Lanier Islands highlights
August 2005: Virgil Williams family takes over control of Lanier Islands.
November 2005: PineIsle Resort hotel closes.
2007: Work starts on refurbishing bridges, along with road repairs.
April 2008: PineIsle hotel demolished.
January 2010: New sewer plant dedicated.
2010: Sunset Cove restaurant and beachfront recreation area opens.
2011: LanierWorld, a revamping of the beach and water park, opens.
November: SnowWorld, featuring tubing, speed slides, skating, carnival rides, starts its first season.
Ten years after anchoring its operations at Lake Lanier Islands, the Virgil Williams family has remade the 1,100-acre South Hall resort — down to changing its name.
But the silver-haired patriarch says: Stay tuned.
“We’re just beginning,” Williams said in a sit-down interview at resort offices last week. “I know we’ve done a lot ... but we’ve got a long ways to go.”
The resort has undergone a huge transformation since Islands Management Co., led by Williams and his son, CEO Mike Williams, assumed operations in August 2005.
The work has included rebuilding roads, bridges and other infrastructure, as well as tearing down the 34-year-old PineIsle Resort in 2008 and renovating what is now known as Legacy Lodge & Conference Center.
When the Williams family arrived, the islands “were in disrepair,” Mike Williams said.
One of the first acts by Virgil Williams was to sit down with the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority board and say “we’re not willing to put our capital at risk unless you are willing to reinvest in the infrastructure with us,” his son said.
“And they agreed to that — it’s in the lease,” Williams added.
The resort, now known as just Lanier Islands, was publicly owned and operated between its founding in the 1960s until the mid-1990s, when the state decided to turn over management to private business.
California-based KSL was the first to assume a lease of the property. The Williams family is in the midst of a 50-year lease.
After setting up shop, “we immediately starting meeting with land planners and developing a vision of where we’re going to take the island.”
The new company turned its attention to the 254-room PineIsle, which had gone through a series of owners. The final one, Marriott Corp., closed the hotel on Nov. 4, 2005.
“The roof was leaking,” Mike Williams said. “It was in bad shape. (Before it closed), they were having to sell their rooms real cheap and that was driving down rates at the other hotel.”
Marriott asked the Williamses if the company could exit its lease and “give us the assets and the building,” Williams said. “They’d just walk away.”
After a long evaluation, the family decided to tear down the old hotel rather than rebuild.
Also, in the early years, “we were under mandate by the state to do some improvements to our (sewer) plant,” Williams said. “It was the original, old plant, and it didn’t meet new standards.”
The authority built a new $10 million plant “that should last 50 years,” he said.
Also, there was heavy work done on one of the resort’s two golf courses.
Mike Williams shook his head when asked about the widespread face-lifts on the islands.
“Everything you look at, you’ve got to write a check,” he said. “It’s endless. You can keep spending money here until the cows come home.”
The Williams family has had deep pockets, though, with Virgil Williams coming into the project after years as a Gwinnett County businessman. He was a developer when Gwinnett growth was in its infancy.
“Fortunately, I had the energy, creativity and the money to (make improvements),” Virgil Williams said.
The 2007-09 Great Recession was a big obstacle to the family rolling out plans for the resort, including the development of a second hotel.
“It’s been a lot more difficult than I thought it would be, primarily due to the economic environment we’ve been through,” Virgil Williams said.
Still, the experience has been worth the struggles.
“The goal was having a chance to work with the family,” he said. “I sold all of my businesses and wanted ... to do something really constructive for the community, something that would add long-term value to the state.”
And the state is kicking in with its own improvements. The Georgia Department of Transportation is planning to widen Ga. 347/Lanier Islands Parkway from the resort to McEver Road, finishing up what will be a Ga. 347 widening to Ga. 211/Old Winder Highway.
When finished, the newly widened road will cross several major traffic arteries, including Interstate 985, and end just a few miles shy of Interstate 85.
That means more exposure to potential tourists, increasing business at the already busy resort.
“I-85 access from the north to over here will be really valuable,” Mike Williams said.
Overall, the family feels like it’s in a good position today, especially with the recession receding further into history.
“We’re as optimistic as we’ve ever been,” Mike Williams said. “Hopefully, as the market comes back, we’ll be able to build additional lake houses and add on wings to the hotel.
“Our dream would be to build a second hotel on the property. We’d love to get there, and I think we’ll see it.”
Also, the resort hopes to build up SnowWorld, a winter attraction that started last year featuring skating, carnival rides and other festive sights and sounds.
“If I can drive that year-round business, it’s a really big economic difference for the property,” Mike Williams said.
His father agrees, saying his family has a dream “for this property and what it can be for the state, and we’ve just barely started.”