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Conference center site at Lanier Islands could be studied this year
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LLI Management Co. board chairman Virgil Williams speaks Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, to the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority about future plans at the Lanier Islands resort in South Hall. - photo by Jeff Gill

A potential conference center on Lanier Islands resort in South Hall could be getting a serious look this year.

The Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority, the state entity governing the longtime tourist destination, has voted to start the process to issue $4.5 million in bonds to “look at, design and plan for the (project),” authority Executive Director Bill Donohue said.

The money could be available by Aug. 1.

“This is the first phase to get some further study, evaluation and design concepts that we can test in the marketplace for its viability and maybe take it to some construction estimates,” Donohue said. “We’re very appreciative of Gov. (Nathan Deal) putting those funds in the budget, and we’re excited about the potential for the project.”

He said a number of projects have been done “where you can put together public funding for a portion of a project — maybe for the conference meeting space, parking deck or something like that — and the private sector often comes in with funds to build a new hotel.

“That’s generally the financing model we’d like to see happen, the first step being some market feasibility … and then try to understand what the positive economic impact would be during construction and operation,” Donohue said.

The idea of another hotel on the resort — or some other use of a long-vacant 200-acre site once occupied by PineIsle Resort — has been discussed for years.

The only hotel property on the 1,100-acre resort is Legacy Lodge & Conference Center.

PineIsle had gone through a series of owners over 34 years. The final one, Marriott Corp., closed the hotel on Nov. 4, 2005.

“The roof was leaking,” CEO Mike Williams said in an August 2015 interview. “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.”

Williams is with LLI Management, the resort’s private leaseholder.

“We’ve been planning … the replacement of PineIsle, to get creative and develop something that the market needed and Georgians needed and could support,” said Virgil Williams, LLI Management chairman.

“We will be emphasizing the training capacity of the facility,” he said. “High-tech industries, with their rapid rate of growth and product change, have to constantly retrain their employees. Very few of them have enough training space in their buildings.”

A Chicago-based consulting firm said in a study last year that might be a challenge for the resort, as “technology-oriented training is being done often in-house and online, and that trend is expected to continue.”

That didn’t deter resort officials.

“We’re taking the next step trying to determine what is the highest and best use of that site,” Lanier Islands Vice President Grier Todd has said.