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This move helped ‘keep the doors open’ for some in tourism industry during pandemic
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A boat leaves Gainesville Marina heading south on Lake Lanier Friday, May 27, 2022, getting an early start of a long holiday weekend. - photo by Scott Rogers

The tourism industry, pummeled by the COVID-19 pandemic, is still in “recovery mode” but is rebounding.

“There are hills to climb, especially in the business travel/meetings market,” said Stacey Dickson, Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau president, last week. “Some of it is back, but not where we’d like it to be.”

Lanier Islands resort in South Hall and “other folks who have been reliant on corporate group/business travel have learned to embrace leisure travel,” she said. “They’ve retooled and refocused and grown that side of the business.That’s been eye-opening for some of our tourism partners.”

In 2020, at the height of the shutdown due to the pandemic, the jobless rate soared to 73% for those working in Hall County’s hospitality industry 

Refocusing on leisure travel helped “keep the doors open at some places,” Dickson said.

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INK is moving from its Gainesville location to downtown Oakwood with a building to be built there that will be twice the size of the current.

That was made easier because of outdoor recreation, which has been much sought after in the pandemic. Lake Lanier particularly is a huge economic driver for tourism in Hall County, drawing an estimated 12 million visitors per year.

“We’ve been blessed because of outdoor activities,” and because of that, Hall County wasn’t as badly hit as some other tourist destinations across Georgia, Dickson said.

There are bright spots ahead as the industry continues to get back on its feet.

Foremost, grading could start later this year for a new conference center at Lanier Islands resort in South Hall.

The project also would include a 300-room hotel and amenities that would be built later, with the entire development expected to wrap up by late 2024, said Bill Donohue, executive director of the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority.

The conference center would be 130,000-square-feet, including 45,000-square-feet in meeting space. The hotel would have “multiple restaurants, two swimming pools, spa and boat dock for lake access,” said Bill Donohue, executive director of the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority.

“We are already talking with groups who are wanting to get on the calendar for that hotel,” Dickson said.

Interactive Neighborhood for Kids is planning to break ground in September on a new, 50,000-square-foot children’s museum in Oakwood.

The new building will have more space for exhibits including a pottery studio and kiln room for ceramics, a gift shop, a cafe for on-site dining and a helicopter structure at its front entrance to pair with INK’s GrandPappy Airlines plane, which will be moving to the new location.

INK should take 16-18 months to build out, officials have said.

INK would be a key piece in Oakwood’s creation of a new downtown area.

Today, downtown consists of city property, including a park, but not the typical Main Street retail stores. The city is planning a commercial center that would include INK, a community center, a farmer’s market, railroad viewing platform and stores.

Gainesville also is seeing strong signs in its tourism market, with plans for a $17 million renovation of Lake Lanier Olympic Park’s boathouse in the works and construction of a seven-story Courtyard by Marriott downtown off E.E. Butler Parkway.

The hotel is part of The National, a $75 million development also featuring a 157-unit apartment complex with one- and two-bedroom apartments.

Robyn Lynch, Gainesville’s tourism director, told the Gainesville City Council in April that the city is ready to see the new hotel open. She said the city needs three more hotels to keep up with demand for rooms.

“We’ve had several events come up recently where we had to send people outside of the city,” she said.

One of the city’s key attractions, Atlanta Botanical Garden off Cleveland Highway, has done well since 2021, as the pandemic loosened its grip and “people wanted to be outside,” said Mildred Fockele, lead horticulturist at the garden.

“We budgeted for our attendance to be up 20% this year, but it’s been up at least 30%,” she said. “We’re really excited about the rest of the year.”

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Construction crews work Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, at the site of the new downtown Gainesville development The National. When completed the site will be a Marriott Courtyard Hotel and have residential mixed-use property. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Gainesville's Atlanta Botanical Garden is located on Sweetbay Drive north of town. - photo by Scott Rogers