Rowen to transform eastern Gwinnett into job, research hub over this century

Gwinnett County officials plan to transform 2,000 acres of rural land near Ga. 316 into a hub for jobs and research focused on agriculture, medicine and the environment. (Courtesy of Rowen Foundation)

Gwinnett County officials plan to transform 2,000 acres of rural land near Ga. 316 into a hub for jobs and research focused on agriculture, medicine and the environment. (Courtesy of Rowen Foundation)

Local leaders plan to transform 2,000 acres of rural land in eastern Gwinnett County into the region’s next hub for jobs and research, though it could take at least 60 years to fulfill their vision.

Rowen, almost three times the size of the University of Georgia’s campus, will be the state’s largest employment center focused on agriculture, medicine and the environment. Billed as a “knowledge community,” it’s expected to create 80,000-100,000 jobs before the century ends.

County officials approved tentative plans for the project more than a year ago, but the construction will take place over decades. They expect Rowen to add $8-$10 billion of ongoing labor income at full build-out.

Rowen will move through several generations of county commissioners before reaching its full build-out. “I am carrying the mantle and seeing it throughout my term, and whoever the next person is that will take the mantle will carry it on throughout their term,” said current County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson.

The idea for a project like Rowen in the northeastern portion of the county started years ago, sprouting during former County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash’s final term. It took about four years to acquire the land needed for Rowen to move forward, she said.

Nash feels an attachment to the area, as her family settled on land about 200 years ago only about five miles downstream on the Apalachee River from Rowen. She said she’s comfortable with the development because it will be sensitive to the historical value of the land and create much-needed jobs.

“I would sum up the meaning of Rowen as opportunity,” said Nash, who grew up on a chicken farm near the project site. “... This was a big decision. It was not made lightly.”

The Rowen Foundation, a nonprofit formed to manage the project, is now focused on incorporating feedback from its Gwinnett Community Advisory Task Force into the project, said Mason Ailstock, president of the nonprofit and former COO of the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

Rowen Foundation President Mason Ailstock (center) answers questions and responds to feedback during the foundation's "Imagine Rowen" event on June 9 in Dacula. (Courtesy of Rowen Foundation)

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The task force — comprised of a diverse group of county officials, business owners and other stakeholders — released a report Tuesday with 20 short-term, intermediate and long-term goals for Rowen.

Members of the task force reinforced the need to partner with nearby colleges, universities and local schools, engage the community at events throughout the county and preserve the “natural beauty” of Rowen’s land.

The foundation is also wrapping up several studies. Researchers from The University of Georgia are evaluating the physical and cultural assets of the property, while another study is underway to determine traffic mitigation and infrastructure needs.

“It really is a multi-generational investment,” Ailstock said. “This is a place about connecting, engaging, educating and empowering the young people in Gwinnett and Georgia that will be the leaders of these companies, institutions and foundations.”

Rowen will straddle Ga. 316 near the Barrow County line. Office buildings will be fitted among the naturally wooded areas that now enshroud the property. The development will also include a town center with public park space, cafes and limited multifamily housing. New trails will meander throughout the property and connect to existing ones.

Drowning Creek at Rowen. (Courtesy of Rowen Foundation)

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The foundation is currently exploring land-use and density options for the site, Ailstock said. It will work with industry partners and prospective companies to develop conceptual images of how Rowen will look, he said, expecting renderings to come sometime next year.

By the second quarter of next year, Ailstock said he expects the foundation to break ground on the land by putting in initial infrastructure, followed by building the first roads.

County commissioners agreed in April this year to spend $125 million to expand sewer service to the eastern half of the county in anticipation of Rowen. The county has invested $73.7 million in total toward Rowen since its inception, according to a county spokesperson.

The funds included $69.3 million in the form of Development Authority bonds that will be repaid as land sells and $4.4 million in interest-accruing loans to the Rowen Foundation to finance operating and capital expenses.

“This is about an investment in the county’s future,” Hendrickson said. “... There’s going to be a return on that investment for the residents because it’s going to have the potential to create high-wage jobs and drive economic activity, something we need in Gwinnett County.”

Gwinnett officials will continue funding the project until Rowen is self-sustainable. They expect to provide another loan in the amount of $2.9 million and pay $4.1 million for debt service in 2022, according to the county spokesperson.

A tentative map of how the Rowen property will be developed. (Courtesy of Rowen Foundation)

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When asked if the county will offer tax breaks or other incentives to attract companies to the project, Hendrickson said, “We are looking at all opportunities to recruit and attract businesses to that area once it fully develops.”

Gwinnett County’s status as the second most populous and most diverse county in the state “offers just tremendous opportunity for the region but also for the state as a whole,” said Scott McMurray, deputy commissioner of global commerce for Georgia’s Department of Economic Development.

“In Georgia, we’ve got a lot of strengths in those areas, but we don’t really have that kind of a single, large industrial park or campus of anywhere near 2,000 acres that we could begin to attract a cluster of those companies to come to,” McMurray said.

Rowen is situated equidistant from Atlanta, Athens and Gainesville and within driving distance of 50 higher education institutions. It’s wedged between Auburn and Dacula, two cities on the edge of Gwinnett County with a combined population of less than 15,000 residents.

The project will change the rural character of eastern Gwinnett, Nash said, but its agricultural focus and amenities made her feel it will benefit rather than harm this side of the county.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” said Auburn Mayor Linda Blechinger. “... To think that it’s not going to grow (and) it’s going to stay the same — that’s just not realistic.”

The mayors of Auburn and Dacula welcome Rowen for its potential to bring new jobs and trails to their exurban areas. It will give residents access to high-paying jobs without the long drive into Atlanta each day, said Dacula Mayor Trey King.

“It’s going to give children an opportunity for a type of education that would be available in very few parts of the world,” said King. “If you have a research and technology center at your back door, that’s going to afford you some opportunities that you can’t get anywhere else.”

A 2,000-acre campus of research and technology offices, Rowen is planned for eastern Gwinnett County along Ga. 316 between Dacula and Auburn.

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2035 projections for Rowen

  • 18,500 jobs
  • $1.15 billion in construction costs
  • $1.66 billion in ongoing labor income