GPCID Guest Blog Post: District One Commissioner Candidates
Introduction: Gwinnett Place CID has asked candidates running for both the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners Chairman and the Gwinnett County District One Commissioner to answer several questions explaining their vision for the County and Gwinnett Place.
Kirkland Carden’s (Democrat) Bio:
I’m former Duluth City Councilmember Kirkland Carden and I want to be your next Gwinnett County Commissioner for District One. I have decided to run for the Board of Commissioners because I care about the future of our community. Together, we can keep our community strong and vibrant for many years to come. Learn more about Kirkland by clicking here.
Laurie McClain’s (Republican) Bio:
Laurie McClain is valued and trusted as a leader who has served the county in a variety of ways. Besides volunteering for many different nonprofits, she has given her time to multiple ad hoc county committees. Laurie has also been active in the management of numerous homeowner associations, including her own. Learn more about Laurie by clicking here.
Having operated her own small business in Gwinnett since 1996, Laurie also appreciates the value of every hard-earned dollar, especially when the money comes from taxpayers. Importantly, with a 35-year career in public accounting and a master’s degree in Taxation, she delivers the expertise to achieve big goals while balancing financial constraints.
Her varied experience in leadership and deep commitment to Gwinnett will make Laurie McClain a tremendous asset to District 1 as our County Commissioner. Learn more about Laurie by clicking here.
Jacqueline Tseng (Republican), another District 1 candidate, did not respond to the questions presented by GPCID for the guest blog series.
Guest Blog Questions:
1.Why are you running for District 1 Commissioner?
Kirkland: I decided to run for the Board of Commissioners because we live in a time of great social and political change–I’ve dealt with this firsthand on Duluth’s City Council–and the current Republican leadership in Gwinnett has not done enough to keep up with that change. It is important to preserve the best of our past, but at the same time we have to be prepared for what is to come. In a county of nearly one million people that’s supposed to grow to 1.5 million by 2040, there are no real mass transit options; we have serious public safety concerns that need to be addressed and portions of our county that desperately need revitalization have been ignored. Gwinnett County deserves better.
The residents of Gwinnett have a right to better transportation, better public safety, and better economic opportunity for every community. My track record as a Duluth City Councilperson shows that as District 1’s next Commissioner, I will work to improve Gwinnett every single day by providing world-class governance to all that call this incredible county home.
Laurie: I have lived in Gwinnett since I was 11 years old. I have specifically lived in district one since 1991, with the short exception of last year when I moved in with my fiancé in Sugar Hill. I have watched this county transform from a mostly rural, bedroom community of folks trying to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city to a thriving, economic powerhouse of the region. I experienced the explosive boom of development and population in the 80’s and 90’s. I’ve lived through a terrible recession that took down a great number of businesses and I’ve seen what corruption does to citizens’ trust of government leaders. With the increased population over the years and the change in demographics, we are at a crossroads in this community. We need to build on our past successes to continue to grow Gwinnett in a common sense, balanced way. I believe that will take consistent leadership at the county level that knows our history and can focus on core, critical issues while balancing the needs of residents with fiscally conservative values. With my education, my history and my experience, I believe I am that leader and I plan to serve this county for as long as the citizens of district one will allow me.
2. Where are your favorite places to spend time in the Gwinnett Place area and why?
Kirkland: Paris Baguette, Breakers Korean BBQ and Mariscos Mazatlan are where I spend the most amount of time. One of my favorite things about the Gwinnett Place CID is the diverse restaurants from cultures all around the world and these venues highlight that.
Laurie: This is a great question. I remember when I was a single mom, working in Dunwoody and living in Gwinnett. Many nights, I would just be too wiped out to cook and would stop at the mall with my two children to enjoy dinner in the food court. I’ll never forget the first time I watched my little girl eat an entire gyro from the Gyro Wrap restaurant!!! It breaks my heart to see what has happened at what I have always considered my mall. For a long time after the area started to decline, I would still shop at Macy’s and Sears and I used the shoe repair shop for the entire 30 years that it was open! Nowadays, I do frequent some of the restaurants in the area, especially Fumi, because it’s so unique (and they have great chocolate martinis!) and I still love the area. I have shopped at Microcenter since they opened and never buy computer equipment anywhere else. I am so pleased with what the CID has been able to accomplish over the years and look forward to working closely with them to bring the area back up to par.
