Gainesville/Hall County: Downtown Developments

The next chapter in the story of downtown Gainesville — a city about an hour’s drive north of Atlanta in Hall County — may be told in a report due to be released in November.

Several pending projects are lined up behind a possible effort to bring a convention-quality hotel to the city. Gainesville’s path to this point began several years ago when local developer Doug Carter announced plans to build Preservation Plaza, a mixed-use building on a site between the Georgia Mountains Center and Gainesville’s downtown square.

“It is a site that has been identified for commercial development for 25 years,” says Joe Burnett, director of Main Street Gainesville.

As Carter delved deeper into his plans, parking became an issue, and he began negotiating with the city to add spaces to an existing downtown parking deck. He put up $250,000 to assure that he could add at least one level to the deck.

That, Burnett says, is where “the plot thickens.”

Carol Moore, executive director of the Georgia Mountains Center, the 25-year-old Gainesville venue for performances and meetings, picks up the story. The parking deck for the Georgia Mountains Center doubles as parking lot for the downtown square. “When I first came here [two years ago],” Moore says, “they had just bid out [the job] for adding two levels to the existing parking deck.”

Fortunately, she says, the bid came in over budget. That was a good thing because, in the interim, Moore had begun to realize that the Georgia Mountains Center was turning away business because it isn’t large enough to handle many events.

“I went to the city council and said, ‘We really ought to have a feasibility study done to determine whether we should expand,'” Moore recalls. The city agreed, with a caveat.

“They came back with a ‘Yes, we should expand,'” Moore says, “but only if done in conjunction with a convention quality hotel.” Which is where the city finds itself now.

Atlanta’s Noble Investment Group pitched the Gainesville City Council in July about the possibility of attracting a convention hotel to the city; the company’s report is due back in November.

So it remains to be seen whether a big hotel will build in Gainesville, and — if so — where it will be. If such a facility does come to town, it also remains to be seen what will happen to the Georgia Mountains Center (will it expand?), to Doug Carter’s Preservation Plaza (will it be built?) and, to the parking deck (where will it end up if a new hotel builds where it’s currently located?).

“There are a lot of people watching and waiting to see what’s going to happen here,” Burnett says. “I hate to be melodramatic, but, really, the fate of downtown rests on this decision and how it goes down.”

Putting it all in perspective, Gainesville City Manager Bryan Shuler says, “We just want to lay every option out there. We are interested in any and all potential projects.” The missing link, Shuler says, is a convention-quality hotel.

Spreading The Word

Whatever happens downtown, the new president of the Gainesville Hall County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) is ready to market it — be it a new hotel, an expanded Georgia Mountains Center or a new mixed-use project. Stacey Dickson took over leadership of the CVB in June, and a month later she was already poised to launch a marketing campaign. Upon her arrival, Dickson happily discovered that comprehensive research already had been done.

“So what I’m doing is taking the research and implementing it,” she says. One of her goals is to establish Gainesville as a hub for the Northeast Georgia region. There are rural communities nearby, Dickson says, that lack amenities such as lodging and restaurants, but do have attractions. Dickson plans to promote Gainesville as a place for visitors to stay while taking day trips to other nearby destinations.

“Atlantans can have the rural North Georgia experience,” she says, “and still have coffee by their bedside in the morning — the creature comforts that they demand, but also the beauty of the mountains.” Atlanta is, in fact, the primary market Dickson plans to target. “There are so many people there that aren’t aware of what’s up here,” she says, “and it’s so close.”

In addition to promoting neighboring attractions, Dickson will, of course, also direct visitors to Hall County locales such as downtown Gainesville, Smithgall Woodland Gardens and INK, the Interactive Neighborhood for Kids children’s museum, which recently relocated to the Featherbone Center, a former textile mill that made children’s clothing.

Located at exit 22 off of I-985, INK is a kid-sized town. “They get a little ATM card when they go in; they can use it to get tokens. They get to role play as the postman or the grocer or the beautician or the DJ at the radio station,” Dickson says. “It’s not just giving them a fun time; they’re also learning how the community works.” In its new location at the Featherbone Center, INK has motorcoach parking, which means Dickson will be able to promote the attraction to school groups.

Another Hall County attraction she’ll be promoting as soon as it opens is the Smithgall Woodland Gardens, a 185-acre garden donated in 2000 to the Atlanta Botanical Garden by Lessie and the late Charles Smithgall. Located in Gainesville, it’s a satellite location of the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

“We’re in the middle of fund raising now,” says Sandra Bailey, co-chair. On tap once financial goals are met are a visitor’s center where weddings and events can be held, a children’s garden, an Asian garden and a waterfall.

“The whole Gainesville/Hall County area is a community on the verge,” Dickson says. “Main Street Gainesville is phenomenal, but it’s right off the main drag, so if you don’t know about it, you miss it. That’s one of the disconnects we’re going to plug up.” She mentions the whole Georgia Mountains Center/convention hotel issue and the pending redevelopment of Lake Lanier Islands.

“We’re sort of sitting at the start gate, and we’re going to be positioning,” Dickson says. As soon as the various projects on the drawing board announce concrete plans, she says, “We’re just going to explode.”

A Focus on Jobs and Growth

Gwinnett County businessman Virgil Williams previewed his plans for Lake Lanier Islands in mid-August before the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority. Williams is planning as many as five new hotels on the site of the 1,041-acre resort, along with dozens of new golf, beach and forest cottages, a spa center, yacht club and wedding facilities. Predicting the buildout will begin in 2007 and continue for several years, Williams estimates he will add more than $200 million worth of development and infrastructure. [Williams is a former owner of Georgia Trend.]

