Rowen, Water Tower projects will be bookends of innovation in Gwinnett

This 2007 file photo shows the former I-85 water towers that said “Gwinnett is Great” and “Success Lives Here.” The Water Tower project, under construction in Buford, is named after the water towers that were torn down. AJC FILE PHOTO

This 2007 file photo shows the former I-85 water towers that said “Gwinnett is Great” and “Success Lives Here.” The Water Tower project, under construction in Buford, is named after the water towers that were torn down. AJC FILE PHOTO

Rowen, the massive development project that seeks to build a “knowledge community” in Gwinnett County, is just getting underway. But less than 20 miles northwest, a microcosm of the project is already in the works.

The ambitions of the Water Tower innovation center are slighter than those for Rowen, which anticipates a research campus that brings 25,000 full-time jobs and more than $6 billion in economic activity by 2050. But people involved say they expect the Water Tower project to also have a great impact — on workforce training, innovation and advancements in water technology.

The project has been likened to the Silicon Valley of the water industry, and would help Gwinnett take a leading role in shepherding research regarding water testing and treatment and training employees who work with the utility.

Within five years, Gwinnett officials expect the project to have a research budget of at least $1 million, with academic partnerships and work that’s being reviewed in articles or in industry conferences. Leaders also expect at least $1 million in support from private industry, with partners conducting research and training.

“It’s a real godsend for us,” said Rich Cavagnaro, the CEO of AdEdge Water Technologies. “Obviously, I’m pretty excited about the overall project and what it would mean.”

Cavagnaro plans to move his company from Duluth into office space on the Water Tower campus, near the F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center in Buford, when it’s complete. Construction is already underway and, last week, county commissioners agreed to speed up building a field training center, where workers can get hands-on experience with the technology that’s being tested and created elsewhere on the campus.

It’s expected to open in January 2022.

Costs for the project had risen to $60 million in 2018, but were reduced to $30 million — the original price — by removing some amenities, like a 250-seat auditorium.

The ability to access water and wastewater flows from the Hill plant is a particular selling point for businesses that might want to come on board, said Tyler Richards, Gwinnett’s director of water resources. The county plans to offer space, including co-working space, through a ground lease.

While there will be residential and other components for Rowen, that isn’t the case for the Water Tower.

Melissa Meeker, the Water Tower’s CEO, said the combination of applied research, technical innovation, workforce development and community engagement will “show people what is possible” while pushing the value of water.

Meeker’s plans for the project include a youth environmental summit, to help engage the community and show them what job opportunities might be available, and the collaborative funding of research projects, to get some that might languish off the ground faster.

Cavagnaro said he expects the Water Tower to speed up the timeline for new technology, by improving access for people to test ideas and enhancing opportunities for collaboration. His company will reduce its sampling costs by more than half, he said, by its access to the the county’s analytical equipment. Such a huge reduction in costs can lead to more expenditures elsewhere.

Teachers and professors at Gwinnett schools said the hands-on access students will get is helpful to their curricula, as well as to encouraging more people to go into water-related industries. Meeker said much of the workforce is nearing retirement age, and the need to educate new employees is strong.

James Russell, the environmental science chair at Georgia Gwinnett College, said access to the Water Tower will help him get grants and engage students.

And businesses that are partnering with the county say the one-of-a-kind research center will have a global impact.

“It’s important work, the Water Tower is going to accomplish,” said Yolanda Kokayi, the senior director of marketing and communications for Mueller Water Products. “There’s ample room for innovation.”

Nick Masino is chair of the Water Tower’s board and president and CEO of Gwinnett’s Chamber of Commerce. He said the Water Tower and Rowen — which will focus on medicine, the environment and agriculture — are bookends of the county’s ambitions.

“The Water Tower itself is huge,” Masino said. “If you’re an expert in water innovation, the Towers will be a household name.”

Masino sees global interest in the Water Tower; after all, delegations from all around the world have come to look at Gwinnett’s cutting-edge water treatment system. He said he expects some overlap and collaboration between the two large projects.

The experience setting up a board to run the Water Tower was instructive for a similar plan at Rowen, Masino said. And Meeker said consultants worked on both projects.

The two centers will be “a beautiful complement,” she said, while emphasizing the scope of her project’s focus on water is “unique from anything else that’s out there.”

“It’s almost our plan, but on steroids,” Meeker said of Rowen. “It’s good stuff for Gwinnett.”