Gwinnett County’s big development plans near Braves stadium appear dead

When they agreed to spend $64 million to build Coolray Field for the Atlanta Braves, Gwinnett County officials vowed it would be an economic engine, sparking a mix of shops, offices and restaurants on surrounding property.

But plans for a mammoth commercial development at the minor league baseball stadium near Buford have been sidetracked for years. Now a company has proposed building a retirement community on 19 acres adjacent to the stadium – a move at odds with the original vision that was used to justify taxpayers’ investment.

Gwinnett officials say a scaled-back commercial development could still happen on other property near the stadium. But some are resigned to the fact that the original plan appears dead.

“I think the original vision of a larger [commercial] activity center at the stadium is not going to happen,” said Chuck Warbington, chairman of the Gwinnett County Planning Commission.

Braselton resident Lee Baker, a longtime stadium critic, isn’t surprised.

“I’ve been disgusted with it all,” Baker said. “All the parameters they used to justify putting that stadium up have fallen through.”

Indeed, it wouldn't be the first time Coolray Field has failed to live up to its promise.

In 2008, Gwinnett officials agreed to build the stadium without any public debate. They assured taxpayers it would pay for itself. But stadium naming rights and parking fees have generated less revenue than expected, and the county has used millions of dollars in car rental and hotel-motel taxes to help pay for the stadium.

A consultant’s study used to justify the stadium said Gwinnett would be one of the strongest minor league baseball markets in the country. But as measured by attendance, it’s been one of the worst.

Gwinnett Braves attendance has been among the lowest in the International League since the team debuted in 2009. This year it finished dead last, drawing just 225,559 fans – down 47 percent from 2009.

Finally, Gwinnett officials said the stadium would be an economic development engine. And it seemed that claim would come to pass in 2008, when developer Brand Morgan announced plans for 300 hotel rooms, 610 residences, 351,000 square feet of retail space and 617,000 square feet of offices surrounding the stadium.

Morgan has built hundreds of upscale apartments. But the rest of the development has not panned out.

Morgan owns only 54 of the 73 acres required for project. He planned to buy the other 19 acres, but never followed through.

In 2012 owner Garland Roberts tried to sell his 19 acres to a developer who wanted to build 212 apartments and some commercial buildings – including a car wash and fast-food restaurant – instead of the upscale commercial space originally planned for the site. Gwinnett officials rejected the plan, saying they wanted to stick with the original development vision.

Roberts filed a lawsuit, saying the county had essentially taken his property without compensation. The judge sided with Roberts, invalidating the zoning approved for the original development plan.

Now Roberts has found another buyer. Mansions Senior Living wants to build a retirement community that would include attached and detached homes, a four-story independent living facility and a two-story assisted living facility.

In a recent letter to the county, Roberts’ attorney urged Gwinnett officials to “fulfill their legal obligation to work with the property owners to allow them the highest and best use of their property and approve these applications.”

The proposed retirement community will get a public hearing before the planning commission in December. Warbington, the chairman, said he had not reviewed the details of the project.

“I will say it seems to be a little bit more palatable than another apartment complex,” he said.

Paula Hastings, a planning commissioner who lives near the stadium, agreed. She said the neighborhood needs the kind of services for seniors the retirement community could provide.

“I don’t hate the idea,” she said.

Morgan did not respond to a request for comment. Hastings said he’s “still shopping for restaurants and commercial users” for the property he owns at the stadium.

None of the county commissioners who approved the stadium are still in office.

County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said Gwinnett will “look at any proposal within the overall context of what makes sense for the area, what can help create a healthy mix of uses there and what the cost is to provide services to whatever development is under consideration.

“All of this ought to be viewed through a long-term prism,” Nash said, “with tomorrow being more important than today.”

Baker, the stadium critic, said he’s not surprised Coolray Field hasn’t lived up to its billing.

“It bugs me that they make these grandiose proposals and they’ll pay people to come up with surveys justifying what they’re doing,” Baker said. “Then it doesn’t work out. By the time that happens, everybody’s forgotten about it.”