When Snellville Mayor Barbara Bender was elected to the City Council as a councilwoman in 2005, one of the projects city leaders were already trying to get going was the creation of a downtown district for the southern Gwinnett city.
A city study in 2003 had played a large part in realizing a dream of Snellville having its own downtown district, although Bender said the roots go back to the late 1990s, when city leaders decided to build a new City Hall on Oak Road.
The closest Snellville had to a Main Street and downtown area back then was U.S. Highway 78 and its intersection at State Route 124. Years ago, the old Snell and Sawyers store existed at that intersection, although it got torn down to make room for growth on Highway 78.
But, the idea of creating a downtown district for Snellville remained something that only existed on paper and in the imaginations of city leaders for much of the last 20 years.
“There were many times that I didn’t think we’d get it done,” Bender said. “There were a lot of obstacles, some seemed insurmountable, and we just kept working through. Every time we got blocked, we just tried to find a way around, and here we are ... I would say everything we’ve had to work through has made it a better project in the end.”
After years of planning and discussions, Snellville and county leaders broke ground on the long-awaited The Grove and Towne Center downtown project on Thursday. It includes 262 luxury multifamily residential units developed by CASTO and MidCity Real Estate Partners, 50,000-square-feet of retail, restaurant, office and entertainment spaces.
There will be a green space as well as the new Elizabeth H. Williams library branch that will include a business development and accelerator space on its second floor.
The development will be located on 18 acres bordered by Oak Road, Wisteria Drive, North Road and Clower Street.
Bender, who called the groundbreaking a “monumental” day for the city during the ceremony, said afterward that it felt surreal to see demolition of old buildings at the site and to reach a groundbreaking for the project after years of developing it.
“It gives us that sense of place that we really haven’t had,” Bender said. “We’ve been working towards it, you know, when the City Hall was built and the senior center and then we got the police department (headquarters) here. This just gives us that space, the sense of place where people can gather and feel like they know they’re in downtown Snellville.”
The new library branch will include a large public meeting room as well as quiet study rooms, enhanced children’s and teen spaces and a content creation learning lab among other amenities, according to Gwinnett County Public Library system Executive Director Charles Pace.
Pace said the fact that the new branch will be a part of The Grove “represents the best of public partnerships and delivering services to our citizens.” It will also be more than twice the size of the existing Snellville library branch, he said.
“Libraries have been called the ‘People’s University’ and these words ring just as true today as they did when they were first spoken almost 100 years ago,” Pace said. “Whether it is providing homework help assistance through our online Tutor.com sources, or a chance for a new life with our career high school learning program, GCPL is about far more than just books, magazines and video.”
In addition to building a new Snellville-area library in the development, Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson said county officials are also helping the city with the project by providing water and sewer infrastructure for the site.
Beyond that, Hendrickson said The Grove project could be a major step to boost effort to redevelop and revitalize southern Gwinnett.
“We’re excited about all of the different economic development projects happening across the county, including what’s happening in the cities,” Hendrickson said. “The city of Snellville, with this project, is really going to catalyze a lot of economic opportunities in this area.
“The county has been a big partner with the city with the public library and creating a sense of place for Snellville residents and the residents of surrounding area, so we’re just really excited about projects like this that can bring all of different government agencies together to make it a reality.”
Hendrickson acknowledged that residents of south Gwinnett sometimes feel other areas get higher priority for economic development projects, and she hoped The Grove will help to change that.
The beginning of construction on The Grove comes as the county moves forward on its plans to redevelop for the former Olympic tennis center site down Highway 78 at the Gwinnett-DeKalb line. The county is partnering with Fuqua Development for a mixed-use development at that site.
“We see a lot of developments happening in Duluth, you see developments happening in Norcross and up in Dacula with the Rowen project, so I think (The Grove) brings a fresh new project and opportunity to this area,” she said. “So, I think that’s exciting for Snellville and the residents that are in this area that sometimes feel like they’re being left out of economic development projects.”