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Hall County refocuses its future vision
Some of Chamber of Commerces plans for 2030 stalled, others taking shape
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A group of pedestrians crosss the pedestrian bridge over Jesse Jewell Parkway Thursday morning at the Brenau University Downtown Center.

Vision 2030’s original ‘big ideas’

  • Downtown hotel/conference center: Pedestrian bridge has been built.
  • Culture of wellness: Annual health events were started.
  • Lifelong learning: Featherbone Communiversity was started.
  • Post office relocation: Publicly and privately discussed, but no movement yet.
  • Green space initiative: Hall County Trails Initiative under development
  • Health care center: Medical community growing, including new South Hall hospital.
  • Harbor Town mixed-use community on Lake Lanier: Hasn’t been realized.
  • Visitors Center: Some talk over the years, but no plans have emerged.
  • Senior Leadership: Development of the chamber’s Wisdom Project.
  • Performing arts festival: Collaborations involving arts, musical and cultural events.
  • High-speed rail: Norfolk Southern line is an option for Atlanta-Charlotte, N.C. connection
  • Gainesville bypass: Ideas have floated for a connector, but nothing solid
  • Community of towns: Hall cities have long-range development plans
  • Art districts: Grants have been written to get public art and brochure developed giving a “walking tour” of public art displays.
  • Community diversity: Several multicultural events held through the years.

Some items, such as high-speed rail, a downtown hotel/conference center and a “harbor town” mixed-use community off Lake Lanier, still seem futuristic.

Another of the plan’s original 15 “Big Ideas,” a visitors center off Interstate 985, is viewed as almost outdated, given the advent of mobile devices and other technology.

Still, 10 years into an ambitious plan for how Hall County might look in 15 years, Vision 2030 can check a few things off its list, such as formation of the “Wisdom Project,” which gets older residents involved in sharing their expertise in the community.

The plan, kick-started by the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, “has morphed and will continue to morph as things get accomplished and as other things come up,” said Carl Romberg, immediate past chairman of Vision 2030.

Vision 2030 grew out of an area leadership summit held in March 2005. More than 100 leaders, hearing from officials who led a similar community effort in Greenville, S.C., voted overwhelmingly to begin a similar process for Hall.

More than 800 area residents would later attend a dozen public meetings, where ideas and suggestions flowed. A final report was issued in June 2006.

“Back then, before the recession, everything was glowing and going, and people were saying we were going to be overrun by Gwinnett County,” said Kit Dunlap, the chamber’s president/CEO, recalling the era. “It was just fast and furious.”

Chamber officials “wanted to get together a group and decide what we wanted to be and how to address the growth that was coming so fast,” Dunlap said.

Other places, such as Greenville and Chattanooga, Tenn., had put similar “visioning” plans into place out of necessity, she said.

“The textile industry had left Greenville, and its downtown (had dried up). And Chattanooga had smokestacks and whatever else,” Dunlap said. “They had to reinvent themselves.

“We didn’t. We (wanted) ... to protect the good things we liked about the community — the towns and their uniqueness — but to address the growth.”

Vision 2030 hit a major bump almost right out of the gate, with the Great Recession of 2007-09.

“It took us a while to get going and then the bottom fell out,” Dunlap said. “Nobody was interested in downtown development or other stuff, but we’ve had lots of successes.”

Vision 2030 touched on many aspects Hall residents were already familiar with: a growing medical community, a mix of public and private schools, park and pedestrian trails and performing arts.

It also went out on a limb with large-scale ideas, such as high-speed rail and a lakeside development featuring restaurants, amphitheater and retail space.

The Norfolk Southern rail line running through Hall County is being considered as one of three major options for potential high-speed rail between Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C.

Another of the goals, a Gainesville bypass, addressed a longstanding and touchy transportation issue. That issue has surfaced much over the years, with North Hall residents rising up at one point to oppose the Northern Connector, a road connecting Ga. 60/Thompson Bridge Road to Ga. 365.

Among the ideas that have been realized in a big way is that Hall should become a center for health care education, employment and industry.

Northeast Georgia Health System has been on hyperdrive in recent years, opening new Urgent Care centers, a trauma care center at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville and a corporate support center in Oakwood. And the 100-bed Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton is set to open April 1 in South Hall.

Rob Fowler, who proposed the leadership summit when he became board chairman in 2004-05, said he believed the most pressing idea in the plan was an initiative dubbed as the “culture of wellness.”

“We have a child obesity problem in our community that must be addressed now or it will have a huge impact on our community in the areas of economic development and education, to name just two,” said Fowler, executive vice president for Gainesville’s Turner, Wood and Smith insurance firm.

The chamber has formed a health care committee, started a HealthSmart expo and a wellness-focused 5-kilometer run. It also has sponsored forums addressing the Affordable Care Act.

“The health care and wellness issue has just exploded,” Dunlap said.

A 2012 revision of the Big Ideas kept the ideas intact but changed wording.

“While we didn’t rewrite them, we kind of reorganized them,” said Meg Nivens, Vision 2030 executive director. “In the 25 years of planning to get to 2030, this (plan) will always be changing and growing with the community.”

Reflecting on the journey Vision 2030 has taken so far, Fowler said, “There were a number of people who have helped lead it along because they love the Gainesville-Hall County community and wanted to be a part of taking plans off the drawing board and make them into reality.”

The “reality is we are trying to preserve the small-town character and ambience that drew so many of us here in the first place,” he said.

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