 285, until repairs to the roadway could be completed.
“The impacted section of I-85 is approximately 100 feet by 70 feet and all five lanes of the highway are affected,” GDOT said.
Two lanes re-opened around 3 p.m. and the remaining lanes opened shortly after 6 p.m.
After 24 years in office, Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway will not seek re-election
Butch Conway announced Tuesday he will not seek re-election after 24 years as sheriff of Gwinnett County.
Conway, a Republican, was Gwinnett County’s longest-tenured sheriff. He was first elected to the post as a Republican in 1996 and was continually re-elected after that. There had been uncertainty for months, however, as to whether he would seek re-election this year.
“My decision to not seek re-election was not made easily, but I have reached a point in my life where I desire to pursue other opportunities which will afford me more time with my family, who recently suffered a great loss,” Conway said in a statement.
His son-in law, Chris Clay, recently died after a long battle with brain cancer.
“That’s been a big loss,” he said in a press conference Tuesday. “… It’s affected our family and I’ve got a daughter I want to help now. That’s not the only reason (I chose to not run for re-election). I still want to pursue business. I’ve always been a businessman at heart. I got out of law enforcement in the ’80s – didn’t plan on going back in but it’s just the way things happened.”
He said he hopes to pursue opportunities outside of law enforcement such as private enterprise, business or property investments.
Under his leadership, the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office implemented Operation Second Chance (Jail Dogs), the Gwinnett Re-entry Intervention Program, the 287(g) program and a new veterans therapeutic program known as The Barracks.
Conway said at the press conference he’s proud of always being easy to contact, helping people any time he could and having a good relationship between the sheriff’s and police departments.
He said he felt he had done just about everything he had on his mind that he has wanted to do as sheriff.
“I thank the many faithful supporters who placed their trust in me election after election over the past two decades,” Conway said. “I will always be thankful for the opportunity you provided me to serve as your sheriff and hope the positive contributions we’ve made together will continue to benefit our community for many years to come.”
Conway confirmed he will finish the remainder of his term. In the meantime, the seat for sheriff will appear in both the ballots for the May 19 local primary election as well as the Nov. 3 general election.
If he ran this year, it would have been the first time Conway would have faced a Democrat during a re-election bid, even though he did face write-in opponents and challengers from within the Republican Party in the past.
So far, there are five Democrats seeking the party’s nomination for sheriff, including Curtis Clemons, Keybo Taylor, Ben Haynes, Floyd Scott and Jerry Ramos-Acre. Recent election cycles have seen Gwinnett increasingly go for Democrats, including Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 and Stacey Abrams for governor in 2018.
Democrats also flipped two county commission seats, a school board seat, the solicitor general’s office and several state legislative seats in the county in 2018.
But Conway said the changing politics in Gwinnett County didn’t affect his decision to not seek re-election.
“In the sheriff’s office, a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ doesn’t really mean anything because the job is to prosecute people that violate the laws in the state of Georgia or the United States,” he said. “That’s not a big effect on the sheriff.”
In his statement, Conway said he hired Chief Deputy Lou Solis two years ago with the intention of preparing him to succeed him, though he didn’t know it would be so soon. Conway endorsed him for sheriff on Tuesday due to his work ethic, abilities and commitment, he said.
“Chief Deputy Solis has worked exhaustively over the past two years to familiarize himself with our operations,” Conway said. “His work ethic is unparalleled and his contributions to our office are great. He has demonstrated outstanding leadership time and time again.”
Conway also said he believes Solis will continue “the great things that we’ve been doing,” including the controversial 287(g) program, in which the sheriff’s office partners with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport undocumented residents who are arrested in Gwinnett.
Democrats running for sheriff have talked about ending the office’s participation in the 287(g) program, but Conway has been an ardent supporter of it.
“People confuse immigrants with illegal aliens and accuse law enforcement of being anti-immigrant when they’re helping ICE and that’s not the case,” Conway said. “The only interest I and this agency have had in immigration is when someone commits a crime. I would deport citizens if I could that are criminals who prey on our citizens. A lot of the illegal aliens that we identify and hold for ICE, they’re preying on their community … They tend to victimize their own group, so 287(g) makes everybody safer.”
