Awakening Lilburn... a new city
By Beth Volpert Johansen
Lilburn Mayor Johnny Crist is perhaps the city’s most enthusiastic cheerleader among a staff who appear to be genuinely excited over the changes being made to their sleepy town. Over the course of many years, Lilburn has been left behind in terms of economic development.
Once a thriving railroad stop, the center of town became less viable for businesses after Highway 29 was built and pulled commerce out of downtown and onto the busier main road. Like many Main Street, USA towns, Lilburn began to go dormant. Mayor Johnny Crist and his staff are waking the slumbering streets and bringing a new life to Lilburn.
Proactive planning by the city in order to instill confidence in developers and investors has been central to the revitalization work being done. “We don’t wait for people to offer their view to us,” says Mayor Crist. “That would mean other people were planning our city.” Instead, Mayor Crist and staff have worked hard to purchase key tracts of land that would allow them to offer property to potential developers and give them the leeway to realign main street to allow a full view of the new 11 million dollar city hall and Gwinnett County library campus. “We have created an atmosphere that tells the economic world that we want them to come to Lilburn,” says Mayor Crist. “We control what a property can and cannot look like and are able to encourage housing options that fit.”
According to Mayor Crist, all property purchased by the City of Lilburn has been done without the City incurring debt. The largest income source for the City is the “Other Tax” group of revenue which includes Franchise Fees, Insurance Premium Tax, Occupation taxes and Alcohol taxes. All totaling approximately $2.5 million annually.
In addition to the newly purchased city-owned property near the new realignment of Main Street at Hwy 29, the former (40+/- Acre) Jackson Creek Water and Sewerage Authority property located on Indian Trail Road was purchased in 2012 by The City of Lilburn. The minutes of the October 8, 2012 meeting show that the proposal to purchase the property was approved by a 3-1 vote. According to those minutes, Councilman Tim Dunn was quoted as saying, “...it would be foolish to let this key piece of property go up for grabs, there could be any number of undesirable developments that ended up there. We are not buying up the whole city, just key properties for redevelopment.” The current use for the property is not specified, although the Strategic Business Plan which the city developed with the Carl Vinson Institute indicates that the city should hold a developer forum focusing on development opportunities.
While steering the growth in the direction of making Lilburn a destination and encouraging the types of housing that promote a sense of neighborhood, the mayor and council are also concerned with keeping good businesses and promoting new ones. Director of Planning and Economic Development, Doug Stacks says, “We are investing in ourselves and because we are doing that, it shows we are confident. That confidence is reflected in developers and business owners who are looking at investing in Lilburn.”
Some of the initiatives to encourage a neighborhood feel for Lilburn include events, arts, walking trails and the relaxation of some traditional rules. After attending several hours of education, the mayor read a book called, “For the Love of Cities” by Peter Kageyama. “I learned that most people are consumers of cities and we needed to create residents who are lovers of cities,” says Mayor Crist. “In doing that, we get volunteers who advocate on behalf of the city.” In creating “lovers of Lilburn”, Mayor Crist and the council found it useful to “release our prohibition on dogs in our parks.” Crist feels that pets have become more than just an animal and are part of the family. “We welcome the whole family.” Mayor Crist wants to bring “Old Town, Uptown”, in order to secure the vision of neighborhoods where families walk to town and through the parks with freedom. “We have created a hospitality zone in our old town area where diners can take an alcoholic beverage purchased at one of the restaurants and walk on the streets or attend a concert,” says Mayor Crist. “This is part of the major revisions that make Lilburn more business friendly.”
Local business owner, Danny Taylor, also finds Lilburn a solid place to do business. He has the Mail & Package Center located at 4155 Lawrenceville Hwy which has been a Lilburn business for more than 19 years. “The city council and mayor maintain a good quality of life here in Lilburn,” says Taylor. “The headaches are few and far between.” Taylor is also a member of the active Lilburn Business Association which hosts speakers presenting on civic and business topics throughout the year.
The City of Lilburn has taken on the task of redefining the living, business and governmental aspects of being a resident or business owner within the city limits with some outside partnerships. “Gwinnett County is our friend,” says Mayor Crist. “Our partnership with the library and local schools is vital.” According to the Carl Vinson Institute report, Lilburn will seek to include more of the city limits within the Parkview school district. “Schools are one of the reasons people move here and stay here,” says Nikki Perry, Public Relations Manager for the City of Lilburn.
Gwinnett County Commission Chair, Charlotte Nash says “I am excited about the plans that the City of Lilburn and its community partners have created for Lilburn’s future, and the district commissioners and I are pleased to be working with the city on a number of projects.” Some of the city-county projects include, “realigning and widening Main Street to create a better, safer connection with Highway 29 and to improve access to the new city hall and future library.” Mrs. Nash is pleased with the cooperation between the city and the county. “These capital projects are jointly funded, with the voter-approved SPLOST as the primary source and some additional funding for the road improvement coming from a state grant obtained by the Lilburn CID, another partner in our efforts to keep Gwinnett County a great place to live, work, and play.” She goes on to say,”I expect we will continue to cooperate since we all understand that we can achieve much more when we work together.”
City Planner, Doug Stacks was pleased to share breaking news that a zoning application on an assemblage property fronting Hwy 29 that had been put together and marketed by the the Downtown Development Authority and The City had been submitted. “Nacoochee Corporation has submitted a site plan and pictures to The City,” says Doug. “This is for a mixed use development on 7.7 acres with a two story parking garage, up to 325 high-end multi-family homes and 35,000 sq ft. of commercial space.”
Doug goes on to say, “This is exactly what we anticipated with the realignment of Main Street and the ability to market these public properties.” The zoning application will be presented at the December planning meeting and then go before the full council in January.
Economic growth that includes creating an Old Town Hospitality Zone, special events, increasing housing density, beautification of the corridor surrounding Hwy 29, and increasing the dynamism of downtown are all parts of a larger set of objectives designed to breathe a new life into Lilburn. The city has hired experienced staff to promote all of the growth areas and show investors of all types, whether commercial or homeowners, that Lilburn is a safe bet for a sound investment in property and a way of life.
Please visit www.cityoflilburn.com for more information.