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Event organizers search for plan B beyond Ga. Mountains Center
Brenau takeover of city facility leaves bull riding, gun show seeking new sites
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Shuffling events

As the Georgia Mountains Center revamps to become the Brenau Downtown Center, events held in the arena likely will have to look elsewhere for a venue.

The organizer of the Southeastern Bull Riding Championship is considering two sites in the Gainesville area.

The Junior League’s annual thrift sale will be held in a different part of the Georgia Mountains Center.

The Eastman Gun Show won’t be stopping in Gainesville but instead will have a show in Jefferson.

For more than three decades, the Georgia Mountains Center has played host to job fairs, gun shows, concerts, graduations and even a wrestling match or two.

But the downtown arena space has outlived its use and annual events that call the center home will have to find a plan B.

Earlier this month, Brenau University officially moved into Gainesville’s convention center, now dubbed the Brenau Downtown Center, and will transform the building to house its new doctoral physical therapy program, set to open in January 2014.

A major part of that transformation is converting the center’s 18,000-square-foot arena into two floors of classroom space.

That won’t leave room for the Eastman Gun Show, which has annual stops in Gainesville. Instead, it will visit a venue in Jefferson.

“I’ve looked around in Gainesville and there’s not another building that’s comparable to that, so we just won’t be doing Gainesville anymore,” Raymond Johns, the gun show’s organizer, said. “We regret losing that location because it was really good to us over the years, and there was always a good turnout for the gun show.”

But, city officials said, it was in the city’s best interest to lease the center to the university.

“Even though those events brought money into the community when people would stay and spend the day, there was still only a certain price they paid for the Georgia Mountains Center. And the center needed to be able to financially stand on its own, and it was not able to do that with the events that were being held here,” Catiel Felts, Gainesville’s spokeswoman and tourism director, said. “That is ultimately why they entered into the agreement with Brenau.”

In January, Brenau officials signed a 10-year lease for the convention center. The university will not pay rent for the first five years as it funds the $6.5 million renovation and program expansion. After that time, Brenau will pay the city $10,000 per month to use the center. The lease can be renewed for up to five decades.

The school estimates the expansion will add between 500 and 700 graduate-level students to the city in the next 10 to 12 years. That constant tax base, city officials said, could mean more to the city, financially speaking, than the annual events in the convention center.

“When the city sat down to look at the mountains center and what was the best use of the center in the community, financially, the right thing to do was to do something different,” Felts said.

“The hope is with Brenau taking over the mountains center and those students starting school there, is they’re not just going to be visitors to the community, but they’ll come into the community, they would buy homes, increasing the city’s tax base and using other amenities the city has to offer.”

Bryan Hope, the promoter for Southeastern Championship Bull Riding, which is traditionally held each January at the mountains center, said he understands the city’s move, but hates losing the venue.

“I hate that happened in Gainesville,” he said. “We were there 21 years, and I think that our show was a real quality family show. I hate that we’re not going to be able to go back, but that’s the way life is.

“I don’t want to talk negative about the city of Gainesville or the (Georgia) Mountains Center — they had to do what they had to do. I hate it, but I’m ready to move on.”

Hope is looking at two facilities in the Gainesville area to host the bull riding event. He doesn’t “want to spill the beans until I got the deal sewed up,” but said the event could be held as early as March or April.

“We’re going to have one over there somewhere,” Hope said. “There are two facilities that we are looking at, both in the Gainesville area.”

But not all event organizers will have to look elsewhere.

The university will still “aggressively market” a 300-seat theater and a ballroom that can be partitioned into three rooms.

“It’s not going to be arena space anymore,” David Morrison, Brenau spokesman, said. “(But) we made a commitment that (the theater) will be (available).”

The Junior League of Gainesville-Hall County hosts its annual thrift sale on the first Saturday in October. That event, historically, has been housed in the arena.

But even though that space will be no more, the organization will still use the convention center for its annual fundraiser.

“We won’t be able to use the arena going forward, but they have helped us kind of come up with a plan to use the mountains center for the event,” Gerran Syfan, president of the Junior League, said. “For our event, it’s certainly doable, so we’ll see how it goes.”

The loss of crowd-drawing events from Gainesville’s business epicenter is of some concern for tourism officials, but, they said, creativity is key in attracting other kinds of events.

“Certainly the Georgia Mountains Center was here for a purpose and it has served that purpose well and was able to be a regional facility for Northeast Georgia and has been for many, many years now,” Felts said. “I think what we have to do when a change like this occurs is we have to step back and ask what are the other opportunities.”

She said tourism officials have pushed hard for other events that utilize the area’s resources, including fishing tournaments, which, Felts said, have done well in the area.

“If there is something that seems like a good fit for Gainesville-Hall County, we are trying to make it work,” she said.

“From a tourism standpoint, if there is a group that wants to come to Gainesville and we can find a space that is suitable for that, we are happy to do that and certainly we will be looking. But there are certain events that only the (Georgia) Mountains Center arena could hold. So those will be going someplace else.”

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