Gainesville is one step closer to incorporating Brenau University with its downtown.
The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to hand over the title of the Georgia Mountains Center to the city's redevelopment authority, which will, in turn, lease the center to Brenau for 10 years.
Tuesday's decision came with little fanfare - even representatives from the university skipped the meeting.
But Mayor Danny Dunagan called the vote "the biggest decision we've made in a while."
"I think it's going to be a tremendous boon for downtown," said Dunagan.
Gainesville officials have said the move will also provide immediate savings.
City taxpayers have been covering operating expenses for the center to the tune of about $400,000, according to the lease.
Brenau University President Ed Schrader has proposed the university lease the center for graduate-level classrooms and lab space, potentially for health care-related studies. The first proposed program would be physical therapy. Schrader said the school also will consider adding in-house physician assistance and pharmaceutical programs.
Any lease of the mountains center has to be handled through the Gainesville Redevelopment Authority. The authority is scheduled to meet Friday to discuss its role.
But it is the school's board of trustees that has final say on the lease. The council's vote on Tuesday was only "a step in the process" toward the lease, said Councilwoman Ruth Bruner.
Now that the council has officially agreed to lease the property, Schrader will ask the board to approve a graduate-level physical therapy program to go in the building.
The trustees must approve new degree programs to be housed in the center, which will require faculty and equipment.
The board's decision is expected in March or in the summer.
City officials focused Tuesday on the number of people that the agreement might bring to the downtown business district.
"I think, for downtown, it's going to bring a lot of business and growth," Dunagan said.
Last week, Schrader said new student housing — which could bring 400 students within five years — would be focused near the Mountains Center.
Schrader projects a $40 million annual economic impact to Gainesville and Hall County once the university's programs are up and running in 2014 or 2015.
"It's a huge thing," said Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras.
Last fall, city and university officials signed a memorandum of understanding that the university would conduct a feasibility study on how it could use the center.
Some of the key points in the lease are:
• Brenau University would take over the entire Mountains Center building, as well as its loading docks, but not the parking deck beside it.
• After five years, Brenau will begin paying the city $10,000 per month for use of the center.
• Brenau will honor current scheduled events at the center through 2012.
• At the end of the 10-year lease, the university could propose purchase of the center or seek to renew.
• The city will still be responsible for maintaining the building's roof and exterior.