OFS and beyond: A closer look at Gwinnett’s recent real estate gambles

The way some see it, Gwinnett County’s government has been too willing lately to play the role of real estate speculator, putting millions of taxpayer dollars at risk in hopes of revitalizing key areas in the community.

There’s the old Stone Mountain Tennis Center, which Gwinnett County acquired in a land swap, razed and hopes to present to potential developers soon.

There’s the Infinite Energy Center campus, where the county is partnering with North American Properties in hopes of creating an energetic, Avalon-type development.

And now there’s the OFS Brightwave Solutions site, maybe the biggest test of Gwinnett’s new, if-you-buy-it-they-will-build-it game plan.

The county agreed last week to purchase a 104-acre slice of prime real estate that the still-active fiber optic manufacturer owns along I-85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard, one of Gwinnett’s most visible gateways. The hope is to drive interest and make the prospect of building something big more appealing for potential developers.

Some are skeptical of the moves Gwinnett has been making to try to spur development, which is hardly new in metro Atlanta but is mostly novel in Gwinnett.

“I would like to see us sweep one of those into the success category before we step up and take more risk,” said District 4 Commissioner John Heard. He cast the lone vote against the county’s OFS purchase agreement.

But many are supportive of the strategy.

“There are points in time in which you have opportunities,” Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said recently. “And most of those opportunities will never circle back again. You either take advantage of it then or that opportunity changes or goes away.”

‘Something very, very special’

The site where OFS now stands has long played an important role in the county’s transition from a cow town to Atlanta’s most booming suburb.

Copper wire manufacturer Western Electric opened the facility in 1970, becoming the first major industry in Gwinnett. It brought with it 2,500 jobs and helped spark housing, development and population booms that spread across the county.

Western was eventually taken over by AT&T, then spinoff Lucent Technologies. Lucent later sold the plant to its current owners, OFS Brightwave Solutions.

By 2006, the OFS plant had shrunk to around 300 employees, according to media reports at the time. That same year, a firm from Pennsylvania became the first group to dream of buying part of the property and redeveloping it.

It would hardly be the last.

More recently, one man dreamed of building a casino on the site. That vision died quickly. Jacoby Development then became a player, pitching a sprawling movie production campus for the property. That didn’t work out — “They wanted to use [the county] as their bank,” Nash said.

So, Gwinnett decided to give it a go.

“It has the opportunity to be something very, very special,” said Lawrenceville City Manager Chuck Warbington.

In his previous job as director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District (which is now known as Gateway85 Gwinnett), Warbington spent years advocating for the OFS property. He said the property could be appealing to developers for a number of reasons.

One, he said, is the location — just outside the Perimeter. Another is the visibility — the site can be clearly seen from a stretch of I-85, where hundreds of thousands of cars drive each day. A third plus is the fact that there’s a single property owner — a positive attribute for a developer who aims to put together a sizable project and wants to simplify the process.

The site also falls within the area identified as a prime potential location for a future Gwinnett County transit hub.

Ken Ashley is a top Atlanta-based broker for real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. He said the possibility of the site becoming part of a transit hub adds value and that, with the exception of the former General Motors plant in Doraville, the OFS site might be the largest northside Atlanta site that’s also convenient to the Atlanta airport.

“In an attract-and-retain economy, being closer in to the city is never a bad thing,” Ashley said.

‘That will not be forever’

That said, there are certainly millions of taxpayer dollars at stake in the Gwinnett County’s recent land purchases.

The OFS purchase price of more than $34 million is hardly a pittance. But county officials like Nash point out that the expected annual debt service on the bonds funding the purchase — roughly $2.45 million each of the next 20 years — is a very small chunk of the government’s $1.7 billion budget.

And that cost is expected to be covered by revenue raised from movie productions on the site.

“There’s always a risk about the success” of the would-be development, Nash said, “but in terms of getting into a fix where you’re struggling to make the debt service payments, I don’t see that as a big risk.”

To acquire the Stone Mountain Tennis Center site, Gwinnett also had to spend about $1.2 million on a 35-acre piece of property in DeKalb County. It then swapped that property for the tennis property, which had been owned by the Stone Mountain Memorial Association.

The county later approved a roughly $1 million contract for demolition of a stadium on the site.

Gwinnett already owned the property where North American plans to build its sprawling mixed-use project surrounding the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth.

Heard, the District 4 county commissioner, is fond of calling Gwinnett “the best place to do business in the universe.” He said he’s not against purchases like OFS in general, but thinks the county should’ve exercised better risk management before undertaking so many potential projects at once.

“We’re expending taxpayer dollars for revitalization … with the understanding that we’re dependent upon the private sector to move forward with expanding these projects and bringing them to the marketplace,” Heard said. “That’s dependent upon a continuing good economy. And while we are riding a great wave of prosperity right now, that will not be forever.”

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