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How The Heart Of Georgia’s Most Diverse County Is Reopening For Business

Gwinnett Place Monument Sign

Each morning at the Chick-fil-A Dwarf House on Pleasant Hill Road, a line of vehicles still forms around the restaurant as people wait for breakfast sandwiches and coffee orders via touchless pickup. Up the road, the doors are open at City Farmers Market, which has implemented thermal temperature cameras to protect staff and customers. A sign outside the LA Fitness across the street promotes new sanitation policies as the gym's users step inside for a workout for the first time since March. 

Gwinnett Place, the commercial heart of Georgia’s second-largest county, is reopening for business.

As one of the first big urban regions to begin the reopening process, the Atlanta metro area is drawing watchful eyes from policymakers, business leaders and health experts who are hoping to see what practices are best able to kick-start local economies while still keeping residents safe. With 1,900 retailers and businesses located in just a few square miles, along with one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the country, Gwinnett Place represents one of the most important test cases for Georgia's reopening.

"All the businesses that you enjoyed previous to March, they're still here, ready to serve, and they're going to do so in a safe manner, keeping within all the guidelines that have been established by medical professionals and government officials," said Joe Allen, executive director of the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District. "It's going to be an incremental and deliberate process for people to feel comfortable, and we're opening up very methodically." 

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp allowed the reopening of retailers like barbers, nail salons and bowling alleys — with significant restrictions — at the beginning of May. Restaurant dining rooms are now open, also with significant restrictions. Bars and nightclubs will remain closed at least through the end of May.

Local businesses have been taking social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting precautions very seriously, Allen said. Across Gwinnett Place, there are hopeful signs, as the pandemic's restrictions have inspired an impressive level of creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation among business owners. Gwinnett Place's restaurants are seeing new business opportunities thanks to successful pivots to curbside pickup and delivery models. Retailers are offering promotions to attract consumers.

But still, the losses have been significant. Research from the Bleakly Advisory Group suggests that retail revenues in the Atlanta metro area will drop by 30% in 2020, and that the retail vacancy rate could hit 40%.

While loans from the Paycheck Protection Program have blunted the damage, unemployment remains a real problem, Allen said, and many businesses in Gwinnett Place are operating with skeleton crews. Sweet Tomatoes, a national buffet chain with a location in Gwinnett Place, has chosen not to reopen any of its locations after the crisis.

How The Heart Of Georgia’s Most Diverse County Is Reopening For Business
Luis Figueroa stands behind a plastic screen at the front desk as a guest signs in. The screen and the table are part of the hotel's social distancing protocols.

Nightly stays are picking up at the 20 hotels around Gwinnett Place. Luis Figueroa, the general manager of the Holiday Inn Express & Suites on Breckinridge Boulevard, said that his hotel is now seeing around 25 or 35 rooms rented per night, up from 10 or 15 a few weeks ago. Still, those numbers represent only about a quarter of the hotel's occupancy.

Figueroa said his emphasis now is on the safety and security of his guests, and the hotel is focusing on cleaning and sanitizing rooms and common spaces. Hand sanitizer is stationed around the lobby, and the front desk now features a plastic shield to protect guests and employees alike. Signage on the floor indicates proper social distancing restrictions.

When employees will return to the office remains an unanswered question. Nearly a quarter of the office space in Gwinnett County is located within the Gwinnett Place CID, and only about 10% of the office staff population seems to have returned to the office buildings, Allen said. Without the many office employees coming to work some of the local eateries may suffer at lunchtime.

The largely vacant Gwinnett Place Mall, at the center of the CID, struggled long before the coronavirus outbreak. It has been up for sale since October. While some of its larger retailers, including MegaMart, Macy's and Beauty Master, are open for business, the current crisis has only accelerated the challenges for the few remaining stores in the mall. 

"We have to see the current crisis as an opportunity to rethink the highest and best uses of this space, so we can make Gwinnett Place better and stronger than it was before," Allen said. "We have to come together as a community with our county leadership to transition and transform some of these big-box retail locations with a proactive redevelopment game plan for Gwinnett Place." 

Allen added that this sort of rethinking is not specific or unique to Gwinnett Place. Other retail hubs throughout the nation, region and county are undergoing similar existential challenges at the moment.

Macy's Gwinnett Place
Macy's at the Gwinnett Place Mall

Allen believes consumer confidence will continue to seep back into Gwinnett Place, and the CID has capitalized on this time to continue enhancing landscaping, constructing sidewalks and investing in traffic improvements to prepare for the return of office tenants and shoppers. The new roundabout at the intersection of Day Drive and Venture Drive is now operational and will be completed in the fall.

One major success has been the installation of 50 traffic cameras from Flock Safety. The cameras, which read license plate numbers, have been able to identify stolen vehicles and stolen plates and have led to 28 arrests for outstanding warrants since Jan. 25. To encourage new business, Allen said, local consumers will not only have to feel safe from the coronavirus, but also safe while shopping, dining and relaxing in the area. He hopes the cameras will inspire even more confidence in Gwinnett Place as a strong, safe community.

“This is one of the most diverse, dynamic and vibrant commercial centers in the nation — it was so previous to the pandemic and will continue to be after,” Allen said. “Gwinnett Place is still the economic driver for our area, and we hope we can grow through these difficult times so that it sees its best days in the future.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and the Gwinnett Place CID. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.