The Town of Braselton could seek bids by spring for a nearly 150-foot wide multi-use bridge over highly-trafficked Hwy. 211.
The bridge, which would be built near the Mulberry Walk shopping center, would accommodate pedestrians, bike riders and golf carts. The bridge would be accessible by golf cart via a freight elevator.
The town is finalizing the permitting process with the Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT).
“We’re still in permitting, but we’re very close,” town manager Jennifer Scott said.
An estimated price tag for the 147-foot, 5-inch long bridge is unknown, but the town will apply $3.5 million of its Gwinnett County SPLOST funds toward the project. Gwinnett County will also allot some of its own SPLOST money to help fund the cost of the bridge. That dollar figure has not been determined yet.
An estimated project timetable is also unknown at this point but could be largely dictated by the completion of the bridge decking. The decking would be manufactured elsewhere — similar to a pre-engineered building — and brought in and placed.
The bridge will bear Braselton’s logo, though that will require a variance request to the DOT — a step which came as something of a surprise to town officials.
“It was a big surprise when we first met with the district office to find out that that wasn’t just allowed,” Scott said.
The bridge will be built to accommodate the planned widening of Hwy. 211, which will expand the route to five lanes.
“We’ve built it to accommodate the widening,” Scott said. “Because if it’s hard now (to cross) with three lanes, imagine when it’s a five-lane (highway).”
The bridge is part of the legacy of former mayor Bill Orr, who sought a safer way for pedestrian and golf-cart traffic to cross Hwy. 211.
“That was the whole reason why he wanted to do this project,” Scott said.
A plan for a junior middle school at its Skelton Road campus got a green light at the Jan. 10 meeting of the Jackson County Board of Education.
The move comes after weeks of intense discussions among the board and system leaders about how best to relieve overcrowding at schools on the west side of the county.
In December, the BOE and staff were leaning toward adding middle school classrooms on the campus of the Empower academy in Jefferson as a temporary solution to the overcrowding. But concerns about how that would impact the Empower campus, along with pushback by some parents and financial concerns pushed system leaders to look for an alternative solution during the holiday break.
The result was a plan to build a "core" school facility on Skelton Rd. for grades 5-6 that will open in the fall of 2023. The core building will be the basic campus, but won't have a gym or completed athletic fields and some of its labs will be unfinished.
The 5-6 junior middle school configuration would give relief to both West Jackson Middle School's massive overcrowding and to west side elementary schools by shifting some 5th graders to the new facility. WJMS would become a 7-8 school.
The reason for the scaled-down aspect of the new facility is cost. To build a complete facility would cost over $41 million, something the system can't afford.
By scaling down to just a core "must-have" building, the cost comes in at $33.7 million, which is the amount the BOE approved Jan. 10. Funding for the new facility will come from SPLOST funds and the recent sales of unused property by the system. No reserves or general fund dollars would be needed, officials said.
In 2024, the system plans to have a bond referendum and allocate funds to complete the facility from those bonds.
The timing of the move was also discussed by the BOE. Given recent supply-chain delays in construction materials, especially in steel, system officials said they wanted to move quickly to book materials so that construction could begin this spring.
Even with a decision made, there will continue to be overcrowded conditions at west side schools next year, a situation that will likely call for additional portable classrooms on several campuses. A preliminary estimate indicates that WJMS will need 6-8 additional units for 2022-2023; WJES 4 additional units; NJES 4-6 units; and GSES 4-6 units.
WJMS currently has 1,365 students while West Jackson Elementary has 1,090 and Gum Springs Elementary 1,047 students. North Jackson Elementary School, which is also in the West Jackson Cluster, has 547 students and is poised to see a boom in growth as new housing in the area comes online.
In other business, the BOE approved:
• a low bid for the replacement of remaining wireless equipment at a cost of $364,500.
• an easement for the City of Hoschton across some school property.
• updated job descriptions and a revised organizational chart.
• A series of personnel moves, including the retirement of Chanda Palmer as principal of East Jackson Comprehensive High School at the end of the school year.
Kurt Ward remembered the reaction of his family when he told them he was running for mayor.
“My wife kind of said, ‘Well, I asked you to get involved, but I didn’t know you’d get involved this much,’” Ward said with a laugh.
Ward, a metro Atlanta native and 12-year Braselton resident, became the town’s sixth mayor after being sworn-in on Thursday (Jan. 6).
“We’re ready,” he said when asked about his feelings on starting his first term. “We’re prepared.”
The 49-year-old attorney has long been involved wherever he’s been, dating back to his youth in DeKalb County at Lithonia High School, where he was voted “Most Involved” by his senior class.
“You name it, I was kind of in it,” recalled Ward, who played soccer and wrestled at Lithonia in addition to other pursuits, including mock trial, math club and one-act play. Ward described himself as “just a rule-following, pretty nerdy kid to be honest” while growing up.
Ward chose far-off Baylor University to attend college after graduating from Lithonia in 1990. Though Waco, Texas was nearly 900 miles away, he had deep roots at Baylor, where his parents, aunt and uncle, two cousins and an older brother all attended. “I didn’t apply anywhere else,” Ward said.
Following college, Ward’s first “real job” came selling shirts and ties at Parisian, the now-defunct department store chain, at then-thriving Gwinnett Place Mall. He can still remember when Pleasant Hill Rd. was the place to be in Gwinnett County.
“I think that gives people a sense of how much I’ve really lived in this area,” he said.
Ward didn’t sell clothes for long. After a brief stint with Chick-Fil-A corporate as a marketing intern, he earned a position in special events, working such high-profile jobs as the Super Bowl, Olympics, a presidential inauguration and G8 Summit and meeting the likes of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and gold-medal sprinter Michael Johnson. Though exciting work, Ward didn’t see the lifestyle as sustainable long-term.
