One Man's Opinion: Gwinnett County Turns 200 at a Crossroads

One of Georgia's oldest counties, Gwinnett County, became 200 years old on December 15, 2018. Looking ahead, as the man whom the county is named for frequently did, it may be time for bold decisions and potentially new directions.

Button Gwinnett, a longtime resident of Chatham County, briefly became Georgia's provisional President in 1777. An early speaker of the Georgia state legislature and later signer of the Declaration of Independence, like most Georgians of his time felt that an independent United States might be unthinkable. Great Britain was then the world's mightiest empire, and the colonies of the Americas were but a fledgling cluster of port cities and plantation towns up and down the eastern seaboard of North America with no organized militia.

But while first serving in a Georgia provincial assembly in Savannah in January of 1776, Gwinnett was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he was first seated that May. Gwinnett became convinced that American independence was worth the risk and price that would likely be paid, and on July 2, 1776 and again on July 4th, Gwinnett voted in support of the Declaration of Independence. Georgia was considered a remote colony, but all three of its delegates to the Continental Congress became enthusiastic supporters of the declaration and the American Revolution which followed.

During the century that followed, Gwinnett County remained a predominantly rural county, and still later a somewhat remote bedroom community for fast growing Atlanta to its south. By the 1940 census, prior to World War II, the county population remained just under 30,000. Rapid growth defined the post-war decades and approaching the 2020 census, Gwinnett has become Georgia's second most populous county, now with nearly 1,000,000 residents. Gwinnett is home to Georgia's largest public school system and one of its highest performing. A strong cluster of municipalities offer differing tastes of Gwinnett life and county pride and its percentage of lifelong residents remains high. A strong technology corridor exists along the county center, and the I-85 corridor is ripe for re-development.

But, Gwinnett County is also changing. During the last census, Gwinnett's population became majority-minority. For decades thousands of Gwinnett workers streamed each morning along interstates, state highways and major thoroughfares into metro Atlanta's core. But that traffic is now much more two-way, with workers heading in and out, both of the high and low-skill variety. Interstate connectivity along I-85, 985, 316 and U.S. Highway 78 remain almost unmatched in the region, while east/west connectors apart from the Ronald Reagan Parkway are few and far between. And while Gwinnett Transit System and GRTA Xpress buses offer service across Gwinnett to other parts of the metro Atlanta region, route frequency is largely limited to rush hour commutes.

Gwinnett county sites were left on the sidelines recently during competition for the nation's largest economic development prospect, the Amazon HQ2 search, solely because of lack of direct access to region-wide transit. The Gwinnett County Commission has developed an ambitious transportation plan for the future, but they are leaving the decision on whether or not the county significantly expands and enhances its local transit options to area residents and businesses.

Gwinnett voters previously approved Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendums to improve local schools, parks, libraries and other infrastructure. Now they have the opportunity to even more significantly invest in their future through a March 2019 Transportation SPLOST special referendum.

Gwinnett County has reached many milestones with an even brighter future potentially ahead, but to maximize those successes and share the wealth with all levels of the local citizenry, a deeper and more tangible series of connections to the rest of the metro region are needed. A dedicated lane on Ronald Reagan Parkway or the Highway 120 corridor for high occupancy vehicles or bus rapid transit could easily improve and expedite county traffic east and west. Direct rail or light rail access from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport would provide an explosive boost in convention and tourism business at the Gwinnett Convention Center, Infinite Energy Arena and the upcoming Revel development.

In his day, Button Gwinnett, British born and raised, first a modest merchant and later a plantation owner, heard the voices of those afraid of the future, but he also knew that America and its people could not prosper as a subordinate, under the yolk and thumb of a large and sometimes oppressive government. If Button Gwinnett was still around today, I'm pretty sure he would be leading the way to get on board this train. Go Gwinnett.

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