3. What do you see as the role of CIDs in Gwinnett, and how would you work with the Gwinnett Place CID, if elected?
Kirkland: I see the CIDs as the bridge that brings the private and public sectors together. They can help craft and execute a master plan that aligns with the needs of the residents and business communities. I also see the CID playing a role in providing elected officials and county staff with vital information so that educated public policy decisions are made.
I will plan to schedule a monthly call with the Gwinnett Place CID to listen to your concerns. After this election, the Gwinnett Place CID will have a district commissioner who proactively seeks your advice.
Laurie: Community Improvement Districts exist to support the business community in specific locations. They are nose-to-the-ground experts in terms of what will keep businesses strong and thriving in their areas and attract new businesses. Thriving businesses support residents, workers and consumers in the area. I have been a supporter of economic development pursuits in the county for many years. The CIDs are best equipped to advise county leadership on what is needed in any specific geographical location. Working together is the only way to solve the stalemate that is Gwinnett Place Mall. I will always insist that the CIDs have a place at the table when working to solve problems. Knowing that the Sugarloaf CID area is extremely close geographically, but very different economically, I will also include both in any discussions in the area.
4. If elected, will Gwinnett Place be a priority for you? If yes, what is your vision for the Gwinnett Place area?
Kirkland: The improvement of the Gwinnett Place area is one of the top issues facing Gwinnett County–it’s one of the three things I mention to every single voter I talk to. For too long, areas of District 1 have been ignored. Unlike our current commissioner, I will have a keen interest in helping shape the future of the Gwinnett Place area.
Over the course of my campaign, voters and the development community have expressed a desire to see the public sector create a proactive strategy beyond concept drawings, renderings and ideas. We have to create a tangible economic road map for the Gwinnett Place CID.
With the right leadership, the current Gwinnett Place Mall site will become the epicenter in Gwinnett County for advancing workforce housing, transit and green infrastructure in the heart of the most diverse and fastest growing county in Georgia. Roughly 200,000 millennials are living within 3-10 miles of the Gwinnett Place CID. We have an opportunity to create walkable mixed-use communities that provide multi-family housing that caters to all generations.
We have an opportunity to create a vibrant and pedestrian-friendly destination in the core of Gwinnett’s central business district. The redevelopment of the 93-acre mall site presents an opportunity to transform and improve the economic engine of Gwinnett County. Much of these changes to improve this area can be accomplished with changes to the zoning ordinance and by forging a public-private partnership.
It is time for the public sector to take a more proactive role in the redevelopment of the CID than has been the case in the past. Redevelopment efforts on this scale are not easy. However, dramatic changes must occur in the CID for this area to reach its full potential. Closing our eyes to these challenges will set us on a path to further decline and failure.
Laurie: Absolutely! One of the main reasons I am running for public office is so that I can meet with developers, owners, agents, government officials and business people to gather all the facts I can and consider recommendations for plans going forward. As an involved citizen, there is little I can influence right now. I intend to be actively involved in pushing change in the area forward. My vision for the area includes redevelopment of the mall area itself with additional office and a mixture of residential space in the area. This would include workplace housing, green space and a very robust transit center within walking distance. It’s clear that big box retail is on the decline but the area is much too valuable to let go to waste. I fully intend for revitalization of this area to be my legacy and greatest contribution to my county.
