Gwinnett approves ‘transformative’ research development near Dacula

Charlotte Nash / AJC FILE PHOTO
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Charlotte Nash / AJC FILE PHOTO

Gwinnett County leaders are making a $70 million bet on a massive project they say could transform scientific research into three of the state’s biggest economic drivers — agriculture, medicine and the environment.

It also has the potential of being transformative for the region, and perhaps Georgia as a whole, county officials say.

The Gwinnett Development Authority and the county commission on Tuesday approved up to $72 million in loans to a non-profit organization formed by the county that plans to build a sprawling research center on 2,000 acres near Dacula at the Barrow County line.

“Mark down this date,” Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said, after the vote was approved. “It’s historic.”

The project’s operating costs will be funded by the development authority, until it can be supported by its own revenues. The county and the development authority will be repaid over time by land sales.

Called Rowen, it will be the largest development in Gwinnett’s history and also include public spaces, offices and residences. The research facilities hope to draw people and ideas from the 50 educational institutions within an hour’s drive.

If it reaches its full potential, officials say the project will cost $1.8 billion to build by 2035, and as much as $3.2 billion by 2050. It is expected to create more than 18,000 jobs over the next 15 years and generate more than $2.3 billion in annual economic activity, according to an impact study commissioned by the county.

By 2050, the annual economic impact is expected to be $6.6 billion, the study said.

The development site, with a two-mile frontage along Ga. 316, is strategically centered between Atlanta, Athens and Gainesville. And that’s not an accident. It’s the payoff of years of work by Gwinnett leaders who have long tried to sell the stretch of highway as an “innovation crescent,” which would support businesses and job growth that could ripple statewide.

The centralized location also echoes the Research Triangle in North Carolina, which is similarly situated between academic centers in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

“This project ... is going to reverberate,” said Bob Geolas, an advisor to the county who is the former President and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina. “People are going to hear about it around the world.”

Research Triangle Park changed the entire state of North Carlonia since opening in the 1950s, Geolas said, by improving education, leading to the rise of Charlotte as a banking capital, and creating a global brand for the state.

Rowen, too, will create opportunities beyond the 2,000 acres at the intersection of Ga. 316 and Drowning Creek Road along the Apalachee River, Nash said.

“I see it as an opportunity not just to bend the trend, but to lift the trajectory of the county to another level,” Nash said. “This is going to create an opportunity that is truly generational in nature.”

Nash said she envisions Rowen as a knowledge community, with residential and restaurant components, in addition to the research space. The site will be built into the environment — more like the south Fulton County community of Serenbe than a traditional office park.

Gov. Brian Kemp said the development “has the potential to create a new chapter of discovery and innovation that will enrich the state of Georgia for many years to come.”

`A dream for close to two decades’

But there are detractors.

Nathan Jensen, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, said there are “a lot of failures” among economic development projects like this.

In many cases, he said, businesses relocate to areas even without a large-scale project. In others, he said, economic analyses are flawed and overstate the impact of a project.

Jensen said he wants to know the problem Gwinnett is trying to solve by building Rowen. And he said other than the kinds of industries the county wants to attract, the proposal doesn’t seem fully formed.

“What is the Plan B?” he asked. “What if you build it and no one comes? That’s a real possibility.”

Additionally, Gwinnett has sometimes struggled with keeping high-tech jobs in the area.

Technology Park in Peachtree Corners was once a hub for such work, but FiServ and other companies left for newer job centers.

The county has had other high-profile losses.

NCR, which came to Duluth from Ohio, decamped to Atlanta’s Technology Square. And the paper and packaging company WestRock moved to Sandy Springs from Norcross as it consolidated office space, in part because of its access to transit.

The community that will be built around Rowen will differentiate it from projects like Technology Park or Technology Square, said Nick Masino, the president and CEO of Gwinnett’s Chamber of Commerce.

As one of the largest developable tracts of land north of I-285, Masino said Rowen will easily draw entrepreneurs who want access to Emory, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and other colleges in the area.

Masino said he expects new businesses that outgrow incubators and other startup spaces to move in to research facilities that are built just for them.

It will be some time, though, before it’s occupied.

While county commissioners on Tuesday approved bonds to buy land and build initial infrastructure, tenants aren’t expected until 2023.

The county now owns about 480 of the planned 2,000 acres for the project; the rest will be purchased by the end of the year by a foundation that was created to shepherd Rowen forward.

“This has been a dream for close to two decades,” Nash said. “It’s a great thing for the entire state of Georgia.”

The name, Rowen, means a second growth of grass or hay in one season, and the focus on agricultural and environmental innovation will honor the land, Nash said.

Geolas said the state already has expertise in all three areas of focus, which will allow flexibility as universities, businesses and entrepreneurs get on board. The county has so far kept the project quiet, and discussions with possible partners are just beginning.

Jensen said he was surprised that many stakeholders weren’t yet on board.

Stephen Fleming, the former vice president of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute who was involved in the Innovation Crescent project, said the fundamentals that made the idea work are still there. Now an executive at the University of Arizona, Fleming said he thinks the region needs to have a better transit connection for the project to be viable.

Gwinnett voters will see a transit expansion proposal on the ballot this fall.

“It’s a gamble, but I think it’s a good gamble,” Fleming said of the project.

No tax breaks have been requested, though Nash said she hopes the state will help with improvements to Ga. 316, some of which are already planned.

“This is for my grandchildren’s grandchildren,” Nash said. “We want to make sure there are opportunities right here in Gwinnett County for them to come back to.”