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How lawmakers will make Gainesville takeover of Lake Lanier Olympic Park happen
Hall delegation to push annexation, increase in hotel-motel tax for venue funding
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The Olympic Park Boathouse on Lake Lanier in Gainesville, pictured Feb. 24, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

State lawmakers from Gainesville are supporting a plan for the city to assume full operational control of Lake Lanier Olympic Park.

And, so too, is the nonprofit Gainesville-Hall ’96, which has developed a master plan for the venue and managed renovations in recent years.

But it will require a tax hike from the General Assembly in the last days of the 2019 session to make the change.  

The plans have another “monkey wrench” in them, too, said Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville. The property has to be annexed from the county into the city, which also requires legislative approval.

Originally built as a rowing venue for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the park is located north of the city off Clarks Bridge Road.

The venue has taken on a second life since 2014 when the nonprofit Gainesville-Hall ’96 developed a master plan for the park and began long overdue renovations.

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The Germany 50+ Mixed team place first Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 during the 500-meter Grand Final race at Lake Lanier Olympic Park during day one of the 2018 ICF Dragon Boat World Championships. - photo by Scott Rogers

The nonprofit also began recruiting new events, such as national regattas, and has been the site of the ICF World Dragon Boat Championships.

The city and county have jointly funded some operations at the park, about $150,000 each annually, but county officials have been cautious about their long-term involvement in plans for the venue.

“The county really has some other priorities at this point,” said Robyn Lynch, executive director of the Olympic Park.

Gainesville Councilman Sam Couvillon said that he wished the park operated self-sufficiently, but that it’s not a reality despite its storied history and legacy.

And that’s why city officials plan to target an increase in the hotel-motel tax as a dedicated funding stream if and when it’s absorbed by the parks and recreation department.

“I do see the value in it,” Couvillon said. “We’ve been committed to them.”  

Lynch said she and the Gainesville-Hall ’96 leadership is “very supportive of (Gainesville’s) decision and very thankful.”

Legislators from Hall County said they hope to raise the hotel-motel tax in Gainesville to 8 percent from 6 percent to provide a funding stream for the park. 

Lake Lanier at Clarks Bridge Road at Olympic Park. - photo by Scott Rogers

The city has made about $800,000 to $900,000 from the hotel and motel tax annually for the past few years.

Thursday, March 7, is Crossover Day in the General Assembly, meaning a bill has to pass one chamber to be taken up in the other before the year is out.

But since the changes Gainesville seeks are deemed “local legislation,” state Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said he can bring that for a vote at any time.

Hawkins said he is confident the changes will be approved and that discussions about it have been ongoing.

Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said he supported local legislation to move the park under Gainesville’s control and raise the hotel-motel tax, as did Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville.

“I’m supportive and our delegation will pursue this,” Dubnik added.

Between July 2017 and June 2018, the Olympic Park had about $4 million in economic impact, though this figure did not include proceeds from the dragon boat championships, one of the most popular events held at the venue.

Lynch said 250,000 people visit the venue each year, including 3,000 athletes from across the country during two regattas.

“It’s a great venue,” Hawkins said. “It brings a lot of business.”

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Attendees wait in line for food and refreshments during the 4th annual John Jarrard Foundation Lake Show at Lake Lanier Olympic Park in Gainesville. - photo by David Barnes

The city of Gainesville seeks to annex the venue property from Hall County and the tax hike would support operations and potential renovations to the Olympic Park, including new restrooms, a pavilion and repairs to the boathouse that flooded this year due to heavy rains.

Gainesville-Hall ’96 would assist in fundraising and programming as it moves away from management operations, Lynch said, but the nonprofit will also remain an advisory council to the city’s parks and recreation department.

“It’s a huge stepping stone to get started,” Lynch said of the city’s investment, “but there are extra projects that might not be a top priority for the city but could be for Gainesville-Hall ’96.”

“Both Hall County and the city of Gainesville have been important strategic partners since we reconstituted the GH’96 board of directors,” said Mimi Collins, board chair. “They have supported GH’96 in centralizing the management of the park since 2014 and have supported us strategically and operationally. As a result of this support, we have been able to invest in professional management of the park and have made significant capital improvements through public and private partners.  Hall County will continue to be a partner with the park as we move forward. This transition with the city will allow the operations of the park to be managed by one central entity and also allow GH’96 to focus on continued fundraising and capital investment the Olympic Park and ongoing economic development opportunities that benefits all our community.”