Gwinnett County: Promising Partnership
A public-private initiative seeks to create jobs and wealth
After growing for a long time – faster than any other county in the state and sometimes the nation – Gwinnett County is finally growing up.
The suburban northeastern Metro Atlanta county has plenty of grownup assets and challenges: population surge, immigration tensions, job increases, job losses, new development, maturing development, declining development, redevelopment – a whole melting pot of people and issues. The county’s leadership has gone to work on a new plan for the future to manage it all.
“The story that we are living now and what we’re telling everyone about is Partnership Gwinnett,” says Nick Masino, vice president for economic development at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. “The big news is Partnership Gwinnett.”
Launched in 2006, the partnership is a five-year, $10 million public-private community and economic development initiative. The group’s stated goals include the creation of 65,400 new jobs – with a focus on high paying jobs – and $5.8 billion in new wealth. It started with a comprehensive research report from Market Street, the Atlanta based marketing consulting firm. It’s moving forward with a slick, colorful 18-page report on findings, visions and goals.
While fund raising will be a major concern, growth management and direction is the effort’s true focus. Its members are high ranking officers from 40 leading businesses, institutions and organizations, including representatives of education, banking, government, law, media and public utilities.
The partnership is headed by two strategically chosen co-chairs: Bill McCargo, vice president for community relations at Scientific Atlanta, a Cisco Company, and Sharon Rigsby, president of Gwinnett Technical College. One represents one of Gwinnett’s largest and most important employers. The other is charged with training the workforce for those new jobs in the making.
Co-chairing the partnership has become a “pretty hefty” time commitment for both McCargo and Rigsby. But Market Street’s research and the partnership’s input offer valuable support. “It’s so powerful to have a large amount of community input as well as research to back up a finding,” Rigsby says. “It is immensely beneficial to the college because it has augmented our research.”
The initial research guides the work of four committees: economic diversification and wealth creation, education and workforce excellence, quality of life enhancements and marketing and outreach. “As the committees discuss the goals, we come back and meet with the chairs and hear what’s going on. Some of the suggestions have been surprising,” Rigsby says, adding that the research elevates the discussions’ credibility. “One person cannot steer the initiative because it is so heavily researched.”
The initial research report alone was nearly a year in the planning and development stage. The chamber board began talking with community leaders about it perhaps a year ago, says McCargo of Scientific Atlanta, a technology company that employs 1,507 people on a 300-acre campus outside Lawrenceville near Interstate 85 and Highway 316. “As businesspeople we all understand that you’ve got to have a strategic plan,” he says. “The Market Street consultants took us through who we are and what we want to be when we grow up. We paid attention to all the things that make a community great.”
The research will offer an important recruiting tool for the county’s economic development efforts, says Chip Mitchell, project manager at the chamber. “We looked at workforce development, quality of life, creating a business friendly community, regulatory environment, everything that’s important to success.”
The partnership’s mission and goals grew out of its research on Gwinnett’s strengths and challenges.
One of Gwinnett’s strengths is its schools. “People move here because of our good schools. We have the largest school system in Georgia, and our attainment levels have never been higher,” Masino says. The school superintendent is on the partnership, which is logical because the system is one of the county’s largest employers. With an enrollment of about 150,000, Gwinnett adds some 7,000 new students each year, according to figures on the system’s website.
Every growing community knows that, particularly when it comes to schools, growth can be a blessing and a tension, leading to overcrowding and adjustment issues. In Gwinnett those tensions are heightened by an amazing blend of cultures and backgrounds. By all estimates, the number of different languages spoken by Gwinnett students is approaching 180, close to the actual number of school buildings. Of the four distinct ethnic groups represented, all are minorities. The system is 40 percent white, 25 percent African American, 20 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Asian (the remaining 5 percent falls into the “other” category).
“We are a melting pot,” Masino says. “And our diversity is a strength.”
It’s also a trigger for tension, adjustment and redevelopment around Gwinnett. County leaders are working on their own immigration reform program by attempting to require legal resident documentation from all businesses before awarding future contracts.
The partnership’s research report shows that minorities accounted for 10.6 percent of the county’s population in 1990, compared to 42.9 percent today. More than 75 percent of Gwinnett’s growth since 1990 has been from minority residents moving in. “Diversity is an important asset to remain a competitive community,” the partnership’s report states. “Leveraging this diversity for Gwinnett County’s benefit will be a key issue for local leaders.”
Other strengths listed in the report also come with a red flag.
Job growth has been strong and wages are above state and national averages, but those numbers have suffered since the 2001 economic downturn – as they have in many major cities. Employment concentrations in high-wage business sectors are strong, although they haven’t been gaining recently. These numbers represent “opportunity for strengthening and further diversifying Gwinnett’s economy,” the report says.
