Sugar Hill, a city on the rise that’s nestled between Buford and Suwanee, might be remembered as the heart of Georgia’s gold mining communities – or as others think, a birthing ground for moonshiners. But a lot has changed since 1939 when the original charter was established.
The City of Sugar Hill has nearly doubled in population size from 2010 when it was 18,522 to 24,112 residents in 2018 according to the latest census. Calculate that in with the ever-changing demands for modernized amenities for the growing population of Sugar Hill and you have what you see today. A city that has all the modernization that you would expect to find in a suburban branch of the Atlanta metropolitan area.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
According to Sugar Hill Council Member Taylor Anderson, legend has it that “Sugar Hill” got its name from a couple of different old wive's tales – one of which, that’s portrayed around the city more so than the other.
"The name Sugar Hill, there were origins of the name and many stories that go along with it but two of them the most popular. The one where a wagon that was carrying sugar, most likely for the stills of the moonshine that was popular along the Chattahoochee river at the time, was carrying sugar up a hill when the wheel broke and the sugar spilled off the wagon and that’s when the city became known as Sugar Hill,” Anderson said. “The other story relates back to the city’s gold mining days. This area was very active with gold mines and quartz was a very prevalent rock at the time inside of those mines. So, when they were mining the gold out of those gold mines, the quartz would flake off and it had a very ‘sugary’ type of look and feel to it. It could have been one of those two stories, but that’s where the name Sugar Hill comes from.”
Since becoming established in 1939, Sugar Hill has faced some hardships, but none that disrupted the quaint city for too long.
Anderson said in 2001, an increase in natural gas prices which was unreasonable to the cost of gas outside of Sugar Hill’s limits caused residents to form “The Committee to Dissolve Sugar Hill” – a petition that had over 1,600 residents’ signatures calling for a referendum to abolish the gas utility and the city itself.
“In 2001 there was an effort by some folks in the city to actually dissolve the city, that effort that went to the state Legislature did ultimately not go through of course because we’re here today but that effort I think re-engaged the citizens and made us become a stronger city as a result,” he said. “You can see those efforts today.”
Development and modernization along with embracing Sugar Hill’s history of the arts is now the focal point of the city which is easy to spot even by just driving through downtown. Passersby will first be greeted by a roundabout featuring a wagon full of “sugar” that lost its wheel leading into the city. On the left is the new City Hall building that was built in 2012 according to Anderson.
“Then you have the E Center which was opened last year that features the Eagle Theater, which we’re actually in right now. The nice thing about the Eagle theater, it’s an homage to our founding decade, the 30’s when Art Deco was the prevalent architecture of that era,” he said. “This theater is meant to pay respects to that time of when the city was actually chartered.”
Directly next door to the Eagle Theater you’ll find the mixed-use E Center, a three-level mixed-use building that was designed by the City of Sugar Hill with its community members in mind according to Anderson.
“Then, of course, next door to us is the mixed-use E Center which has retail, office and a gymnasium and restaurant space in it. That building is meant to look more modern and give you more of a modern feel to it,” he said. “So we have our new city hall that has architecture from the early 1900s, the Eagle Theater from the 1930s and 1940s and then the modern 2000 look of the E Center.”
Another way Sugar Hill is working to incorporate and honor their history with today’s society is by building a 9.2-acre park named “Gold Mine Park,” which according to city official’s will sit along Level Creek Road and will serve as a trailhead to the Sugar Hill Greenway. The 16-mile trail that circles around the city will take hikers by one of the city’s old gold mines. Though there’s no gold left in the mine, users will be able to enjoy Sugar Hill’s preserved green space in the coming years when city officials expect to complete the project.
Sugar Hill’s Economic Development Director Mercy Montgomery says recently the city has “come into its own” as far as establishing a community identity that’s centered around Sugar Hill’s history and working to constantly celebrate that in its new developments.
“In more recent year’s we’ve really come into our own in establishing an identity that’s centered on the history and our community champions that have come before while still looking towards the future,” she said.
Montgomery said with Sugar Hill being so close to Atlanta and being centered in Gwinnett County, it’s allowed the city to continue to prosper, while at the same time, maintain it’s historical background.
“We’re in Gwinnett County and in the North metro-area of Atlanta that’s seen significant growth and I think that’s been a great opportunity for us to step back and make sure that we are preserving those values,” she said. “We’ve really focused on telling that story of how we’ve gotten where we are while honoring that as we continue going forward.”
THEN VERSUS NOW
So why does a city with such rich history that, at one point, was considered more of a small community crossroad want to keep up with the times? Well, Montgomery said new developments and modernization efforts are not only built with the current residents in mind but also for the future ones.
“We are focused on not only building for the community we have now but the community we will have in the future and making sure that we will have a place for everyone. So that’s a comprehensive approach to not only our housing strategy in Sugar Hill but also those places that really lend that quality of life,” she said. “We want to build places and spaces for people to live, people to play and people to grow their businesses. I would argue that we’re a modern city with our roots in the past.”
A driving economic force that has played a crucial role in supporting the growing city, has been due to many small, family-owned businesses.
“We’ve focused a lot on small business development while still remaining friendly to larger industrial businesses that have been here for a long time,” Montgomery said. “Again, mixing and honoring the past while focusing on the future.”
Montgomery said Sugar Hill is a city that is certainly “on the rise” and will continue to stay focused on development with what’s best for its residents in mind.
“We’re a city on the rise. We have a strong foundation that we are lifting from. We know who we are and we know what we are about, but we also continue to stay focused on moving forward and moving on to that next opportunity to serve our public and the people who choose to live, work and play here,” she said.
Thanks to a survey conducted several years ago in Sugar Hill, city officials gained more knowledge about what resident’s hoped to see come to fruition within their community and many voiced their opinion for more housing options.
According to Montgomery, thanks to that insightful input, residents now have several housing projects already underway or will be breaking ground soon.
“We conducted a survey a while back to better understand what that market is and how that market is changing and so that’s informed consideration of projects that are in the works now. Currently, the Broadstone is in construction, just across the street from city hall which will be bringing in just over 300 residential units to our downtown,” she said. “Across Highway 20 adjacent to the Bowl Amphitheater we’ve got another project coming that will bring additional residential options, and then we also have an assisted living facility project that has been approved that is expected to break ground this Spring 2020. Those are all opportunities that are diversifying our community making sure that we fit folks’ needs as we grow in place. We really want to be a home for life, for everybody.”
It’s easy to see why Sugar Hill has coined the phrase “living the sweet life” for its residents since everything the city does is ultimately with the community members in mind.
Don’t just take my word for it though – Anderson said when he and his expecting wife moved to Sugar Hill 16 years ago, they truly found “their sweet spot” in a home within the community.
“I moved here 16 years ago with my then-pregnant wife, so really I have grown up here as an adult with a family. My wife and I have two children who attend schools here in Sugar Hill. I started my own business which is located here in Sugar Hill. I also serve on Council,” he said. “So really living in Sugar Hill means everything to me. I’ve invested everything here in our sweet city. We even worship here. So, everything we do here, for the most part, we do right inside the city. The city has really been the sweet life for me and my family and hopefully, we’re helping others enjoy that sweet life as well.”