“I just realized in my mid20s that I wanted a family and a home and I didn’t want to travel,” he said. “I wanted a community, really.”
One day, while working a special-events job, Ward picked up an edition of Time magazine and took a mock LSAT. He scored high enough on that sample test to realize that law school was an option.
“So, basically, I surprised my family and came off the events tour and studied for the LSAT for a couple of months,” Ward said.
Ward went on to attend and graduate from the Georgia State College of Law and has spent the past two decades as an attorney. His work has ranged from everything from medical malpractice defense to plaintiff disability cases, the later of which has put him in the courtroom against the NFL, Coca-Cola and Home Depot, among others.
Ward’s first experience with the Town of Braselton came when his parents were house hunting and asked him to join them one day.
“And we just really fell in love with Braselton,” Ward said. “We thought it was close enough to Atlanta, close enough to what we knew, really just had a desire for sophistication and a desire to be a high-quality community at the time that we were looking at it in the 90s.”
Ward’s parents still live in Braselton, as does his brother, who is an area dentist. Ward and his wife then decided to make the move in 2010 when they were living in a Buckhead condo. “
We just decided to go for it,” he explained. Ward called the move a “kind of an experiment for us.”
He said he and his wife would consider moving back to Atlanta after five years if they didn’t have kids. “But if we were fortunate enough to have kids, we felt like this was a really wonderful community for that opportunity,” he said. The Wards, who have 8-year-old twin boys, have been in Braselton for a dozen years now.
Ward, who lives in the Chateau Elan community, became engaged with the public in earnest when he decided to go door-to-door in Braselton neighborhoods to gauge public opinion about the town’s development. He said he was being told that residents of Chateau Elan wanted higher development standards compared to residents of other neighborhoods, whom he said he was told wanted drive-ins, gas stations and strip malls for the arterial roads.
“And I just said, ‘Let me go check and see,’” Ward said. “I know that’s kind of crazy, but that’s what lawyers do, right?’
What he learned, he said, was quite the opposite from what he’d been told.
“It was unanimous that nobody wanted that, to repeat a Jimmy Carter Blvd. or a Pleasant Hill growth pattern,” Ward said.
That early civic engagement didn’t serve as a catalyst for seeking public office, however.
“I’m willing to serve but this not my ultimate desire in life,” he said. “I love my wife, I love my job and I love my kids … So, it did not. Originally, when I got involved in this, I did not have an inkling or an idea of pursing office.”
Still, peopled joked with Ward that he should run for office, even mayor, though he said he didn’t want to run against longtime mayor Bill Orr, whom Ward praised.
The prospect of running for office shifted, however, when Orr announced in early 2021 that he wouldn’t seek a fourth term.
“And when Bill Orr decided to step down in 2021, that’s when conversations began that if Bill is not going to be there, who should consider the mayoral position?”
That ended up being Ward, who ran and defeated former District 4 councilman Hardy Johnson in November 2021.
Ward views his work as Braselton’s mayor similarly to volunteer service. And Ward has volunteered extensively, everything from serving in multiple positions at his church to mock trail coaching to even coaching a triathlon team for Eagle Ranch.
“My wife put it probably best, ‘This man is going to serve somewhere, and right now, he thinks that this (serving as mayor) is a need and it needs to be filled,’” Ward said.
As part of a council of which three of five members are new, Ward and Braselton leaders will be tasked with navigating issues tied to the town’s growth.
“We need to take an inventory,” Ward said. “We need to get a reality check. We need to understand what is our current housing stock, what is our current housing situation with the zoning that’s already taken place.”
And not only in Braselton, he said, but the three-to-four mile parameter around town.
“That’s where we’re really going to focus a lot of time in this first quarter of the election cycle — taking an inventory and establishing what’s our real long-term sustainability patterns,” Ward said.
Asked about the future of the town, Ward said he sees a vibrant community that will continue to be a desired destination for people to live.
And one that can stand out.
“I think if we can create recreational destinations within one to two miles of every neighborhood, we will be a case study for communities around the nation,” he said.
“We’ve definitely got people interested in helping us do it,” Ward added. “We’ve just got to figure out how to facilitate it as a town.”
The area surrounding Braselton continues to be among the hardest hit in the state in terms of COVID-cases as the highly-contagious omicron variant continues to tear through the population.
As of Monday (Jan. 10), Jackson, Hall and Barrow counties all ranked in the top 10 in the state in COVID cases per 100,000, according to data released by the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Jason County ranked fourth with a rate of 20,518.07 cases per 100,000. Hall County was fifth with a rate of 19,353.13, and Barrow County seventh with a rate of 18,816.2.
Meanwhile, Jackson, Hall, Barrow and Gwinnett counties all saw single-day records for new cases last week.
Jackson County reported a record 222 new cases on Jan. 6, while on the same day Hall County recorded a record 494 new cases and Barrow County a record 297 cases. Gwinnett County reported a record 2,217 new cases on Jan. 7.
The state hit a record 21,276 new cases on Jan. 7, dwarfing third- and fourth-wave peaks of the pandemic.
NGHS now at 262 COVID patients
The Northeast Georgia Health System (NGHS) was treating 262 COVID patients on Monday (Jan. 10), up from 202 last week Sixty-seven COVID patients were being treated at NGHS’s Braselton campus.
As of Monday, 71% of all NGHS COVID patients were not fully vaccinated.
The system’s record for hospitalizations is 355, which it reached in January of 2021 during the third wave of the pandemic. Forth-wave cases peaked at 333 at NGHS in September of 2021.