Setback at ‘Revel’ project a timely reminder for Gwinnett officials

There was plenty of construction going on around Gwinnett County’s Infinite Energy campus Wednesday.

Crews were continuing work on a second new parking deck. Bulldozers pushed dirt around areas meant for a dramatically expanded convention center and a new hotel.

All of those projects are moving forward as planned. But the largest, most anticipated piece of the redevelopment efforts — the proposed business and entertainment district known as “Revel” — is not.

The Gwinnett County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which runs the Duluth-area campus, announced Tuesday that it was parting ways with North American Properties, the private developer it was partnering with to bring Revel to life.

County officials said they’re optimistic about eventually finding another developer to build something like Revel on their 118-acre campus.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re gonna circle back and start focusing again on some form of entertainment district, mixed-use development there,” GCVB CEO Preston Williams said.

But the exit of North American — the team behind the uber-popular Avalon development in north Fulton County — at best represents a dramatic setback. It's also a timely reminder of just how risky public-private development partnerships can be.

‘We always have to be mindful’

On the other side of Gwinnett, just inside the DeKalb line in the shadow of Stone Mountain, the county is already embarking on another such endeavor.

Thanks to a complicated land swap and about $1 million in demolition costs, Gwinnett is now the owner of the 26-acre site that once held a tennis venue for the 1996 Olympics. The county envisions the property as a “southern gateway” and wants to see it redeveloped.

In July, the county issued an open call for developers to submit ideas for the site. The parameters were kept largely open but documents suggested proposals incorporating "a mix of transformative uses including retail, entertainment, hotel, office or residential" would be favored.

Gwinnett finance director Maria Woods said recently that the county had received submissions from six developers, a positive sign that interest exists.

The tennis center site, of course, is much smaller than the property surrounding the Infinite Energy Center — and another high-profile property to which the county hopes to attract developers.

Late last year, Gwinnett closed on the purchased of a 103-acre site just off I-85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard. It was purchased from fiber optic manufacturer OFS Brightwave Solutions using $35 million worth of bonds.

Officials envision it as the future home of a mixed-use development and a transit station, though the possibility of the latter was diminished by March’s failed MARTA referendum. The county plans to use a process similar to the one it’s using with the tennis center site to solicit developers’ ideas for the property.

A timeline for that process remains unclear.

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said the situation at Revel serves as a reminder that “we always have to be mindful of what is happening in the market.”

“However,” she said, “we believe public-private partnerships offer great potential for redevelopment of critical sites and plan to continue pursuing them in smart ways.”

‘Still optimistic’

Officials from North American said the departure from Revel was the product of a change in business strategy.

The developer is refocusing on reviving underperforming mixed-use projects (like it did with Atlantic Station and Colony Square in Atlanta) rather than creating such projects from scratch. It also recently dropped out of a major project in Dunwoody called High Street.

“Gwinnett County has been a great partner and the future redevelopment around the Infinite Energy Center will be a wonderful addition for the residents of Gwinnett and the greater region,” North American’s Mark Toro said in a news release.

As presented, Revel would’ve brought around 300,000 square feet of retail space; 865,000 square feet of office space; and 900 apartments to the Infinite Energy campus. Already announced tenants included a movie theater, an upscale bowling alley and a number of restaurants.

Williams, the convention and visitors bureau director, said the organization will continue to focus on non-Revel projects that are already underway before circling back to find a private partner to fill North American’s shoes.

Gwinnett Commissioner Jace Brooks, who also serves on the GCVB board, said North American’s departure is not a sign that the appetite for similar projects in the area is waning.

“These things happen periodically,” Brooks said. “Whoever our new partner is will come in with their own vision, but I wouldn’t be surprised if whoever that private partner is wants to keep some of the aspects of what North American planned.”

Staff writer Amanda Coyne contributed to this story.