5. What is your vision for transit in Gwinnett County?
Kirkland: Gwinnett needs to expand mass transportation. We are 20 years behind on this issue. Traffic is already bad enough and with our population expected to swell to near 1.5 million by 2040, the burdens of traffic congestion will only get worse. In the long-term, Gwinnett needs to expand our bus services, develop Bus Rapid Transit, heavy rail lines and paratransit service for eligible riders with disabilities. Drastically expanding transit and properly building the infrastructure takes time, however there are simple steps we can take right now for immediate improvement.
Many residents who work retail and service jobs are without reliable transportation on Sunday. The county should fund Sunday bus service to and from major employment hubs in Gwinnett County such as the CIDs. Just because Gwinnett County transit doesn’t provide bus service on Sunday doesn’t mean the work week is over for many Gwinnettians. This is a realistic short-term solution that will immediately improve bus service for our working-class residents, seniors, youth and the disabled.
Laurie: Gwinnett County is geographically one of the largest counties in the state. At 437 square miles, what works in Norcross, and up the I-85 corridor is not what works best in Snellville and Dacula. We must keep those distinctions in mind when we talk about transit in Gwinnett. We must also identify the problem we are trying to solve before we build the infrastructure to solve it. Are we trying to move people out of Gwinnett to go to work every morning? Are we trying to get Gwinnettians from one side of Gwinnett to the other? Are we planning for riders of choice or riders of need? These are all valid questions and have different answers. As such, my vision for transit would include a very adaptable technology, like BRT, that could be implemented cost effectively, throughout the county, connecting us with the entire region.
5a. How will you bring transit to Gwinnett Place?
Kirkland: Gwinnett’s current Republican leadership has played games with our transit needs for far too long. The decision to hold last year’s transit referendum in March of an off-year election was partisan politics at its absolute worst. They designed that referendum to fail and it worked.
The voters of Gwinnett deserve another opportunity to have a transit referendum that is held in November of a major year election so more voters can participate in the electoral process. When elected to the Board of Commissioners I will work to accomplish that. The personal and economic burdens of traffic congestion cannot be ignored any longer.
Laurie: There is already a transit station (of sorts) at Gwinnett Place Mall. As part of the redevelopment of the mall area, working with a private developer, I would incentivize the construction of a transit hub that would service the area, and the entire county, with reliable transit connected to downtown Atlanta, as well as provide shuttles to Infinite Energy Center, on a consistent, reliable basis.
5b. Do you endorse the Transit Review Committee’s plan submitted to the Board of Commissioners in February?
Kirkland: While I respected the recommendations of the Transit Review Committee, it failed to reflect the diversity that makes up modern day Gwinnett County. Most of them were admittedly not regular users of public transit and their plan showed it. When making recommendations, it’s imperative that the transit committee has the firsthand experience and diversity that is required to make equitable recommendations the community will support.
According to the plan created by the Transit Review Committee, it would take nearly 30 years before heavy rail is available to the Gwinnett Place CID. This is simply too little and too late. For years, I have been a vocal advocate for expanding heavy rail to the economic engine of Gwinnett County. This should have been a top priority for the Transit Review Committee.
We have to stop this reactionary approach to addressing our county’s transportation needs and be more proactive in finding solutions. Gwinnett needs to lead on this issue, not continue to delay action. It’s time to create a permanent standing Transit Committee that has broad authority to actively solicit community input and propose bold solutions. A permanent Transit Review Committee would demonstrate that Gwinnett’s leadership is finally taking our transit challenges seriously.
This permanent committee must make sure that its leader is effective. The head of the previous committee produced a plan that the Commission has not voted on months later. She’s now come out against her own plan, saying there are “many reasons” why she’s “not particularly excited about bringing MARTA into Gwinnett.” It’s time to prioritize transportation in our county and quickly expand bus services, light rail, and heavy rail. We can no longer relegate our transportation needs to ineffective and inexperienced leaders who will flip-flop their positions.
