Opinion: I don’t think Hollywood can save Gwinnett Place Mall

The food court area inside Gwinnett Place Mall in January 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The food court area inside Gwinnett Place Mall in January 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

In recent days, I can’t open my Netflix app without seeing the promotion for season 3 of “Stranger Things,” with the outline of Starcourt Mall featured prominently in the graphic. To be honest, I have only watched a few episodes. Yes, it is “totallly awesome,” to use 1980s lingo, to see Gwinnett Place Mall (redone as Starcourt Mall) as the star of the series.

Growing up in Gwinnett County, the scenes remind me of the early glory days of Gwinnett Place Mall. Just like for the residents of fictional Hawkins, Indiana, the mall was the center of a teenager's universe. I experienced Gwinnett Place Mall when it was the social and economic heartbeat of the Gwinnett community. It was the place you would hangout on Friday and Saturday nights.

But the current attention that Gwinnett Place Mall is getting from the series is not all that it seems. Almost every news account I have read about “Starcourt Mall” notes that it is created in the “dead,” “nearly vacant,” “near-defunct,” “mostly vacant,” “struggling,” “dying” or “now ghost-like” Gwinnett Place Mall. Here are just a few of the recent reports on the current state of Gwinnett Place Mall:

AJC: "Starcourt is actually a portion of Gwinnett Place Mall, which was once a thriving mall, but is barely breathing."

Tribune News Service: “This season was filmed at Gwinnett Place Mall, a shopping center in suburban Atlanta that has seen better days…” “Gwinnett Place, which opened circa 1984 and was once a major attraction for shoppers across the state but has since fallen on hard times. ‘It’s a massive mall that’s slowly been collapsing on itself…”’

Philippine Daily Inquirer: "To create Starcourt Mall, the production team of 'Stranger Things' used Gwinnett Place Mall, a derelict mall in Duluth Georgia, as its canvas… Gwinnett Place is no stranger to darkness. In December 2017, the decomposing body of a 19-year-old student, Silling Man, was found by a maintenance worker in the largely abandoned mall's food court."

Sadly, these statements are accurate representations of the current state of the mall. Yet, is this the impression that we want to give to the world about any part of Gwinnett County?

As the most remarkable county in the state, Gwinnett County should be focused not on the fleeting short-term attention that filming has brought to the mall, but on stemming the systemic issues plaguing it and other large big-box centers that are lying vacant throughout southern and central Gwinnett County. It is time for our communities and our leaders to rally together and focus on long-term sustainable redevelopment that will promote economic growth, job creation and a re-imagination of these locations.

The Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District (CID), a self-taxing organization of commercial property owners in the core of Gwinnett County, has been focused on the goal of one day transforming greater Gwinnett Place (as we see it as much more than just the mall) into a flourishing center for an internationally diverse, livable urban community. But we can’t do it alone. It requires true, deep and robust partnerships.

We can’t ignore the statistics. According to Ellen Dunham Jones, professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech, the decline of malls began in the ’90s with too many malls being developed in close proximity of one another. In addition, there are half as many households with kids today as there were in the ’70s, and with the influx of online retailing and social media, malls are no longer the social gathering places they were in the ’80s. It’s also evident that Gwinnett Place Mall’s owners, Moonbeam Capital, are either incapable of or unwilling to take the property to the next level. The fees being paid to them by filmmakers are likely keeping them in business by covering various operating expenses and thus provides no incentive to redevelop the property.

Now is not the time to be short-sighted, because the short-term gain from Hollywood may not last forever. The political climate and changing winds may have Hollywood leave or significantly reduce their activity here in Georgia and then what? Is there a better long-term plan for Gwinnett Place than just using a dead mall as a filming platform? Thriving commercial properties mean more sales tax, more property tax, more jobs and less of a burden on residential properties. A rising tide lifts all boats. Dying properties mean more crime, fewer jobs, a shrinking tax base with more tax appeals from other commercial property owners and more troubles thrust upon local government. Homeowners will shoulder these burdens by being forced to live with smaller budgets for schools, roads, police and fire protection. What is the better option … movies or redevelopment? The choice is ours to make.

We need bold ideas, solutions and risk-taking to confront what has been the status quo at Gwinnett Place Mall for far too long. We all must realize that dramatic changes must occur at the mall if this area is to remain successful. Closing our eyes to these challenges will only continue down a path leading to decline and failure. In the true spirit of leadership that has defined Gwinnett County over the years and led to its prosperity and success, we must find a new paradigm for that property in order to transform the old to meet the demands of the future. We must find a path forward and develop a plan beyond hoping something will occur one day. Hope is not a strategy.

Now that the actors have left and the Starcourt Mall stage has gone dark, there will be no Hollywood magic to save Gwinnett Place Mall. Gwinnett Place will remain a dead mall unless we come together, look beyond the current state and imagine something new and worthy for the strategic heart of the most dynamic community in the nation, and my home, Gwinnett County.

Joe Allen is executive director, Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District.