College fairs, bull-riding events and graduations used to fill the arena of the Georgia Mountains Center in downtown Gainesville.
Classrooms, professors and students hurrying down hallways will someday take their place, as Brenau University moves toward converting the cavernous gathering spot into the heart of its new downtown campus.
“Brenau is in the business of changing lives,” Brenau President Ed Schrader said during a Monday morning ceremony recognizing the handoff of the convention center to the university.
“I think that adding ... gainfully employed and employable graduate students and their families to downtown Gainesville will change the life of downtown Gainesville.”
Speaking in the former Mountains Center’s theater, Schrader added, “We don’t just want to be a part of a community that serves as an economic engine and a tax base, but also (becomes) a vital part of the civic and social aspects of downtown.”
Brenau signed a 10-year lease agreement in February with Gainesville to take over the convention center at 301 Main St. — which it officially did on Saturday.
Construction is set to start by the end of January and the first class of a new doctoral physical therapy program is expected to take off in the newly renovated building in January 2014.
Brenau’s expansion is projected to add about 500 to 700 graduate-level students to the city in the next 10 to 12 years.
The project is estimated to cost about $6.5 million, officials have said.
The arena will be divided into two floors. The first floor will be home to the doctoral program. The second floor “will be undeveloped and ready for our next expansion in health sciences,” Schrader said.
“We haven’t decided what that program will be, but the programs we’re most highly considering right now are a school of pharmacy or expansion of the physician assistant’s program,” he said.
Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan lauded Brenau’s effort, saying it serves as “just one example” of economic momentum in Gainesville and Hall County.
“This great partnership between Gainesville and Brenau University is very exciting, and we’re looking forward to what it’s going to bring to our downtown area ... and Brenau University,” Dunagan said. “It’s going to be a great long-term relationship.”
Schrader also noted that Brenau plans to make the theater and “other components of the former Mountains Center available to the public as often as we can, and we’ll try to put the best programming that we can in here.”
The center also features a ballroom, which at one time was used for a bevy of government meetings. The Gainesville City Council and Hall County Board of Commissioners now use other meeting places.
Brenau also is looking toward the New Holland community for another possible expansion effort, Schrader said.
“We hope to be playing world-class intercollegiate softball, track and field, and soccer on those flat fields behind the Milliken plant” off Jesse Jewell Parkway, Schrader said.
The school’s No. 3 nationally ranked softball team “needs an appropriate collegiate facility so it will be No. 1 at some point,” he said.
After Monday’s ceremony, Schrader elaborated some on the effort, which has been in the works for about nine months. He said he is talking with Pacolet Milliken Enterprises officials about the project and would have more details later.