Laurie: As the chairman of said Transit Review Committee, let me answer that question. The committee was comprised of twelve members of the public, none of us transportation experts, appointed by various stakeholders. I was appointed by Charlotte Nash and was elected by the members as the Chairman. We were given two and half months to learn about transit, become experts in the Connect Gwinnett Transit Plan (which took over two years to create) and make recommendations to improve the plan. As the chairman of the committee, I fully support the effort, the thoughtfulness and the hard work of the members. This was not an easy task. During our deliberations, I made it clear and will do so again, that I do not believe Gwinnett County has the density to support a heavy rail alternative. Taking heavy rail to Jimmy Carter Boulevard will cost $1.5 billion and will take around 14 years to construct, not to mention the operating costs that would be required in future years. Combine that with changing technology and I believe this is a dinosaur response to a jet set problem. A robust bus rapid transit system (BRT) and light rail combination would be a more adaptable and much more cost-effective way to alleviate our congestion issues.
Even so, there is no question that we need an answer for our transportation/congestion problem. Transit is one potential solution. Combine that with mixed-use developments, walking trails, teleworking, etc. and you still won’t solve the problem. That said, whatever we can do to mitigate the problem is a good thing. We already have a transit center at the mall site. Gwinnett already has money in the budget to improve this center. I would like to see and will work to accomplish turning that transit center into a “destination.” A place to go that will carry me throughout the county or even be a place to go for dining and entertainment needs.
6. Gwinnett Place Mall has extended beyond a local issue to become a national punchline, around the topic of the “dead mall.” How will you address Gwinnett’s dead mall problem?
Kirkland: The county needs to create a long-term strategy to maintain the quality and physical aesthetics of these struggling retail properties. If a mall looks run down it will drive away potential customers, employers and developers. By properly enforcing code requirements, the county can ensure that existing malls do not blight the landscape and drag down surrounding property values. I will work with CID staff to crackdown on absentee commercial landlords and create a welcoming environment.
Laurie: Gwinnett Place Mall went into foreclosure in 2012 and was purchased by Moonbeam Capital Investments, LLC in 2013. Despite initial promises to redevelop the site, for the past seven years, they have continued to do nothing to improve the mall space. Now, not only, is the mall virtually empty, it is in tremendous state of disrepair with broken escalators and elevators and parts of the ceiling falling down. It is a disgrace. We won’t even discuss the deceased body found in the now vacant mall food court.
The mall is privately owned; and as such, the hands of business advocates in the area are virtually tied to advocate and facilitate conversations about redevelopment. The only hope is that it will be sold to a developer who sees the potential in creating something new and different in the area. How do we do that? That’s where leadership comes in.
There are a variety of tools at the county’s disposal that could speed up or at least create forward motion on a potential redevelopment. Those tools could include more stringent code enforcement, building out transit in the area pulling together a robust package of incentives for redevelopment, funding the CID’s ACTivate Gwinnett Place plan, and involving the CID more in the process. The list could go on and on.
6a. If elected, what would be your plan for the mall site?
Kirkland: In October 2019, I proposed the county submit a competitive bid to purchase the mall from Moonbeam properties and create a strategy to acquire the remaining parcels. With new ownership comes the potential for redevelopment. Once the property is acquired a strong, long-term redevelopment plan can be implemented to ensure the Gwinnett Place area has a bright and stable future.
I am committed to working with the Gwinnett Place CID and community stakeholders to create a redevelopment plan that is financially feasible, implementable, adaptive to changing market conditions and considerate of potential impacts on the adjacent community and environment. This redevelopment plan should specifically focus on establishing a transit hub, change zoning to create minimum density requirements, architectural design standards, improvements to stormwater management and establish height requirements that allow for modern multi-family housing and office space. Doing so will create positive long-term aesthetic and fiscal benefits for the Gwinnett Place CID, surrounding neighborhoods and our county as a whole.
The cities of Duluth, Lawrenceville and Sandy Springs are good examples of public sector leadership taking a proactive role in redevelopment efforts in their community. The residents of the adjacent communities deserve better than a neglected run-down shopping center. We need bold progressive ideas, public sector leadership and risk-taking to confront what has been the Gwinnett Place status quo.