The qualifying period for political party, independent and nonpartisan candidates running for sheriff will begin March 2 and end March 6. Those who wish to qualify as a party candidate must do so with the Gwinnett County Democratic Party or the Gwinnett County Republican Party.
Former Buford High School principal wanted to stay prior to his resignation announcement, email says
Buford City Schools has opened a search for a new principal at its high school for the third time in four years even though the most recent principal wanted to stay.
The district announced the resignation of former Buford High School principal Lindsey Allen on Jan. 21 in a press release that said Allen resigned for “personal reasons.” But according to an email obtained by the Gwinnett Daily Post through the Freedom of Information Act, Allen did not want to leave his post.
In the email to Buford City Schools Superintendent Robert Downs dated Jan. 17, Allen expressed concerns about handling future meetings given a “decision” earlier that day.
Allen wrote he was in shock, having received “all 3s and 4s on my evaluation and told I was doing a great job.”
“I was given no direction for remediation,” Allen wrote in the email. “No direction for what they would like to see changed or improved. I am simply being released without any opportunity to do either. I believe I have and would continue to add value to Buford City (Schools).”
Allen was officially hired in March 2019 to fill the shoes of former principal Ed Shaddix, who also resigned mid-year. During his approximately 10 months as Buford’s principal, Allen oversaw the school’s transition into a new high school building located off Buford Highway.
Brenda Whalen, whose two sons graduated from Buford High in 2019 and whose daughter is currently a senior at the school, was one of several parents of Buford students who expressed concerns about how Allen’s resignation was announced. During Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, she said she asked the board to explain why Allen was not meeting the district’s standards.
Board of Education and City Commission Chairman Phillip Beard and Downs both declined to comment on Allen’s resignation during the meeting.
“We thank you for your concerns, but it is personnel and we don’t discuss personnel in public meetings,” Beard said in response to Whalen’s request.
More parents of Buford High School students told the board they were frustrated with the lack of stability at the high school. Current seniors at Buford High that enrolled as freshmen have seen four principals in four years.
Banks Bitterman was Buford’s last principal with longevity, holding his post approximately nine years. He was announced as Buford’s principal in 2008, to replace outgoing Steve Miller. He told the Daily Post he was resigning in May 2017 for a job outside of education with an undisclosed company.
Shaddix, a former Gwinnett County Public Schools principal, was announced as Bitterman’s successor later that month. Documents obtained by the Daily Post show Shaddix resigned in March 2019, and Allen was officially appointed to the Buford High School. Bitterman and Shaddix oversee county athletics at Union County Schools and GCPS, respectively.
Scott Chafin, former Buford Academy assistant principal, was named Buford High School’s interim principal when Allen’s resignation was officially announced. Chafin worked for the Georgia Department of Education’s Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education division from November 2016 until June 2019.
Downs said a job posting for Buford High School’s vacant position opened Tuesday. Beard said Buford City Schools employees would be considered first.
“We do consider our employees first,” Beard said. “If we’ve got somebody on staff that’s qualified and wants the job, we’ll look at them because that in itself gives each of our teachers, each of our staff, a reason to strive to do better, and there’s always a promotion there if they work hard enough. If we go outside, well then you eliminate a lot of your staff that has given their lives to this community and this school district.”
When asked by someone attending the meeting whether the board was concerned that the most qualified candidate would not step up because of the recent instability at the school, Beard said he expects an abundance of applicants for the job.
“We appointed the gentleman interim at the high school, he’ll have the opportunity to stand with the rest of the applications we have,” Beard said. “There’ll be — true to form, if we put it on the internet — there will be 50, 60 people wanting this job, maybe more.”
Apartments, townhomes at Lawrenceville-Suwanee and McGinnis Ferry get OK from Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners
The intersection of Lawrenceville-Suwanee and McGinnis Ferry Roads is going to be busier in the future.
Ascot Investment Company Inc. received the green light from Gwinnett County commissioners on Tuesday to proceed with plans to build a large residential development that will include 346 apartments and 147 townhomes close to the intersection of Lawrenceville-Suwanee and McGinnis Ferry.
“The mixed-use development here compliments existing commercial uses in the area,” Ascot Investment attorney Jeff Mahaffey told commissioners. “As noted on the site plan, access is provided on McGinnis Ferry and Lawrenceville-Suwanee Roads, both of which are major arterial roads.”
