Friday, November 16, 2012

Bridging the generational gap in Gwinnett

By Matt DeVeau, Project Associate.

When Nick Masino moved to Atlanta in the late 1990s at 23 years old, he settled in Gwinnett County, an area northeast of the core city known for its excellent public schools and decidedly suburban, low-density character. But Masino, now the Senior Vice President of Economic Development and Partnership Gwinnett at the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce, recognizes that a 23-year-old moving to the region today is much more likely to eschew Gwinnett in favor of a more dense, walkable neighborhood located “Inside the Perimeter” – a term Atlantans use when referring to communities close to the central city that fall within the Interstate 285 ring road.

For Gwinnett to maintain its position as an economic powerhouse in the decades to come, Masino and other community leaders recognize that the county must work diligently to attract and retain young professionals. This was the focus of the 2012 Partnership Gwinnett Summit, which took place earlier today on the campus of Gwinnett Technical College. The annual summit highlights the progress and successes of Partnership Gwinnett, a community and economic development initiative that Market Street worked with community leaders to create first in 2006 and again in 2011.

According to Census Bureau data, Gwinnett’s population grew by nearly 37 percent between 2000 and 2010, but much of this is attributable to the 45-to-65 and 65-and-over age groups, which each grew by more than 66 percent. The 25-to-34 age group had by far the slowest growth rate at just 9.9 percent. While this in many ways reflects national demographic trends, it nonetheless poses a concern for Gwinnett, which relies on its dynamic and educated local workforce to fuel growth in targeted industries such as advanced manufacturing and health sciences and services.

Of particular concern are changes in the location preferences of young people. Consumer research by RCLCO, a national real estate consultant, found that 81 percent of “Generation Y” renters are moving to urban or close-in “Urban-Lite” environments. Two-thirds say living in a walkable community is important, and one-third say they are willing to pay more for the privilege. This is problematic for a place like Gwinnett that, with a few notable exceptions, is mostly typified by auto-oriented subdivisions.

The summit focused on the multi-faceted ways in which Partnership Gwinnett is addressing these issues. The event featured three panel discussions, each focusing on an area that is important to attracting and retaining young people. The first addressed education and the attempts of Gwinnett’s schools and colleges to integrate technology into the learning process and to orient curricula to prepare students for jobs available in the county both today and in the future. The second focused on the entrepreneurial environment in the county and metro area, and highlighted the need to better publicize the access to capital and other resources that are already available to local entrepreneurs. The third focused on the effort of three Gwinnett cities – Duluth, Snellville, and Suwanee – to market to create environments that appeal to young professionals through marketing and placemaking.

The event closed with a keynote address from Brian Leary, a developer whose graduate thesis at Georgia Tech was the impetus for the redevelopment of a former steel mill into Atlantic Station, a massive mixed-use development in Atlanta that was the nation’s largest urban brownfield redevelopment at the time of its completion. Leary reiterated one of the day’s most common themes – that Gwinnett must appeal to young professionals, particularly those who work in the county’s booming business sector but live in the city. In other words, Gwinnett needs to appeal to me, about 12 months ago. Prior to joining Market Street, I worked at the Gwinnett Chamber as a Research Associate supporting Partnership Gwinnett. Like many of my younger colleagues, I lived in a multi-family apartment building in the City of Atlanta, within a close walk of dozens of restaurants and bars.

Gwinnett County probably won't be able to match the kind of environments – both physical and social – that can be found in major cities like Atlanta, and frankly it shouldn’t try. What it can do is provide many of the best elements of urban living – such as walkable places and their accompanying dense social networks – to a community that can offer other advantages such as great schools and an abundance of quality jobs. I think it’s truly remarkable that Partnership Gwinnett is making such a strong push in this area. If fully implemented, I expect that it will pay dividends down the road in the form of a new generation of leaders and innovators.