Gainesville/Hall County: Building On Success

An emphasis on construction
Jennifer Stalcup
Linked To The Lake: Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kit Dunlap

Not since the brutally destructive 1936 tornado has so much of Gainesville been reduced to rubble, but this time the broken bricks, glass shards and shredded lumber that mark the landscape along one downtown stretch of Jesse Jewell Parkway are signs of progress.

Old structures are being leveled to make way for City View Center, a 6.5-acre development that includes a pair of nine-story office buildings, with plans for an 11-story, 250-room hotel. All of this will be linked to the downtown square and its shops and eateries, and to the nearby Georgia Mountain Center, by a 360-foot pedestrian bridge arching over the busy parkway. City View Center would certainly give its future occupants and visitors a view of the city, but it also promises stunning vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Gainesville’s new high-rise development, its neighboring small town square and the forests of green that climb the mountains combine in urban/rustic contrasts that seem to offer something for everyone.

“That is the truth,” says Myrtle Figueras, Gainesville’s mayor, who also finds a financial beauty and a certain symmetry in the City View Center project.

“That entire area, 15 to 20 blocks, is in the process of being redeveloped, but the city is not funding that; it is coming through private developers,” Figueras says. “This makes our taxpayers happier because we will have even more commercial properties to take the pressure off the residential taxes.”

The midtown development will begin when the police and fire departments move to the new Gainesville Public Safety Building on the western edge of town in mid-2010. “We’ll still have to pay for the new fire and police [facilities] but we’ll have more revenues to support them,” Figueras says. “And, too, the move will take the traffic pressure off the emergency responders in that area so the fire fighters and police vehicles can get out to do their jobs.”

For Tim Evans, vice president for economic development with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, the midtown makeover is an opportunity to attract suitors interested in using that area for investment, and one has already come courting. “We are working with a developer right now on 460,000 square feet of retail space,” he says. “And we’re looking at City View Center as an employment center for quality jobs.”

The new development is filling another role for the community. “We have a shortage of Class A office space in the Gainesville market,” Evans says, “and City View Center will fill that need.”

The development is part of a 300-acre site in Gainesville that has been designated a Tax Allocation District (TAD), a distinction that can be used to turn eyesores into tax-producing new buildings. The TAD was an attractive feature in an otherwise unattractive area of town, says Lee Caswell, an officer in Gainesville City Center, LLC (GCC), builder of the City View project. “It’s a necessity to start the building.”

A TAD allows the city to build the infrastructure needed to get investors interested in developing a property, with subsequent taxes from the new development going into a fund to pay for the city’s improvements. GCC, for instance, will build the $3 million pedestrian bridge, with the city returning that investment to the company when the hotel begins booking guests.

“The TAD is a big advantage in attracting new developers,” Evans says. And there is hope the new pedestrian bridge will carry more than people on its concrete shoulders. “We think the marquee bridge will become a real symbol for Gainesville,” he adds.

Building Boom

Right now the city’s symbol could be the construction crane, reflective of the building boom Hall County is experiencing, with more expected.

“We are in a once-in-a-lifetime moment,” says Jim Gardner, president and CEO of Gainesville’s Northeast Georgia Medical Center (NGMC), as he reflects on his hospital’s growth. “We’ve completed $235 million worth of expansion here. We opened the new women’s and children’s center last November and we opened the new North Patient Tower – it’s really a brand new surgical hospital – in April.”

Truth is, the hospital had run out of space in its old facilities, and demand for services had skyrocketed. “This is catch-up,” Gardner says. “We had reached the point of capacity in our surgery. Parts of our building were 40 years old.”

The 42 acres NGMC occupies are full, but that doesn’t mean growth must come to a halt. The hospital has purchased 119 acres of land in south Hall County for the construction of a $200 million facility near Braselton, one that brings NGMC 18 miles closer to the suburbs on Atlanta’s northeastern side.

“That is one of the key growth corridors of the Southeast,” Gardner says. “And the Braselton-south Hall [area] is going to grow and lead the curve in growth.”

It seems the hospital and its host county are sharing growth spurts. Hall County grew at a 30 percent rate to 180,000 people in the first half of this decade, while NGMC was becoming a healthcare enterprise with $600 million in annual revenues and more than 4,000 employees serving a regional population of 750,000.

The hospital’s continued growth helps account for the nearly 60 percent increase in the number of physicians in Hall County from 1996-2006, a number far above the state average. It also may account for the county’s low doctor-patient ratio, a condition that has weight with business and industry site selectors and retirees. NGMC might also take some credit for Gainesville’s being named one of the best places in the nation for the practice of medicine by Medical Economics, a national publication.

“Doctors get recruited on quality of life and the environment they are going to practice in,” Evans says. “They are looking for a lot of the same things that talent from other business operations are looking for. The proximity to Atlanta, the mountains and Lake Lanier are real strengths for us.”

Revitalizing Lanier

At 38,000 acres, Lake Lanier provides immeasurable economic strength to the counties around it that rely on its water for homes, businesses, industries and fun.

Lake Lanier was created in 1957 by an act of Congress after that body approved the construction of Buford Dam across the Chattahoochee River. Originally planned as a part of an effort to generate electricity and provide for flood control on the Chattahoochee, Lake Lanier’s irregular shoreline and its hundreds of picturesque coves soon made it a popular site for boating, fishing and picnics.