The development will be built on a 41.3-acre property and will be located across McGinnis Ferry Road from Super H Mart near the city of Suwanee. It will also have an access point on Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road.
Ascot officials sought rezoning of 21.6 acres of the property from R-100 to R-TH to allow for the townhomes and another rezoning of the remaining 19.7 acres from R-100 to RM-24 for the apartments to accommodate the development.
“The townhome portion will have a mandatory homeowners association which maintains the exterior units as well as all landscaping in that community,” Mahaffey told commissioners. “The multi-family units (apartments) are gated access (and) there will be pedestrian access to the street.”
But the development was not approved without opposition from several nearby residents. One of the concerns was about the number of units being built close to existing residential neighborhoods that are adjacent to, or otherwise nearby, the property.
“It’s definitely going to decrease home values when you look into people’s backyards and all you see are these multifamily units,” said Rachel Pinard, who lives near the planned development site.
Another concern was about the volume of additional traffic on McGinnis Ferry Road and Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road near the intersection. Residents pointed out that the intersection can be difficult and that residents of the new development who exit onto Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road would have to turn right and then make a U-turn to turn around and head toward Interstate 85.
“There’s no way adding that many units there is not going to affect traffic flow,” Anthony Copeland, one of the nearby residents, told commissioners.
Ethics board sustains two of six points in complaint against Gwinnett commissioner Marlene Fosque; warning recommended
A Gwinnett County ethics board assembled to hear Dustin Inman Society founder D.A. King’s ethics complaint against county Commissioner Marlene Fosque decided Monday that she did commit two of the six allegations made against her and is recommending she receive a written warning from her colleagues.
The matter will now go to Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners for a final decision on the issue. Although the complaint specifies a “written warning,” ethics board Chairman David Will said the Board of Commissioners is free to decide whether it should be a written or verbal warning.
The complaint was in response to remarks Fosque made about Sheriff Butch Conway inviting King to participate in a 287(g) forum that the commissioner hosted in July. Conway was tasked with providing three pro-287(g) panelists for the event.
“While the overwhelming majority of Commissioner Fosque’s actions in conceiving, planning, salvaging and conducting the forum are highly commendable and reflect a welcomed commitment to the county and its residents, her (Aug. 6, 2019) comments fall short of the ‘earnest effort and best thought’ required by (the ethics code’s) Section 54-24(4) and amount to ‘conduct ... unbecoming to a member (of the Board of Commissioners)’ within the meaning of Section 54-24(11),” the ethics board said in its decision.
The complaint itself was over Fosque’s remarks at the Aug. 6 Board of Commissioners meeting, in which she said “I rebuke, denounce, deplore, and condemn” King’s participation in the 287(g) forum.
But the issue was more complex than that because of the shadow of the larger national debate over immigration, as well as differing opinions on the credibility of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has labeled the Dustin Inman Society an anti-immigrant hate group and was cited by Fosque in her remarks on Aug. 6.
King had asserted Fosque’s remarks defamed him and thus violated state law, but the ethics board rejected claims that the commissioner acted with actual malice.
“The defamation law in the statute pertains to civil actions, as in ‘I want to sue you,’ and not as a law that’s applied, and so we said that doesn’t apply — but if it were to apply, we would have found he was not defamed,” Will said.
But Will also said there was a better way for Fosque to head off controversy during the forum itself, rather than the way events unfolded.
“Simply put, it could have sufficed if she had said (at the beginning of the forum), ‘Look ... the views expressed by people in this forum are those (individuals beliefs) and not necessarily mine ... or the commission’s, rather than doing it the way she did,” Will said.
“It’s a way of just being a learning experience. We certainly want to encourage commissioners or other people to speak forward and come as panelists to participate in forums and discuss issues, even if they’re controversial. And, he was the designated spokesman for the sheriff, and he was an invited guest so we certainly want to recognize that.”
The board’s decision left both sides in the case feeling disappointment, with King saying the board did not go far enough in punishing Fosque and the commissioner’s attorney, Steve Reilly, offering his own disagreements with the result.
“People are emailing and calling me with ‘congratulations.’ I have no idea why,” King said. “It is clear that I lost my case and that there is little to cause another attack on pro-enforcement Americans from the Gwinnett County Commission at official meetings. This was a small slap on the hand for Fosque.
