A sports mecca in northeastern metro Atlanta is attracting a new wave of capital investment thanks to a game-changing development known as the Infinite Energy Center.
Located in Duluth in the heart of the rapidly growing Sugarloaf Corridor in central Gwinnett County, the Infinite Energy Center district is home to Infinite Energy Arena, the Georgia Force of the Arena Football League, the Gwinnett Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League, the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and large corporate employers such as Primerica and the John Maxwell Co.
For approximately 20 years, the site was called Gwinnett Center. On August 14, Gainesville, Fla.-based Infinite Energy bought the naming rights of the complex and all its major venues.
One week earlier, business and community leaders from around Gwinnett learned that the billion dollars in investment that came to the area since 2000 was about to be enhanced significantly.
Highlighted by a 300-room, full-service, $70-million Marriott Hotel developed by Concord Hospitality of Raleigh, N.C., the surge in capital spending in and around Infinite Energy Center will be transformational not just for the Sugarloaf Corridor, but for all of Gwinnett County, says Nick Masino, senior vice president of economic development and Partnership Gwinnett at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.
“This is all part of a long-term strategy for central Gwinnett,” says Masino. “This is probably phase five of a 20-to-30-year master plan by [Atlanta architecture, engineering and program management firm] Rosser International. The Sugarloaf-Duluth Corridor is already one of the top 10 workforce areas in the metro Atlanta area. This new development will cement this corridor as a top 10 workplace destination for the next 20 years.”
During a detailed presentation at a meeting of the Gwinnett Chamber, Explore Gwinnett and Infinite Energy Center CEO Preston Williams outlined the expansion plans that will anchor the master-planned, mixed-use project. Those plans include doubling the size of the Infinite Energy Forum (formerly the Gwinnett Convention Center) to 100,000 sq. ft., adding 2,000 new seats to the 13,000-seat arena, creating parking decks for visitors and employees, and developing a retail-entertainment-residential district along the main street of the new district. Altogether, the next three years should see $100 million in new investment on the property, said Williams.
“We want to be in the sweet spot in the convention center business, and this will enable us to do that,” noted Williams. “We have to consider traffic, which is why we have engaged a consultant to do a detailed traffic impact study. Our goal is to maintain a campus setting with a lot of green space. We have invested $200 million to date into Infinite Energy Center. It is in our best interest to keep investing.”
The presentation concluded with a ceremonial groundbreaking for a new 166-room, $30-million Embassy Suites hotel — a project being developed by Alpesh Patel, owner of the Kana Hotel Group.
A Magnet for Growth
The new amenities and planned expansion projects at Infinite Energy Center are attracting a bevy of corporate investments. Primerica, which moved 1,600 employees into a new $74-million corporate headquarters just off Satellite Boulevard in the Sugarloaf Corridor in 2013, plans to keep growing at its Infinite Energy Center location, says Karen Fine Saltiel, executive vice president of Primerica, a diversified financial services company with annual revenues exceeding $1.3 billion.
“We moved here because we have to attract new employees,” says Saltiel. “We are the largest employer in the Sugarloaf Corridor, and we are excited about the new Marriott Hotel coming to Infinite Energy Center. We need first-class hotel accommodations and dining. Our visitors and clients often stay in Buckhead. We have to go there and take them to dinner. People now want to live, work and play in the same place. We need a downtown Gwinnett, and this is it.”
Norwood Davis, CFO of the John Maxwell Co., agrees. “When we were looking for a new corporate headquarters, one of our first priorities was 'Where can we have proximity to transportation infrastructure?' ” he says. “Atlanta has Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. We also asked, 'Where can we have talent and attract new people? We wanted a true live-work-play destination. That’s exactly what we found by moving our headquarters here to the Sugarloaf Corridor.”
The John Maxwell Co. relocated to a brand-new, 70,000-sq.-ft. corporate headquarters and leadership institute two years ago and has been growing ever since, notes Davis. “Since our company was founded four and a half years ago, we have tripled our revenues and we have some very exciting growth plans for the future,” he adds. “Among other goals, we plan to sell 1 million books and give away another 1 million books over the next 18 months.” The books were written by prolific author John Maxwell, who was recently named one of the top 25 best-selling writers in the history of Amazon.
Patel, whose Knoxville, Tenn.-based firm has a portfolio of 50 hotels, says his company considers several metrics before selecting a site. “We look at average daily rates and occupancy numbers,” he says. “The reality is that the Sugarloaf Corridor has one of the leading occupancy rates and fastest-growing ADRs in all of metro Atlanta. Plus, the brand availability was here for Embassy Suites. From day one, this community has been outstanding to work with.”
In addition to these developments, Honeywell recently opened the world’s most advanced Industrial Cyber Security Lab in the Sugarloaf Corridor.