In 1962, the state created the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority (LLIDA) to build and look after recreation assets on 1,100 acres coaxed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, managers of all lake properties. The authority sold leases for the construction of hotels, resorts, golf courses, marinas and other recreation facilities as the number of visitors to the lake continued to rise over the last 35 years.

In 2005, the lease interest in the hotels and businesses was sold to LLI Management Company, owned by Atlanta businessman Virgil Williams and his family. Since then LLI Management has launched a massive effort to upgrade and renovate the authority’s assets. (Editor’s note: Virgil Williams is a former Georgia Trend owner, but has no current connection to the magazine.)

“Of Mr. Williams’ $300 million vision, about $75 million [in property improvements] has been accomplished,” says Bill Donohue, executive director of the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority. “The old Emerald Point Hotel has been completely renovated and reborn as the Legacy Lodge, at a cost of $14 million; $4 million has been spent upgrading the Legacy Golf Course. The water park and marina have been upgraded and new houseboats purchased.”

To support such private investment, the LLIDA is putting about $35 million into new roads, a new sewage plant and system and other infrastructure improvements. The lake welcomes more than 7 million people annually, with some 800,000 of them spending time and money on or in Lake Lanier Islands’ amenities.

“We expect our numbers to be up next year,” Donohue says. “The lake has been branded ‘Georgia’s Great Lake.’ The whole look and feel has changed, sort of modeled on the great lodges of northern America with a lot of timber and rock.”

The Williams family is looking to build a $100 million, 350-room hotel to replace the old Pine Isle Hotel that was demolished, Donohue says. Plans are under way to add a yacht club and marina.

Lake Effect

But even as new facilities rise at the resort area, and even with the promise of an increase in the number of visitors next year, Lanier’s waters are still somewhat troubled.

When the lake was formed by damming the Chattahoochee, it took three years for the water to reach full pool, 1,071 feet above sea level. But during the recent three-year drought, the lake’s water dropped 15 to 20 feet below that level, leaving boats grounded, docks out of water and shorelines hugging red clay and mud. The effect on local economies and that of the state of Georgia was profound. Just how profound is anybody’s guess because there has been no definitive scientific study of the lake’s economic value. That’s about to change.

Kit Dunlap can measure the heights and depths of her constituency’s spirits by the water levels of Lake Lanier. Water up, spirits up. Water down, spirits down. Last December the lake level reached its nadir at 1050.79 feet, the lowest level in history.

Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, saw faces sadden when the water went down. “A year ago it was pretty bad,” she says. “And not just for us in Hall County, but across the region and the state. Those of us who live by the lake have to look at it every day. The people in Atlanta don’t have to look at it or even think about it, but they are beneficiaries of it every day.”

In addition to its drought struggles, the lake and the water it releases into the Chattahoochee are centerpieces in a three-state legal clash. Georgia is defending its rights to the water, as are downstream users in Florida and Alabama.

In the midst of the long drought, the ongoing legal battle and the rising de-mand for the lake’s precious water, a group of Hall County leaders, in concert with others in the region who have a stake in the lake’s well-being, formed the 1071 Coalition, an advocacy group devoted to keeping, as its name implies, the lake at 1,071 feet above sea level – its full pool level.

The group’s first project was to commission a study to measure in economic terms the value of the lake to those who depend on it.

“What we discovered is the most needed tool to help keep the level at full pool was a science-based analysis of the economic impact of Lake Lanier,” says Dunlap, vice president of the 1071 Coalition. “What we meant was not only recreation, but also water supply, power generation, housing and whole gamut of the lake’s values to the surrounding area and the whole state of Georgia.”

Two private Atlanta firms and a Georgia State University economist have been hired to measure the lake’s economic value in a report expected to be delivered by year’s end. The document could offer valuable evidence in court cases, among its other uses.

Tom Oliver has a taste for water, as do his constituents. He’s leading the charge to make sure Hall County residents can wet their whistles whenever they want. “We are in the process of trying to permit an 800-acre reservoir in the north end of Hall County,” says Oliver, chairman of the Hall County Commission. “We already have the land, 800 acres, in this public/private venture.”

To some, another reservoir might seem excessive. “We do already have another reservoir on the Oconee basin that can spit out about 7 or 8 million gallons a day,” Oliver says. “For us the reservoir is a safety net. We feel … our county is going to be the place to be in the future, because we are going to have water.”

Community Snapshot

Local Leaders

Kit Dunlap


Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce


Tim Evans

Vice President for

Economic Development

Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce


Tom Oliver


Hall County Commission




Hall County, 180,175; Gainesville (county seat), 34,818; Oakwood, 4,063; Flowery Branch, 3,966; Lula, 2,184; Clermont, 765; Buford, 384; Braselton, 256; Rest Haven, 40

Per Capita Income

Hall County, $28,110; Georgia, $32,095


(July 2009)

Hall County, 9.5 percent, Georgia, 10.3 percent

Top Five Employers

Northeast Georgia Health System, Fieldale Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, Mar-Jac, Coleman Natural Foods


U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia Department of Labor, Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce

Categories: Northeast