One purely encouraging note: Gwinnett is showing strong entrepreneurial and small business growth in a variety of sectors.
Shifting Tax Base
On the other side of the equation, topping the list of challenges is the need to balance the tax digest by attracting more business growth. The report says the county’s tax base has been shifting due to rapid residential growth and the recession of the early 2000s. With more than 23,000 newcomers a year, the percent of residential taxes is higher than commercial. That’s a problem because every dollar of taxes collected from a resident costs the government about $1.12, according to the report. But a dollar in tax revenue from a commercial business only costs about 80 cents.
Thus, attracting new businesses and creating more jobs in higher-paying industries has become an important part of the partnership’s mission.
“The average wage had slipped in our county, and that’s not good,” McCargo says. “In the early 2000s, we lost manufacturing jobs. We replaced them, but we replaced them with service jobs. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but they don’t pay as well.”
Indeed, at the same time those higher paying jobs have been disappearing, poverty rates in the county have been rising. In the five-year period the study examined, the county’s poverty rate rose from 2.8 percent to 8.2 percent. And while poverty rates for children declined by state and national average, they rose by 3 percent in Gwinnett.
The net result of all this research has been the creation of major initiatives in the areas reflected by the partnership committees. With regard to economic diversification and wealth creation, the first objective will be to attract jobs in five targeted business sectors: healthcare; distribution and trade; headquarters, regional offices and professional services; information technology; and advanced communications.
“These are the five key industries we want to pursue for the higher paying jobs,” McCargo says. “Our overall bottom line is to grow 65,000 new jobs in five years. We want 50,000 of those to be in these key industries.”
The other economic objectives are to: retain and expand existing firms; nurture entrepreneurs and small business opportunities; and advance economic opportunities for international and minority businesses.
The toughest part of all may be the part that occupies Rigsby’s time on a daily basis: workforce preparation. Take, for example, health sciences. “We’re supplying the health science workforce,” she says. The demand is great and the pay is high – $55,000 average salary in Gwinnett for nurses and other healthcare workers.
Plenty of people want those jobs, but lack training. Gwinnett Tech received 6,200 applications for health science programs last year alone, according to the president. The trouble is, the college can only serve 600. When Gwinnett Medical Center finishes a major expansion now under way, it will need another 500 to 700 employees.
“We need more capacity,” Rigsby says. “We need to prepare for this ever expanding health systems job growth.”
That need is addressed in the partnership’s second major initiative, education and workforce excellence. The goal is to ensure that the pre-K through 12th grade educational system meets local needs while also addressing the post-secondary level.
The third initiative, quality of life enhancements, includes promoting redevelopment of Gwin-nett’s declining areas, creating more sustainable development patterns and enhancing mobility. These are significant goals in a county known for sprawl and traffic.
The fourth initiative, marketing and outreach, includes a plan to launch a major public relations campaign to champion Gwinnett as a critical force in the regional and statewide economy, as well as to create a strategy for attracting more young professionals.
Gwinnett seems to have a good start here with Masino and Mitchell – young professionals aggressively promoting the partnership’s goals.
Masino is new to the Gwinnett chamber this year. But he is not new to public life in Gwinnett. When he was elected mayor of Suwanee eight years ago, he was the youngest mayor in Georgia. As he nears the end of his second term at the ripe old age of 37, he says he is giving up politics and putting his energy into his new job in economic development.
“This is what I want to do. I love doing this work with these people,” he says. “If I didn’t need to work, I’d be in the parking lot at 7:30 in the morning anyway.”
Masino has a strong sense of momentum with the chamber and the partnership. “The landscape of Gwinnett County is about to change. Things we’ve never seen before are coming into play,” he says. “Gwinnett is going to go from very good project management to being one of the most aggressive economic development organizations in the state of Georgia.”
Gwinnett County At-A-Glance
Cities And Towns Population
Duluth, 24,482; Snellville, 19,238; Sugar Hill, 15,696; Lilburn, 11,416; Buford, 10,972;
Norcross, 9,887; Suwanee, 12,553; Auburn, 7,134; Loganville, 8,881; Dacula, 4,425; Berkeley Lake, 1,695; Braselton, 2,294; Grayson, 1,314; Rest Haven, 151
Gwinnett County 4.0 percent; Georgia, 4.7 percent
Per Capita Income
Gwinnett County School System, 24,000; Gwinnett County Government, 4,388; Gwinnett Hospital System Inc., 2,694; Scientific Atlanta
Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Dept. of Labor