Anticipating even more growth, the business leaders of the Sugarloaf Corridor came together to advocate the creation of a Sugarloaf Community Improvement District, which would be the sixth CID to form in Gwinnett. A CID is a self-taxing district that uses additional property tax dollars to improve its district with beautification, infrastructure, and public-safety improvements projects and programs.
Total appraised value of property in the proposed Sugarloaf CID is $944.3 million, with the total assessed value at $377.7 million. Potential CID revenue at 3 mills would be $1.13 million annually. At 5 mills, revenue would come to $1.89 million a year.
Potential CID projects include beautifying the gateway at the Interstate 85/Sugarloaf Parkway exit ramp; creating a safe, walkable environment between Infinite Energy Center, Sugarloaf Mills, nearby hotels and other retail destinations; ensuring connectivity between both sides of I-85; implementing traffic mitigation solutions and improvements; facilitating transportation improvements in the area; and upgrading signage.
Where Gwinnett Goes From Here
Masino says the proposed Sugarloaf CID could deliver an economic impact comparable to the Cumberland CID in Cobb County — the future new home of the Atlanta Braves at the intersection of I-75 and I-285 about 10 miles north of downtown Atlanta.
“Sugarloaf is the main street of Gwinnett County,” says Masino, a former mayor of the town of Suwanee, the city adjacent to Duluth. “It is an activity center that is walkable with retail, restaurants, office space and residences. It is millennial-driven. We now have two great examples of this in Gwinnett County — Sugarloaf Corridor and Peachtree Corners.”
The addition of a new Marriott, Embassy Suites and a $15-million Courtyard by Marriott to Infinite Energy Center reflects the fact that over the last 12 months, the Sugarloaf Corridor has boasted the highest occupancy rates in the region, says Masino. By 2016, the area will offer eight three-star or better hotels. “It is supply and demand. We have 93,000 businesses in Gwinnett, and there are lots of family and friends who come to visit the 900,000 people who live here. Gwinnett is Atlanta’s playground.”
Counting the three new hotels, the Sugarloaf area has seen $250 million in either completed or announced projects this year. That includes the planned $100-million Faqua development known as Sugarloaf Marketplace at the intersection of Sugarloaf Parkway and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard.
All of this expansion news in Gwinnett comes on the heels of Fiserv announcing that it’s leaving Peachtree Corners for Alpharetta and NCR announcing that it’s leaving Duluth for Midtown Atlanta.
“The local media tend to focus on stories like that,” says Masino, “but people forget that during the Great Recession, we went from one Fortune 500 headquarters in Gwinnett to four, and we have a proven track record of back-filling space whenever it becomes vacant. For example, shortly after the Fiserv announcement, Comcast announced that it’s moving its regional headquarters to Peachtree Corners. The reality is that it is very easy to recruit technology professionals and technology companies to Gwinnett County. We are seeing that with the growth of the Atlanta Media Campus at Gwinnett Village, and we are actively working several technology firm relocations right now.”
With a population of 877,922 residents, Gwinnett “has spent more money on infrastructure than any county in Georgia history,” notes Masino. “Gwinnett taught the rest of Georgia how to prepare for projects with engineering and land acquisition. And we are constantly looking at ways to make our transportation network even better.”
The combination of new technology and new film and television jobs coming to Gwinnett gives the county a competitive edge in metro Atlanta, Masino adds. “ 'Fast and Furious 7' was filmed here. So was 'Insurgent,' ” he says. “Much of 'Hunger Games' and 'Mission Impossible' were made here as well. We are rapidly becoming the film mecca not just of Georgia, but of the East Coast.”
In 2014, the Gwinnett Chamber reported landing 23 corporate facility projects that generated more than 1,600 new jobs and $125 million in capital investment. Haso Ltd. (170 jobs), United Arab Shipping Co. (160), and Dasan USA Inc. (150) ranked among the larger deals.
Earlier this summer, a Peachtree Corners–based company whose star sports act has performed in the former Gwinnett Center many times even pledged more investment: Herschend Enterprises, which operates tourism and hospitality properties in eight states, said it would move the HQ of its beloved Harlem Globetrotters to metro Atlanta from Phoenix, sometime in 2016.
University of Georgia economist and Forbes columnist Jeffrey Dorfman recently released a study projecting that property values in Gwinnett will climb back to pre-recession levels in the next 24 months. “I think the state of Gwinnett’s economy is strong, and that they will probably do slightly better than the Atlanta metro average over the next few years,” he said.“We are going to see growth here,” Infinite Energy Center’s Williams says. “That’s why we are putting together the CID. It gives us the opportunity to guide the growth. We have a very focused and committed group of stakeholders. Plus, the Infinite Energy Center has always paid its own way, and we want that to continue.”