Gwinnett's Diversity Lets Expanding Companies Use It As 'Living Laboratory'
Gwinnett County's population of more than 950,000 residents is among the most diverse in the nation, which is helping to power the county's economic development prowess coming out of the coronavirus pandemic and last year's social unrest, local officials said at a Bisnow event Tuesday.
More than 100 languages are spoken in Gwinnett's public schools, which underscores the diversity that helped to land CarMax's customer service center in Peachtree Corners in 2019, said Andrew Carnes, the vice president of economic development for Partnership Gwinnett, a public-private organization.
Since the automotive retailer needed to have 35% of its workers at the location able to speak languages other than English, Gwinnett County became its choice for the facility.
“The good part about it is we are already diverse, and companies see that,” Carnes said. “Companies are using us as a living laboratory.”
Gwinnett ranks as the eighth-most-diverse county in the nation, behind Alameda County, California, and ahead of Kings County, New York (aka Brooklyn), according to a 2020 U.S. census diversity index report. Gwinnett also posted the second-highest percentage of diversification between 2010 and 2020, according to the report.
“I think we're the most diverse county in the Southeast,” Gwinnett County Director of Economic Development Roman Dakare said.
“It has given us the competitive edge over every other community,” Carnes told Bisnow after Tuesday's event. “And we have a lot of communities looking at Gwinnett, and how we handle our policies and procedures” in response to this diversity.
Despite a slowdown in economic development prospects during the pandemic, the pipeline of activity has now surpassed what the county was fielding prior to Covid-19, with 138 active projects, Carnes said.
Recent economic development deals in Gwinnett include Korean construction company Sungdo Eng USA's announced plans to establish its U.S. headquarters in Suwannee, sleepwear maker Softies' plans to move its headquarters from Minnesota to Norcross, CleanSpark's plan to establish a $145M Bitcoin mining facility in Norcross and the August announcement that medical instrument maker Intuitive intends to invest $500M to expand its Peachtree Corners offices into a 750K SF manufacturing and engineering campus, adding 1,200 new jobs.
Carnes told Bisnow that the other pending prospects are a mix of office-using and warehouse-using tenants, with many looking to establish their first U.S. or East Coast hubs.
“We have more quality projects coming in than what we had pre-pandemic,” he said.
While Midtown Atlanta has been the region's economic development juggernaut over the past decade thanks to young talent being produced by Georgia Tech and other universities in the city, companies have been eyeing Gwinnett to tap into the talent of older, more established households, panelists said. It helps that office space in Gwinnett is as much as $15 per SF cheaper than Midtown space, Ackerman & Co. Retail President Leo Wiener said.
“Gwinnett is still a value play, good or bad, when you compare it to Midtown,” Wiener said. “That matters to a lot of companies.”
The population growth also has led to a surge in housing starts in Gwinnett in recent years, especially with apartments. The county issued just seven multifamily project permits in 2017, according to Dakare. So far this year, the county has issued 48 permits.
“We're far exceeding the 2020 numbers,” Dakare said.
And while Gwinnett residents are among the top earners of all counties in the state — $1,204/week, according to the census — more residents are turning toward rentals than for-sale because of soaring housing prices, Brand Properties CEO Brand Morgan said.
“If you look at the residential world in Gwinnett County, the rental rate has increased 6% year-over-year,” Morgan said. "You don't have that unless you have an overwhelming demand for housing."
But the costs of construction have prevented developers from building starter homes, which would alleviate that pressure, he said.
“There are no longer starter homes. Gwinnett County was built on starter homes,” Morgan said.