Gwinnett officials seek an icon to define county

St. Louis has the Arch. Seattle has the Space Needle. Cobb County has the Big Chicken.

And Gwinnett County has … what?

If you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone. As Gwinnett’s bicentennial approaches, officials are struggling to come up with the quintessential symbol for Georgia’s second-largest county. And Gwinnett isn’t the only community searching for that perfect icon or catchy slogan.

Suburban cities like Duluth, Dunwoody and Norcross have spent tens of thousands of dollars in recent years trying to define their "brands" — the qualities that set them apart from their competitors for jobs, tourists and residents. In Atlanta, too, officials have repeatedly sought to shape public perception of the city – spending millions in the process.

Some of those efforts have been inspired – think “The City Too Busy to Hate.” Others have been ridiculed and quickly forgotten. Remember “City Lights, Southern Nights”? Didn’t think so.

Marketing experts say there’s plenty of incentive to get it right.

“People have perceptions of different towns and cities,” said Timothy Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University. “These perceptions have an impact on all sorts of things – where companies locate, where people think about living, where they open stores and shops.”

In Gwinnett, political leaders want to present the community’s best face to visitors during its 200th birthday celebration in 2018. But they also want to create a sense of place in a sprawling melting pot of a county with no dominant city or business district.

Six years ago, leaders decided to demolish the county's most recognizable landmark, the water towers along I-85 that boasted "Gwinnett is Great" and "Success Lives Here." Now commissioners are wondering what symbol can replace them.

At a recent retreat, Chairman Charlotte Nash even floated the idea of building a new water tower. “I don’t care if it ever holds water,” she said.

Icons for a growing Gwinnett

Erected in 1968 and 1972, the original towers advertised Gwinnett to hundreds of thousands of travelers.

The slogans exemplified the brash confidence of power brokers, but the towers also became sentimental landmarks for generations of residents who passed them on their commutes.

Lawrenceville resident Kevin Black remembers them as childhood milestones on the way to his grandparents’ house in East Point. On the return trip, “It was like a welcome sign. You’ve only got 25 more minutes to go,” he said.

But the towers became obsolete as the county upgraded its water system. It cost tens of thousands of dollars a year to maintain them, plus hundreds of thousands more for a new paint job periodically. So in 2010, Gwinnett demolished them.

Black was so fond of them that he started a Gwinnett is Great Water Tower Facebook page, which he still maintains.

“I remembered it from my childhood,” he said. “I just thought it should live on.”

By demolishing the towers, Gwinnett may have lost in publicity what it gained in efficiency. Calkins, the marketing professor, said it sounds like they served the purpose of any good marketing emblem.

“It’s not enough just to say the name (Gwinnett),” he said. “You’ve got to say something about the community.”

Gwinnett commissioners were feeling the towers’ absence at the recent retreat, where they discussed sprucing up the county’s major gateways in preparation for the bicentennial.

“I would like to have something that says, no matter which way you’re coming, you have entered Gwinnett County,” Nash told her fellow commissioners.

County officials tossed out several ideas – a melting pot, a tree with many branches, a beacon, a giant button to honor namesake Button Gwinnett, even new water towers.

But rebuilding the towers may not be as easy as it sounds.

Right for the future?

For starters, taxpayers are often suspicious of the cost of government marketing efforts. One cautionary example: Brand Atlanta, the city’s $8 million campaign that ended in 2009. It produced not one but two poorly received slogans – “Every Day is an Opening Day” and “City Lights, Southern Nights.”

“I suspect building new towers with taxpayer money would be a tough sell,” Calkins said. “What you’d really like to do is find someone to sponsor that kind of construction.”

A more fundamental problem with the towers is that tens of thousands of new residents – many of them from other countries and cultures – may not remember them. If the idea is to build a sense of place, water tower nostalgia may not resonate with many residents.

But that same diversity is part of the county's new brand, according to Preston Williams, CEO of the Gwinnett Convention & Visitors Bureau. In addition, he said, Gwinnett offers amenities — like good schools and a slew of new downtowns — that define the county.

“I don’t know if one single iconic physical structure can accomplish what you need to accomplish (for marketing) or not,” Williams said. “But they need to explore what all their options are.”

Black, who loved the towers, agreed a single landmark may no longer work. He sees a slew of icons that represent today’s Gwinnett, including the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temple in Lilburn, the historic county courthouse in Lawrenceville and the Mall of Georgia in Buford.

But he’s not opposed to rebuilding the towers or something else that beckons to people on their long commutes — an experience many Gwinnett residents share, regardless of background.

“I just feel it should be something we look at in traffic,” Black said.