Sugar Hill’s new downtown takes shape

Aside from its gleaming City Hall, there’s not much to Sugar Hill’s sleepy business district.

But that’s about to change.

Next month, a renovated amphitheater downtown will host its first concert. Not long after, the city will break ground on a mix of public facilities and commercial space. And several developers are negotiating to build a hotel, residences and other projects nearby.

By the end of 2017, Mayor Steve Edwards said, the town will have created something that will stand out not just in Gwinnett but across the region. Officials in this Gwinnett County city say hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment will transform the area into a thriving downtown.

“We don’t want to be like every other city in Gwinnett or the area. We want to compete with the Greenville, South Carolinas of the world. We’ve got a `go big or go home’ mentality.”

Cities across Gwinnett and Metro Atlanta have staked their futures on new or revitalized downtowns – a mix of commercial and residential development usually associated with urban communities. Even unincorporated areas like Gwinnett Place and the county’s Infinite Energy Center have big plans to create dense urban developments.

Sugar Hill, a city of 21,000 residents in northern Gwinnett near Lake Lanier, bought nearly 16 acres to expand its downtown. It spent $11 million for the city hall, which opened in 2013. It’s spending another $3 million to upgrade the amphitheater, which will host its first concert – the Mavericks – on May 28. And it will spend $36 million for the adjacent mixed-use development dubbed the EpiCenter.

That development will feature a performing arts center and gymnasium, plus 40,000 square feet of offices, shops and restaurants. The city’s Downtown Development Authority will own the property and hire a private firm to manage the commercial space.

City Manager Paul Radford said the public spending is needed to attract private investment and to allow Sugar Hill to control the development of its own downtown.

“Nobody’s going to invest here if you don’t have a commitment to a plan,” Radford said. “It’s hard to get a developer to come in if you don’t own the land.”

The approach seems to be paying off.

Several developers have plans to buy other city property for downtown projects. Those plans include tens of thousands of square feet of office space, a hotel, a niche grocery store and hundreds of residential units, many of them for seniors.

Details of the projects are still being negotiated. But Radford said the total private investment would be nearly $200 million. Most of the projects should be under construction in the next two years.

Plans for downtown have won praise in the community. One measure of the public support: Three incumbent City Council members ran unopposed for re-election last year.

“We have a city government right now that really does understand our community,” said Pastor Chuck Allen of Sugar Hill Church, across Ga. 20 from the new downtown. “We’re a burgeoning community of 30- to 40-something couples with children. These young couples want to stay home and have a Mayberry feel (to their community).”

City officials see a Mayberry where hundreds of people live and thousands drop in for work, concerts, shopping and dinner.

“In the next two years,” Radford said, “this place is going to be hopping.”

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