As featured in the Summer 2019 issue of The Executive, an online magazine featuring members of Gwinnett Chamber’s Chairman’s Club.
The Mayor of Sugar Hill has big dreams; big dreams some people would think are unrealistic. And maybe they are, but Mayor Steve Edwards, his city council and staff have created a city center and entertainment district out of almost nothing. Over the last 10 years, Sugar Hill’s downtown went from an outdated City Hall and a few office buildings to a destination where Rock & Roll Hall of Fame stars come to perform. So, who’s to say big dreams can’t realistically come true?
Like a lot of the cities in Gwinnett County, Sugar Hill experienced a population boom in the early 2000s. “There was a sense of competition among the cities. Cities in Gwinnett were doing great things,” said Edwards. “In the early 2000s, we’d fallen behind, but now I feel like we’re keeping pace.”
Located about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta, Sugar Hill officially opened the E Center in April, which added boutique restaurants, shops, the indoor multi-use Eagle Theater, offices and gym to a new downtown area that has been a decade in the making. In 2010, Sugar Hill selected the site for a new City Hall building, which now opens onto a public green space and splash pad. The park borders The Bowl at Sugar Hill, the City’s outdoor amphitheater, which hosts ticketed events for local and national talent. The E Center sits next to City Hall and stretches down the block, bookended by the new community gym, which is free for city residents. “I see people engaged in the new spaces. Families walking around between the Eagle Theater and E Center eating outside and kids playing in the splash pad, and I just think, wow, we’ve really done something here,” Edwards said.
Edwards served on the Sugar Hill City Council for 10 years prior to being elected mayor in 2014. A man with big dreams and the personal motto “Go big or go home,” he credits his leadership team and City Manager Paul Radford’s office for working together to create the lively downtown center now serving the population of Sugar Hill and surrounding areas of Gwinnett County.
“I’m really proud of the whole group,” he said. “The mayor and city council set policy but it’s the city manager who really does the ‘make it happen’ work. I try to stay out of their way. It’s cool to see the whole plan coming together.”
The plan all along has been to bring people together. About 11 years ago, the City surveyed residents and the results were clear. “They wanted a place to be entertained, a place to eat and have a sense of community,” Edwards said. “We started to buy up property downtown so we could have control of what goes in there. We wanted to create a sense of place, a destination, but with a feeling of distinction; something uniquely Sugar Hill.”
As the City has worked to create a community gathering place, Edwards said it was important to preserve the City’s small-town atmosphere. “We love our schools. We love our churches. We love our community. Sugar Hill feels like a small town. It’s unique to still have that sense of community in suburban Atlanta,” he said. To keep that unique atmosphere, Edwards said the City has specific parameters about the kinds of businesses they want to attract with their new construction. “We’re very deliberate about who we approach about being a part of the E Center,” he said. “We like local entrepreneurs. We’re so close to the Mall of Georgia, which has all the national chains. There’s nothing wrong with national chains, but we want to create something new and different here.”
For Edwards, one of the distinctively Sugar Hill attractions in town is the 1,750-seat Bowl. “Everything we do in Sugar Hill is a little different. I believe The Bowl is the unique component of our initial redevelopment,” he said. Built in 2014 and ever increasing in popularity, The Bowl recently hosted rock ’n’ roll legend Joan Jett, who played to a sold-out crowd – the first crowd to have access to Crazy Dough Pizza and Central City Tavern in the newly opened E Center. A new brewery will also be open to the public later this summer and will be ready for crowds coming to The Bowl for shows featuring rock/jazz group Blood Sweat and Tears on August 3 and country artist Clay Walker on August 30.
With most major construction projects, cities can usually expect some negative feedback, but Edwards said there has been no issues from the community during the downtown development. When building began in the center of town and brought attention to what the City Council had planned, Edwards said he was expecting some pushback, but it never came. “At the opening ceremony for the E Center, hundreds of people showed up. It wasn’t just the people we invited, it was the community coming out to support us,” he said. “That was a great surprise.”
Plans for the immediate future of Sugar Hill include continued work on constructing the Sugar Hill Greenway, an 11.5-mile trail beginning and ending downtown that will connect parks and other destinations. Pedestrian bridges over State Route 20 and more mixed-use and residential development to feed downtown businesses are also in the works. But, in true big-dreamer form, Edwards said the sky’s the limit for future amenities and businesses. “We are a city that is creative. We think outside the box and we are always looking for partners,” he said. “This is a great place to invest. Some cities are landlocked. We can go further because of where we’re positioned. We can and will continue to grow.”
ADD BY THE NUMBERS
This article was featured on the cover of the Summer 2019 issue of The Executive, the Gwinnett Chamber’s publication featuring its Chairman’s Club members. Cover photo by Jennifer Stalcup.