Laurie: I envision a beautiful, 20 (or more) story high development of residential units with 10 – 15% affordable housing units mixed in, with office space and minimal retail, attached to a gorgeous transit center surrounded by green space….a central park, if you will.
6b. How will you work with the Gwinnett Place CID to accomplish your plan?
Kirkland: I look forward to working with the Gwinnett Place CID to create a high-level task force of county officials, business leaders and CID stakeholders to develop and implement an area-wide revitalization master plan to improve the area. I also see an opportunity to work with the CID to address local community concerns such as public safety, homelessness, park connectivity, improvements to public transit, community outreach, and code enforcement for absentee landlords.
Laurie: As with any other project within the CID, I would involve them in every step of the project, ensuring that we leverage funds, ideas and data in the most logical, common sense way possible.
7. During the last SPLOST, of the $486,343,270 in transportation funding available, the Gwinnett Place area only received $9 million. Had the CID not had a list of potential projects prepared and shared information about transportation needs in the area with SPLOST committee members, it is likely even less in SPLOST transportation funding would have been allocated for the area. How will you ensure greater equity in future SPLOST funding distributions for Gwinnett Place?
Kirkland: I’m disappointed but not surprised to learn that Gwinnett’s current leadership doesn’t think the Gwinnett Place CID is worth significant investment of SPLOST funds. Gwinnett’s Republican leadership has guided funding and development across the county while neglecting the Gwinnett Place CID, at the expense of adjacent communities and their residents. For far too long, the current county leadership has failed to make this area a priority. This election is an opportunity to change that.
As a Transportation Planner for the Georgia Department of Transportation, I will use my professional experience planning and funding transportation projects to work with the Gwinnett Place CID to make sure this area receives an appropriate amount of SPLOST transportation funds. I’m committed to personally working with CID staff to make sure their transportation projects are included in the next SPLOST vote.
Laurie: I won’t. And I’ll tell you why. The current SPLOST is already decided and only in rare circumstances can money be re-allocated after the fact. This SPLOST runs through 2023. Another SPLOST would be proposed and voted on probably in November of 2022. Whether or not this SPLOST passes is suspect, based on whether the current BOC puts a transit referendum on the November 2020 ballot. If that passes, I am not confident that folks would support another tax that would include transportation funding. Of course, that is just my opinion. Assuming that we were to pass another SPLOST with transportation funding included, my goal will be to see that proposed projects are prioritized based on safety scores and need first, rather than the geographic location of the project. I served on the Citizens Project Selection Committee (CPSC) for the 2017 SPLOST, representing the business (CID) community. For the $487 million that was allocated for transportation, we had $4 billion of projects on the list. Those funds were and must be allocated based on priorities. Because I have been on two CPSCs for SPLOST funding, I am intimately aware of how the process works. Given the option in the future, I will ask district commissioners to meet with their constituents to establish their concerns and give the process more transparency. I will change it up a little bit and have commissioners score the projects in their districts based on this public input and I will then try to spread money out throughout the districts, again, based on safety and need, still utilizing a similar citizens project selection committee.
8. Gwinnett County and the Gwinnett Place CID collaborated on the ACTivate Gwinnett Place plan focusing on area infrastructure. However, most of the projects outlined in the plan are not fully funded. What is your plan to address this issue and move these projects forward?
Kirkland: I would like to see the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners provide a dedicated funding source for projects outlined in the ACTivate Gwinnett Place Plan. Properly funding the ACTive Gwinnett Place Plan will help revitalize the Gwinnett Place Mall site, improve roadways to make them more pedestrian and bike-friendly and help the CID accommodate the population growth in the area.
Laurie: Financial resources are not unlimited and must be allocated based on priorities. Redeveloping Gwinnett Place Mall is a high priority in district one. I will advocate for more and better funding from a variety of sources, including potential federal grants. This will be part of a comprehensive infrastructure package that I will create with the input of the CIDs, public stakeholders and regional leaders.