“The divide has been widened and set aflame in Gwinnett. And Fosque fed the fire. The attack was that we are “anti-immigrant…” That came as an angry shock to the proud immigrants who support the Dustin Inman Society and serve on our board. For all concerned in Gwinnett: If you have a difficult time discerning the difference between immigrants and illegal aliens, try hard to remember that immigrants do not require another amnesty.”
Reilly said he and Fosque had to decide how to proceed from here, but reasserted his belief that his client did nothing wrong.
“I think the evidence and the law will dictate that there was no grounds whatsoever for the complaint brought by Mr. King,” Reilly said. “That being said, we’ll take a look at the decision and then we’ll make a decision about what, if anything, to do thereafter.”
In a statement, Fosque thanked Reilly for representing her, her supporters for backing her and the ethics board for handling the complaint. She also pledged to continue working for her constituents.
“I will continue to move forward compassionately in striving to represent with grace, dignity and wisdom all of our District 4 constituents and all other Gwinnett County residents as we fully embrace our county’s tagline, ‘Vibrantly Connected,’ Fosque said in the statement.
Visit gwinnettdailypost.com for updates.
Nicole Love Hendrickson jumps into Gwinnett commission chairman's race
The race for the open county commission chairman’s seat gained a new competitor Thursday.
Longtime Gwinnett County outreach director Nicole Love Hendrickson announced she will step down from that position on Feb. 28 to run for chairman. She said she will run as a Democrat.
“I am uniquely qualified for this position because I have the proven experience in local government and understand the tough decisions that have to be made in order to balance the needs of the community with being a steward of our tax dollars,” Hendrickson said in a statement. “But most importantly, I have the heart to serve.”
Hendrickson has been the county’s outreach director — a role in which she oversaw the Gwinnett 101, youth commission and cultural outreach programs — since 2015. While her announcement might seem unexpected, she said she had been considering it since current Chairwoman Charlotte Nash announced last year that she planned to retire rather than seek re-election this year.
Hendrickson was an associate director for the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services for seven years prior to moving over to the county to work on outreach.
“It gives me so much pride to look back on all I’ve accomplished in this short tenure,” Hendrickson said. “Community outreach started out as a concept, but has now evolved into an award-winning program that has motivated countless residents to volunteer in their communities, seek other opportunities to be more knowledgeable about their county government and even run for office.
“The outreach program now serves a model in the state, the region and the nation. It’s the standard for how governments should interact with their constituents and that will always be my legacy.”
A campaign website, www.love4gwinnett.com, has been announced.
Several Democrats announced plans to run for the chairman’s seat last year.
Last defendant in 2011 meth fire that killed three children pleads guilty
The last defendant in a 2011 case involving a methamphetamine fire that killed three children recently pled guilty to the charges against him, according to the Gwinnett District Attorney's Office.
Mariano Sandoval faced charges of felony murder; trafficking in methamphetamine; manufacturing methamphetamine; and presence of children during manufacture of methamphetamine. He entered guilty pleas on all of the charges, prosecutors said.
"Sandoval was sentenced to a 50-year sentence with 30 years to be served in custody and the remainder on probation," the District Attorney's Office said. "He received fines in the amount totaling $1,300,000 as required by law for Trafficking in Methamphetamine based on the large quantities."
On Feb, 17, 2011, Gwinnett firefighters were called to respond to a fire at a home at 1197 Spring Mill Drive in Lilburn, where three children were trapped upstairs by flames. Prosecutors said the kids died from injuries they sustained during the fire.
A large quantity of methamphetamine was also found in the house after the fire.
In addition to Sandoval, Neibi Brito, who was the mother of the children, and Joseph Perez, who also lived at the house, were charged in connection with the fire and the drugs. Brito and Perez were initially charged and Sandoval was charged later on.
"He and Brito were engaged in a relationship and Sandoval, Brito, and Perez all had knowledge and participated in the crimes that resulted in the death of Brito’s three small children ages 1, 3 and 3," prosecutors said.
Brito and Perez were sentenced in March 2015 after they entered guilty pleas. Sandoval had to be extradited from California, where he lived, after he was indicted last March.
