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Gainesville plans study for new convention center

POSTED: February 14, 2013 9:04 p.m.

The Gainesville City Council took a major step Thursday toward opening the door to a new convention center.

At Thursday morning’s work session, the council placed on the consent agenda a resolution to study the likelihood a new convention space can thrive.

Angela Sheppard, assistant city manager, said a feasibility study will assess the viability of the convention center. The plans may sound familiar as the city has for years been hoping to lure a hotel to a site across from the former Georgia Mountains Center, a convention center leased to Brenau University last year.

“(The study) is basically evaluating the market demand for it — what would that be?” Sheppard said. “What appropriate size would it be for the city and the hotel? Taking the whole city into consideration, what are the best locations for it? Are there any partnering strategies that would make sense? Is it best all private? Is there potential for any public-private partnerships there and what that looks like?”

Ideally, city officials said, the convention center would be adjacent to a future hotel development in the midtown area of the city.

Developers purchased space for a hotel across from the former convention center, with a pedestrian bridge linking the two areas, but plans stalled when the recession made the climate for new development less than ideal.

The city later decided to lease the Mountains Center to Brenau for graduate level classes, and many said Thursday that decision was made because the space couldn’t draw the kinds of events the city wanted.

Mayor Danny Dunagan said Gainesville has missed out on headline acts due to lack of a large convention space.

“The Mountains Center was not large enough to host any named entertainers because there weren’t enough seats, and we missed out on a lot of that,” he said. “The meeting space is just too small, and we turned down multiple requests to have conventions here.”

Dunagan said the center began to cost taxpayers as its value as a meeting space declined.

“The Mountains Center — one of the reasons we were anxious to do the deal with Brenau, other than for Brenau’s sake, was that the city of Gainesville was losing between $300,000 and $400,000 a year because it just wasn’t large enough to hold much,” he said.

Sheppard said one aspect of the study will be looking at what sort of interest a new convention center would attract.

“Some of the study will give details of what types of events are we looking at. Is there any sort of niche market, or are we looking at something bigger for regional events? ” she said. “It will give us some more detailed information.”

Kit Dunlap, president of Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said the step is encouraging.

“I think it’s great that the city is being aggressive and trying to get this study done,” she said.

Plans are for the study to be done by an independent contractor and funded by a $25,000 award from the Georgia Department of Economic Development, Sheppard said. The study should be completed by Sept. 1.

Councilman George Wangemann asked Sheppard if she thought the process might exceed $25,000. Sheppard said she didn’t anticipate cost overruns, and the council would have to authorize any spending above that amount.

“Because of the economy, things that used to cost $40,000 cost $25,000 now, so this should be enough to get us a pretty good study,” Councilwoman Ruth Bruner said.

Though some have questioned taxpayer cost of the pedestrian bridge that ends at the potential hotel site,

Dunagan said the city has not spent a dime on the bridge and the point of the study is also to prevent taxpayer cost.

“We won’t spend anything until there’s some development,” he said of the bridge costs. “The city will reimburse the developers once there is something off that bridge.”

As for the timeline of the hotel, its future hinges on the study as well, Dunagan said.

“The developers, the same for the hotel chain, whatever the one that we choose to come here, (are) just waiting for a little better time to build. And as I understand it, now they’re waiting to see how this feasibility study comes out,” he said.

While the study won’t produce hard numbers for a while, Dunlap emphasized that the economic impact would be far-reaching.

“A convention center would have a huge impact on the business — in downtown Gainesville and all of Hall County — it would draw a lot of restaurant industry, hotel business and retail.”

Dunagan said Gainesville, with its size and amenities, is overdue for the space.

“Gainesville and Hall County needs a nice convention center. We’ve got everything, all the amenities, to attract the conventions here — the proximity to Atlanta, Lake Lanier, mountains.”

The move is a step forward in a slow process, Dunagan noted.

“These things take time. You have to be patient. It’s going to be interesting and exciting to see how it does unfold and what the study says,” he said. “We’ll wait for the study, and then we can either back down or move forward from there."


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