New residential communities are sprouting up throughout Hall County. People move there, says Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, because of the location, the lifestyle and, she adds, because “we’ve got jobs up here.”

Indeed they do. Nineteen new and expanded industries created more than 600 new jobs and invested more than $143 million in new capital investment projects for fiscal year 2006, according to the Gainesville-Hall County Economic Development Council and the chamber.

Russell Vandiver aims to create homegrown jobs in Hall County through the new Manufacturing Development Center, part of Lanier Technical College. Opened in July, the center is an incubator designed to assist start-up companies.

“If an individual has a product that they want to bring to the market, we’ll assist them with whatever they need as far as resources,” says Vandiver, vice president for economic development at Lanier Tech. “We have a facility that they can actually start manufacturing product in, and it’s designed so that they can expand. If they start out with, say, 10,000 square feet and their business starts growing, then we can expand to 20,000 square feet.”

The Manufacturing Development Center occupies 53,000 square feet in the Featherbone Center, the same place where the INK museum now entertains children.

The Manufacturing Development Center’s purpose, Vandiver says, is to help Hall County grow manufacturing jobs. “If we’re successful like we feel like we’ll be — growing 20- and 30-employee companies — that would be a fantastic return on investment. And that’s the way we sold it — as an investment, not as a donation.”

The center was funded by a $246,500 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. Hall County and the city of Gainesville each committed $50,000 a year for three years. Georgia Power put up $10,000, and the Hall County cities of Flowery Branch and Oakwood each gave $5,000 for three years.

On top of all of that, the owners of the Featherbone Center wrote the lease so the center pays for space only when tenants occupy it. “So the school doesn’t have any overhead unless we have tenants,” Vandiver says. The Lanier Technical College Foundation leases space for the manufacturing center, which last summer hired Richard Perguson as director. In July he was busy reviewing applications from entrepreneurs who want to become clients.

Before Perguson came on board, Vandiver handled applications. “I got to talk to all these people who had all these ideas and patents. They would call me and talk about their patents. You know, anybody who’s invented something thinks it’s the greatest thing ever,” he says. “I had all these people explaining these processes to me. I had a ball. I’m a true entrepreneur at heart. Just hearing what folks come up with makes you feel like this is really the right direction for us to be going.”

While Dunlap and Vandiver work to bring more jobs to Hall County, City Manager Bryan Shuler and County Administrator Jim Shuler (the two are not related) make sure the infrastructure can support the growth. At the moment, they’re busy designing a sewer system for the southern half of the county.

“Generally,” Bryan Shuler says, “there is no sewer outside of the city limits of Gainesville though certain cities do have small systems.” To serve the county’s needs and keep it from having to start a utility department from scratch, he says, “The city and county entered into an intergovernmental agreement whereby we are working with them to help plan and then ultimately operate and maintain their sewer system in south Hall County.”

Construction on that should start early next year, Jim Shuler says.

Meanwhile, the city recently completed a major sewer project on Dawsonville Highway, which has become Gainesville’s hub for national retailers. From Panera Bread Company to Marshall’s, Kohl’s and Home Depot, this stretch of road west of the city going toward Forsyth County is chain-store heaven.

The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is working to relieve traffic congestion in the area by widening several miles of Dawsonville Highway to four lanes. Nearby McEver Road, which turns off Dawsonville Highway, was also recently widened by GDOT; the department also is rebuilding the Oakwood interchange off I-985. “I think GDOT labeled this the year of construction in Hall County,” Bryan Shuler says.

Joint Project

Both Bryan Shuler and Jim Shuler share the excitement over a new community center to be built in Hall. “It’s a joint city/county project,” Jim Shuler says. “We’re building a community center. The city owns the property. And in conjunction with the community center, the city wants to add an aquatic center.” Gainesville City Schools is the third partner in that project because that entity is building a new middle school on the property, which the city and the school board purchased jointly.

One goal of the county’s recently completed Vision 2030 project — a plan for the future — is to make Gainesville-Hall County Georgia’s model community for providing high-quality, affordable health care for all its residents. To that end, the chamber reports that the Northeast Georgia Medical Center and Health System will break ground on a new patient tower on the main campus in October and that a new Women & Children’s Pavilion is planned to be complete in 2008 on the west wing of the main campus. Ultimately, plans call for a 96-bed hospital campus in south Hall County.

Jim Shuler reports that the county’s new 1,100-bed jail that is under construction is both on time and on budget.

Bryan Shuler and Moore are pleased with the almost-completed $1.2-million cosmetic renovation of the Georgia Mountains Center, a completely city-financed project. “Basically,” Moore says, “we have new carpeting, paint and new equipment and we refurbished our meeting rooms and bought new curtains for the theater.”

Finally, after several years of discussion about downtown housing, Gainesville is on track to get 12 luxury condominiums just off the square at the site of Henry O’s restaurant.

“Henry Ward has owned the restaurant for 30 years, and he’s tired of being in the business,” Burnett explains. So, Ward did his research and discovered that downtown housing is hot these days. “He hired a local architect and engineers, and he’s practically subscribed possible purchasers” for individual condominiums. If all goes as planned, construction should begin by the year’s end.

At the CVB, Dickson’s new marketing tag line sums up the county, which is home to both Lake Lanier and Road Atlanta: “Fabulous Finds from Shoreline to Finish Line.”

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