Incarcerated veterans help sort books for early learning initiative
U.S. Air Force veteran Martez English remembers being an avid reader when he was a kid, thanks to the “Book It” program that rewarded him with a free pan pizza for reading a particular amount of books.
With a library card that granted him a bounty of options for reading, he estimates he netted a profit of about 50 pan pizzas from his reading efforts.
English, an inmate at Gwinnett County Jail and member of its veterans-only unit, said he still loves reading. He said he’s sped through the “Maze Runner” series.
English said it was “a little surprising” to hear from Ellen Gerstein, Gwinnett Coalition’s executive director, that 52% of students starting kindergarten in Gwinnett County are unprepared when it comes to reading.
“I think by us giving back, this is going to help out to the community, to the kids,” English said.
That passion for reading led him to volunteer to sort book donations for Gwinnett Coalition’s G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds book exchange project. Members of “The Barracks” unit sorted roughly 5,000 books into individual stacks of 50 to be placed in book exchanges when they are eventually installed throughout Gwinnett County.
Last month, off-duty deputies loaded and transported more than 2,000 pounds of donated books for G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds to Gwinnett County Jail. Katie Gill, G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds Program Director said Wednesday’s volunteer opportunity for The Barracks is an example of a potentially ongoing partnership between the Gwinnett Coalition and the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office.
“The partnership came around because this would be a good community service project for (inmates) to volunteer for,” Gill said.
Through community volunteers and partnerships with Gwinnett County Public Schools, Gwinnett Coalition has built 148 exchanges and decorated about 100. Gill said G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds is seeking stewards — local businesses and organizations — to take care of the book exchanges. They will be placed in public spaces throughout Gwinnett County where children without books can take them to read. Eventually, the exchanges will have a take-one, leave-one policy. She’s also looking to accumulate more book donations.
The Barracks at Gwinnett County Jail launched in November 2019 as a 70-bed unit to support specifically incarcerated veterans. The goal is to help inmates make a successful transition back into the community. English said his experience in The Barracks unit has provided a sense of community and brotherhood within the walls of Gwinnett County Jail.
“We’re taking good men, placing them in a better place so they can be the best they can be when they get out,” English said.
The Barracks program was developed to provide therapeutic services for incarcerated veterans to address emotional and physical trauma associated with military service that can lead to serious pitfalls such as substance abuse, alcoholism and mental health issues.
“Military service should always be remembered,” Deputy Chief Lou Solis said. “We’re committed to helping these veterans get their lives in order by creating a program to provide them with resources to increase the likelihood they won’t return to jail once they’re released. This program benefits much more than the inmates who participate. Our whole community benefits when these veterans get the help they need to get their lives back on track.”
As G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds advances and adds new partners each week, Gill is excited by the enthusiasm of outside organizations, like the Sheriff’s Department, to help keep the project moving forward.
“It’s been amazing in the fact that from the top down, everybody is on board,” Gill said.
Police searching for suspect accused of punching 76-year-old man at Dacula grocery store
The Gwinnett County Police Department is looking for a suspect who punched a 76-year-old man at a Kroger in Dacula on Jan. 23.
When police arrived at the scene of the incident on Braselton Highway, the victim had a cut above his nose and blood on his shirt.
The victim said he had been punched in the face after he told a woman outside the Kroger she shouldn’t park in the fire lane.
Video surveillance showed that at 4:33 p.m. the victim exchanged words with a woman before the suspect followed him around the aisle and struck him in the face. The victim then fell to the ground as witnesses turned to see the commotion.
A witness described the suspect as a 6-foot tall black male who was about 215 pounds and had dreadlocks.
The suspect is believed to be the boyfriend of one of the two women inside the car parked in the fire lane at the Kroger, according to the police report. However, neither provided the identity of the suspect when asked by police even though the suspect was seen leaving with them in their vehicle.
A spokesperson with the Gwinnett County Police Department said no other information or video will be released at this time, as detectives are actively investigating the case.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Gwinnett County Police Department at 770-513-5300. Tipsters can remain anonymous by calling Crime Stoppers at 404-577-8477 or by visiting www.stopecrimeATL.com.
Long-awaited hotel at Gwinnett's Infinite Energy Center breaks ground
After nearly a decade of anticipation, construction of the Westin Atlanta Gwinnett Hotel is underway.
