A decade ago, politicians promised that Coolray Field — the new Gwinnett County home of an Atlanta Braves minor league affiliate — would be a self-sustaining wonder, a well-attended stadium surrounded by flourishing development.
None of that has happened.
VIDEO: Previous coverage on Coolray Field
But a sizable new mixed-use project proposed for just down the road — 64 acres, 500 apartments, hotel, shops and food — could serve as a sort of consolation prize for an area that officials think might still become an economic powerhouse.
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“Anything that creates more of a critical mass in that area, I think builds toward that idea of … a true activity center that has all aspects of a community in it,” Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said. “I think this becomes one more piece of the puzzle in terms of the overall area.”
Fuqua Development, the group behind The Battery Atlanta and other large metro-area projects, wants to build the mixed-use community on a mostly wooded property on the southeastern side of I-85 and Ga. 20.
“The Exchange @ Gwinnett,” as it’s listed in a rezoning application recently submitted to Gwinnett County’s planning department, would include roughly 400,000 square feet of non-residential development, including a hotel, a fitness center and “a golf entertainment complex and driving range with a full-service restaurant and bar.” That’s in addition to the roughly 500 apartments.
The property is just across the interstate from the still-popular Mall of Georgia and less than a mile from Coolray Field, home of the team now known as the Gwinnett Stripers.
Coolray Field was built a decade ago at a cost of $64 million. Though taxpayer dollars were used, there was no public input.
Those in power at the time promised that the stadium would eventually pay for itself, partly through attendance that would surely be booming, and that it would fuel large scale, multi-use development on the surrounding property. A pair of apartment complexes have been built near the stadium in recent years and a senior living facility is in the works.
But neither self-sufficiency nor bustling commerce have become realities.
Even an off-season re-branding effort that ditched the Braves name and dubbed the squad the Stripers seems to have been unsuccessful in driving more folks to the box office.
Through 46 home games, the team’s average 2018 attendance has been 3,241. That marks slight increases of 106 people per game over 2017 and 23 people per game over 2016 — but is still last in the 14-team International League and significantly less than the team’s own average attendance numbers in 2015, 2014 and 2013.
The team was second-to-last in International League attendance in each of those years.
Gwinnett refinanced its Coolray Field bonds last year, shaving its annual debt service payments to roughly $2.1 million. It’s on the hook for those payments until 2038.
Just down Ga. 20, the would-be Fuqua property in question currently sits in three different zoning classifications. Documents ask that the entire acreage be placed under the regional mixed-use classification.
A special-use permit was also requested for the proposed golf entertainment complex.
No date has been set yet for the county planning commission to consider the proposal. Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners would have final say on the rezoning.
“The subject property does not have reasonable economic use as currently zoned,” Shane Lanham, the attorney representing Fuqua, wrote in the rezoning applications.
That may or may not be true. But Nash, the commission chairman, said she’s not surprised that, given the recession and other factors, it’s taken this long to get such a development in the works in the area.
“I think the fact that there’s a proposal for that kind of development in play,” Nash said, “it falls in line with the long-term vision.”