Candidates For Gwinnett County Chair Offer Different Paths On Density, Transit, Pandemic
The field in the race for the Gwinnett County Commission chairmanship seat this November has been narrowed to two candidates who offer starkly different paths for the future of one of Georgia's most populous counties.
Earlier this month, Nicole Love Hendrickson secured the Democratic nomination for the Gwinnett commission chairmanship after her opponent, Lee Thompson, ceded the race despite a pending runoff. David Post secured the Republican nomination in the primary last month.
Now the two will face off for the seat that Charlotte Nash has held since a 2011 special election, chairing a body that has been controlled by Republicans since former Chairman Lillian Webb's election in 1985.
In interviews with Bisnow, Post and Hendrickson offered insights into their views on various growth and development issues in Gwinnett, which is on track to become the state's most populous county, with 1.5 million residents projected by 2040.
Post said he was opposed to approving additional residential density, while Hendrickson said she sees it as a way to help improve the county's housing affordability.
“If you talk to the people in Gwinnett County, I think you're going to find out they feel there are enough apartments,” Post said. "There is a point where it not only affects traffic but it also affects the quality of life and the quality of the county."
Hendrickson, who until recently was Gwinnett's community outreach director, sees a place for density in the form of mixed-use projects for more affordable housing stock.
“I'm 100% for mixed-use development and also that it's affordable, but not at the expense of eliminating green space,” she said. “We're going to have to start building up, and we're going to have to start building more, denser living spaces.”
The two candidates also differed on how the county should respond to the coronavirus pandemic, especially given that Gwinnett has been one of the hardest-hit counties in the state, with nearly 12,000 total cases and at least 185 deaths, according to the state Department of Public Health. Post said businesses need to be left to decide how best to handle social distancing and other anti-pandemic efforts.
“I think some of the media has overblown the virus. Everybody has different numbers,” Post said. “People have said, 'Oh, the restaurants need to be closed but the liquor stores need to be open.' I don't know. We need to develop a priority list, if that is our responsibility. Or is it the responsibility of the business owners? Business owners need to make decisions on whether they can or are willing to work under certain restrictions.”
But with new coronavirus cases on the rise, Hendrickson said the commission needs to consider requiring more residents and businesses to prevent the spread, including encouraging residents to wear face masks and imposing penalties on businesses that don't enforce social distancing measures.
“It's unacceptable that Gwinnett County is leading the state in coronavirus cases, and I do not believe it's because more people are getting tested. The spikes are due to behavior,” Hendrickson said. “While I realize that this is all about self-responsibility, I also think there are things the government can do to get the message out with the intention to make sure our residents are safe and healthy. There will be no economy if we can't get [the pandemic] under control, basically. You can never be too cautious with something that is killing people.”
The two greatly differed on MARTA's proposed expansion into the county. Hendrickson supported the plan that would raise local sales taxes to extend heavy rail from MARTA's existing system to a new station created at the OFS facility off Jimmy Carter Boulevard. Hendrickson said the lack of mass transit has been a hindrance to Gwinnett's economic development.
“What company would want to come into the county and their workforce can't even get in because of traffic?” she said. “Mobility is very key to attracting businesses here, and MARTA is the way to do that.”
Gwinnett voters previously rejected MARTA's expansion into the county, including in 2019, when a failed referendum would have added 1.5 cents to the sales tax to fund it. County officials nonetheless are pushing for another ballot initiative in the November election.
The commission last month approved a transit plan that would include heavy rail and a rapid bus system operated by MARTA. The commission has until the end of July to approve the ballot measure for voters in November.
But unlike Hendrickson, Post — a career corporate security and productivity consultant — is wholly against MARTA heavy rail expansion into the county. Officials estimate a cost of $200M to $300M per mile to expand heavy rail into the county.
“It's too expensive. We're not in a financial position to have our kids or grandkids to pay for it,” Post said, adding that MARTA doesn't generate any profit.
“There is not a transit system anywhere that I know of that is profitable. It doesn't make sense to me. And I don't think it makes sense to the citizens, either,” he said.
But Post and Hendrickson did not disagree on all issues central to Gwinnett's commercial real estate industry. They both said the use of eminent domain to force the owner of the Gwinnett Place Mall to sell should be a last resort.
“Once all other avenues are exhausted, and I don't know that they have been ... then [eminent domain] would be the likely option,” Post said. "I am not sure what options the board has looked at, but, in my communications with the [Gwinnett Community Improvement District] there has been very little, if anything, done. There are options for the mall, and I would be garnering cooperation in order to get something started."
Eminent domain has a long tradition in the United States, where public entities are able to compel private landowners to sell for a project that is deemed in the public good. Often those are major infrastructure projects, such as new or widened roads or new government facilities and sports stadiums. But some municipalities nationwide have sought to use eminent domain to force the redevelopment of ailing malls and retail centers in their jurisdictions.
Las Vegas-based Moonbeam Capital purchased the main, 562K SF enclosed retail portion of the 1.3M SF mall from foreclosure in 2013, and despite numerous promises for a grand redevelopment, its tenure as owner has been met with frustration from local business groups like the Gwinnett Place CID and Partnership Gwinnett.
The most recent example of public lament over the mall's stewardship came from Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District Chairman Leo Wiener during a June 30 Bisnow webinar, when he highlighted how Gwinnett Place Mall dropped from a peak taxable value of more than $100M to now roughly $10M.
“The current owner clearly has demonstrated they don't have any interest in redeveloping the mall, never had an interest, not going to have an interest,” said Wiener, who also is the retail president of Ackerman & Co. “I don't see why eminent domain isn't on the board. We need to have that blowing-up dynamite party, in which the whole thing implodes and something better comes about.”
Hendrickson expressed skepticism that eminent domain would be a prudent choice of action, worried that its use would deter other companies from doing business in the county in the future.
“That one is a tricky one,” Hendrickson said. “Because they still are property owners and do we want to set a precedent to do that?"
"I think we need to work with Moonbeam, and I think we need to find a way to collaborate on what we will do with that space," she added. "I don't want to commit to using eminent domain to get them out of there.”
In response to a follow-up email from Bisnow, Hendrickson said she is open to a number of other efforts to persuade Moonbeam to either redevelop or sell the mall of its own volition, including prohibiting Moonbeam from further using the mall as a film and television site (the third season of Netflix's Stranger Things was largely filmed in the mall), extending redevelopment overlay district zoning ordinances to cover the mall property, strengthening code enforcement policies and holding Moonbeam to a higher standard of operation.
“If they [Moonbeam] don't comply, then we would essentially have some basis for compliance or having them moved out or shut down,” she said.