On Monday, a group of Gwinnett leaders, investors, project managers and other officials gathered at the site of the future hotel for a groundbreaking ceremony.
The hotel will be located at the Infinite Energy Center, between the Infinite Energy Arena and Infinite Energy Forum, and is expected to open in early 2022. Raleigh, N.C.-based Concord Hospitality is developing the hotel.
Kevin McAteer, senior vice president of marketing and sales of Concord Hospitality, said on Monday the four-star hotel will have 348 rooms, a three-meal restaurant, fitness studio, work space for business travelers, nearly 35,000-square-feet of event space and a 12,000-square-foot rooftop terrace with three bars.
“Incredibly excited,” McAteer said on how the community should feel about the project. “There’ll be job growth of course. There’ll be economic impact both through revenues coming through the hotel tax or the ability to really secure new entertainers and events or conventions that we might have not been the perfect fit for in the past because of not having a full-service venue walkable to the convention center. And that is all great for the county and the community.”
There had been talk as far back as 2012 of developing a full-service headquarters hotel at the center, but McAteer said that around 2014 the county, Explore Gwinnett and the Infinite Energy Center began to notice a strong need for a four-star upper scale hotel.
Too often, McAteer said, Infinite Energy Center was coming in second place for certain conventions.
In 2015, Gwinnett commissioners approved a lease for the site, then slated for a Marriott hotel. Westin is a Marriott hotel brand.
Jace Brooks, District 1 Commissioner, said the county is making the investments to compete for larger shows to help fill the hotel. The special purpose local option sales tax-funded expansion of the Infinite Energy Forum’s convention space is also expected to begin soon.
“The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners has strongly committed to the success of (the) Infinite Energy Center, approving the center’s master plan and financing construction through bonds that will be repaid through the 2017 funds approved by the voters for all of this expansion here,” Brooks said.
“As we continue on the journey of creating Gwinnett County’s downtown, we’re making other investments in the area that include improvements to the intersection of Sugarloaf Parkway and Satellite Boulevard and those are underway right now,” he said. “We’re also working with our partners at the Sugarloaf CID to plan pedestrian and bike friendly trails among many other things that will provide alternative options for getting here.”
A series of voter-approved special purpose local option sales tax programs over the last three decades has raised more than $3.5 billion for pay-as-you-go infrastructure projects, facilities and equipment, including the expansion of the convention center space at the Infinite Energy Center.
Two new parking decks have been built at the Infinite Energy Center as part of that work, and both are located across a driveway from where the Westin will be. One opened in the fall and Brooks said the other will open soon.
Brooks also said interest from the development community remains very high for an adjacent mixed-use retail and entertainment district. In December, North American Properties pulled out of the Revel development amid a change-up in the developer’s leadership and corporate focus.
Explore Gwinnett has put the plans for a mixed-use development on hold so it could get through the beginning of construction on the hotel and forum expansion.
The tourism organization is expected to look for a new developer to work with on the mixed-use component this spring.
“I’m confident we’ll find the right partner to turn the site into (an) exciting mixed-use development,” Brooks said.
Explore Gwinnett Executive Director Lisa Anders said the Westin Atlanta Gwinnett Hotel will help the entire hospitality community.
Having more and larger conferences and conventions come to the Infinite Energy Center, Anders said, will create overflow and compression for the county’s other hotels.
“We have a list of conventions and meetings for 2022 and beyond we anticipate bidding on,” she said. “And the second part of the equation — the expansion of the Forum Exhibit Hall space — is just as important. Currently, we have the space to bid on about 20-25% of the meetings in the market. With the expansion and improvements at the Infinite Energy Center, along with the addition of the HQ hotel, we’ll be able to qualify to host more than 65% of the meetings market.”
Anders said Explore Gwinnett also has a number of other hotels currently under development in Lawrenceville, Norcross, Stone Mountain, Buford and other areas of the county.
“This countywide development will help elevate Gwinnett to the next level of destination,“ she said.
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- PHOTOS: Gwinnett Animal Shelter Adoptable Pets of the Week — Feb. 15
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After you bake a pan of brownies and cut them, which piece is the best piece to get? This is not a scientific poll — results reflect only the opinions of those voting.