2020 Gwinnett County District 1 Commissioner Candidate (Republican)
GPCID Guest Blog Post: Laurie McClain
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.
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.
Guest Blog Questions:
1.Why are you running for District 1 Commissioner?
Answer: 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?
Answer: 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?
Answer: 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?
Answer: 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?
Answer: 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?
Answer: 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?
Answer: 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?
Answer: 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?
Answer: 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?
Answer: 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?
Answer: 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?
Answer: 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.