Gwinnett County developer Emory Morsberger spent decades helping to change the face of his fast-growing and diversifying community. He spearheaded the redevelopment of downtown Lawrenceville and promoted Community Improvement Districts, public-private partnerships that use self-imposed taxes to make community improvements. He now heads two Gwinnett CIDs.  

More recently, he’s been a changemaker on a broader and a much more urgent scale. He’s worked to help supply Ukraine and its citizens with food, medical equipment, and other essentials during their country’s war with Russia. That effort involved organizing and fundraising among Atlanta-area Rotary clubs in an effort Morsberger called a “Rotary Relay” from Georgia to the war-torn country.

Atlanta Senior Life chatted with Morsberger earlier this year about his development and relief work.

Q. I understand you got involved with the effort to supply Ukraine with food, medical and other supplies through your work with Rotary clubs. Can you tell me how all that came about?

A. Soon after the war began in February, a Buckhead Rotarian who wanted to do something for Ukraine reached out to his father in Romania asking what could be done. The father knew a doctor in Ukraine who was coordinating efforts with the hospitals in Ukraine.  The doctor in Ukraine came up with a list of [medical] supplies that were needed. The first went over in March. I was asked to accompany the June shipment of medical supplies.

Q. What made you get physically get involved?

A.I had been writing checks to different charities to help Ukraine and I literally prayed about it. I said I wanted to do more than just write checks, I wanted to make a difference. And the next day [an organizer] Chris Brand said, “We are sending a shipment at the beginning of June. Do you want to go with it?” I said yes. I’m staying actively involved and am working to raise money for more shipments.

Q. What were the challenges in getting the supplies to the folks who need them?

A.I went there on June 8 and met with Romanian folks who were receiving and organizing there to ship [relief supplies] across the border. It’s been difficult to ship stuff into Ukraine in the middle of the war. There aren’t flights going in and Ukraine is on the Russian system of railroads. Their railroad gauges are different than the rest of the world, so you can’t go back and forth by train. That leaves tractor-trailers and trucks. I arrived in Romania and spent two or three days and then in the southern part of Ukraine, where I basically helped organize food shipments and handed out food directly.

Q. How are the folks that you talked with holding up?

A. They are strong. And they have welcomed the people who have evacuated from the east with open arms and put them in all kinds of facilities. They’re determined to win, and they are really sticking together.

Q. You talked to many refugees as well, you had said, people who had fled the war-torn parts of the country.

A. I met with dozens of these folks that were in all kinds of housing situations — almost entirely women, children and older men. They were generally middle-class people whose neighborhoods were getting bombed. They’re just like us. I was impressed with their desire to keep their freedom.

Q. Turning to your career as a developer and a civic leader, what made you decide that there was new life to be breathed into places like downtown Lawrenceville?

A. First of all there was a growing desire for my generation to be closer to small towns, and, second, Lawrenceville is the county seat of Gwinnett County, which is the most dynamic county in the Southeast. It just needed a spark, and I was the spark. People said I was crazy and couldn’t turn it around. I said that I was going to do my best and it worked out pretty well.

Q. You were involved in a pretty high-profile push for mass transit some years ago. Can you talk about that?

A.I was the leader of a group called “The Brain Train.” In 2005 and 2006, we were working to set up light rail on railroad rights-of-way radiating out of Atlanta. Our first effort was called “The Brain Train” because it went from downtown, where you have Georgia State and Georgia Tech; then out to Emory [University]; and to Mercer {University] at Northlake; then to Lawrenceville, where you have Georgia Gwinnett College; then all the way to Athens. We had a lot of momentum, but it was shot down by Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2014.

Q. Any current efforts along that line?

A. I’m working the next two years at getting a line along Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Mountain Industrial Boulevard. We’ve got the DeKalb County portion and the Gwinnett County portion, but the two counties don’t talk, so we’re getting organized to actually cross the county line.

Q. Why do you think seniors are more active today?

A. We grew up in the 60s and 70s with the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement and we were interested in what was going on around us, and not counting on the government to do everything for us. I went to Emory, and I was on the 40th anniversary reunion committee a few years ago. We were being shown around by a 27-year-old girl and we got to the second floor of the Emory Museum, and she asked if we could make it down the stairs. It was like a hot poker got stuck in people.

Q. What do you do in your spare time?

A. We’ve got nine grandchildren and my wife is in grandchild heaven. We love spending time with the family. Also, I set a goal 20 years ago of visiting every country in the world and Turkey was number 104. I plan on keeping up with that as well.

Mark Woolsey

Mark Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.