Gwinnett candidates seek to improve mall area, handle budget shortfall

The Gwinnett Place Mall is an area of focus for many Gwinnett County candidates. MATT KEMPNER / AJC FILE PHOTO

The Gwinnett Place Mall is an area of focus for many Gwinnett County candidates. MATT KEMPNER / AJC FILE PHOTO

In races for two Gwinnett County commission seats, a struggling local mall and expected budget constraints from the coronavirus pandemic are key issues.

Republicans Jace Brooks and Tommy Hunter, who joined the board in 2012, are not seeking reelection. That's in addition to Gwinnett County Chairman Charlotte Nash, who will step down at the end of the year.

Two Republicans and one Democrat are running for Brooks' District 1 seat, while three Republicans and five Democrats seek to replace Hunter in District 3. The primary election will be held June 9.

District 1 includes Suwanee, Sugar Hill, Duluth and part of the Collins Hill community. District 3 encompasses Braselton, Auburn, Dacula, Grayson, Loganville, Snellville and parts of Lawrenceville.

In District 1, the future of the Gwinnett Place Mall and its surrounding area continue to be an issue. The owner, Moonbeam Capital Partners, has put the mall up for sale, but the property is largely vacant and county leaders have expressed frustration with the owner for several years.

“It’s definitely an eyesore in the district and something that needs to be dealt with,” said Laurie McClain, a Republican candidate.

She suggested residents continue public pressure on Moonbeam to sell and said the county could use ordinances to require the owners to maintain the property. McClain, an accountant, said she has a “long list of ideas” for what should happen at the mall, but none of them will come to fruition unless the building is sold.

Jacqueline Tseng, a Republican, said the area is ripe for entertainment or high-end retail, but echoed that the mall ownership remains a problem. If elected, she said revitalizing the mall would be among her priorities.

Since Gwinnett Place continues to be underutilized, Democrat Kirkland Carden said he thought the county should consider purchasing the property for a competitive price. He said the county had a number of incentives at its disposal to encourage new development.

Carden, a former Duluth city councilman, also said he thought transit should be extended to the mall — a heavy rail extension is part of the county's transit plan, but is considered beyond the scope of the current proposal. Tseng said she was in favor of bus rapid transit connections in community improvement districts, which includes the mall area. McClain, who was a member of the county's Transit Review Committee, said she was in favor of the transit plan that has been put forward.

The candidates all spoke recently in a forum sponsored by the county’s Chamber of Commerce. That was also the case in District 3, where candidates identified possible budget issues resulting from spending related to the coronavirus pandemic as a priority as well as infrastructure improvements, including transportation and public works.

Republican Ben Archer said he could see putting off some projects for six months or a year to save money at the county level, and suggested Gwinnett could seek corporate sponsors for to help maintain some parks. Archer, a member of the county planning commission, said he’d like to help small businesses with job growth following the crisis. He sees transportation as the main issue the county will face going forward.

Matt DeReimer, also a Republican, said he would support starting the county’s budgeting process from zero to make departments justify every dollar received. DeReimer, who worked in law enforcement and now runs a small business with his wife, said the county will have to focus on immediate needs.

While DeReimer said he's in favor of bicycle and pedestrian improvements, as well as bus rapid transit, he called MARTA's heavy rail outdated, and said he does not want MARTA to expand into the county. County commissioners have not yet decided if they will seek to extend heavy rail into Gwinnett as part of a proposed November transit referendum.

Republican Kim Walker said getting businesses back at full speed “is a must” as they deal with fallout from the pandemic. She called for responsible budgeting. Walker also said she thinks transportation is the county’s top issue. She said she would like to expand transit in order to reduce traffic and help the environment

Roger Marmol, a cafe-owner and a former Republican city councilman in Snellville who is running as a Democrat, said he thinks the pandemic is the county's main issue right now. He expects leaders will have to make major budget cuts and said commissioners should work on business development to help people get back to work. He'd like to eliminate hurdles to starting businesses. Marmol also said he wants to focus on transit in parts of the district — namely, Lawrenceville and Centerville — including autonomous vehicles.

The policy director for the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, Democrat John Moye, said it’s important to ensure front-line employees continue to have personal protective equipment as the pandemic continues. Moye said he doesn’t expect the county will have trouble maintaining essential services, but he also wants to focus on increasing civic engagement, creating growth opportunities for businesses and solving the county’s transportation issues.

To deal with revenue shortfalls Justin Walsh, who has worked in the service industry, said he would ask department leaders how much they could cut from their budgets and would also temporarily reduce commissioners’ pay. Walsh said “it’s a terrible to to even consider raising taxes.” He also said he’d like to invest in expanding sidewalks and mass transit.

Jasper Watkins, a Democrat who narrowly lost to Hunter in 2016, is a retired Army Lt. Col. and pharmacist. He said he wants to focus on workforce development and job creation to help people recover from the pandemic. Watkins said he wants to bring sewer service to areas of the county that are still on septic systems and to focus potential development on major intersections in the district.

An accounting student and owner of a janitorial business, Democrat Derrick Wilson said the pandemic shows the importance of expanding Wi-Fi access throughout the county. He said he would follow current leaders’ leads as far as budget-saving measures, but said public safety and public works remain top priorities. Wilson said the district “looks like a third world country” and that he would add streetlights and sidewalks, as well as improve affordable housing options and increase transit.

Like the District 1 candidates, Wilson also said he thought improvements at Gwinnett Place Mall should be a focus of the local government.