With annual flooding, visible water damage and a cracked foundation, a major renovation of Lake Lanier Olympic Park’s boathouse was long overdue.
The boathouse, built as a temporary facility for the 1996 Olympic Games, was never intended to last more than a couple of years.
But the city of Gainesville and Hall County decided to continue to maintain the facility, making it a major attraction for northern college and club rowing teams looking for a warmer place to train in the winter, as well as a popular venue locally.
While waters are still frozen over in Michigan, Lake Lanier provides a course fit for Olympians. It’s where Nevin Harrison trained before winning a gold medal for women’s kayak racing in Tokyo last year.
While the park and its boathouse remain valuable attractions, the boathouse is in bad shape.
“It pretty much sat like a time capsule almost from the Olympics to today,” said James Watson, facilities manager at the park. “What you see is how it looked during the Olympics.”
The boathouse doesn’t have heating and cooling. It has little insulation, and its roof wouldn’t hold up against a fire emergency if the sprinkler system was activated, Watson said.
The upcoming $17 million renovation project requires tearing the boathouse down to its foundation and constructing a new facility that would be an event center in addition to a place where teams could store their boats and equipment. The main floor will be opened up for a tall ballroom that can seat up to 400 people or flex into three smaller meeting spaces.
“With the ballroom we’re going to be able to bring in conferences and events that we’ve never had here before,” Tourism Director Robyn Lynch said. “It’ll be all new events on top of what we’re already doing with rowing.”
The building will be raised four feet to help eliminate flooding issues. It will feature a kitchen with a design inspired by Lanier Technical College’s facility, Lynch said, as well as workout facilities, direct access to docks and a service entrance for caterers and vendors. The hope is it will provide an event space unlike anywhere else in the county.
The current facility is a U-shape toward the lake with separate areas for different sports, but the new boathouse will have a more open floor plan with all sports and boats in one large area.
The project will be funded through the city’s hotel-motel tax fund, almost entirely fueled by nonresidents. But the city doesn’t have all the cash on hand, City Manager Bryan Lackey said.
The fund brought in about $1.2 million in fiscal year 2021, which ended last June, and it expects to collect between $1.7 million and $2 million this fiscal year. The city will take out a bond to pay for the project, and the debt service will be covered by hotel-motel tax revenue, Lackey said. Details of the bond are yet to be determined, said Jeremy Perry, the city’s chief financial officer, and construction will likely start before a deal is made.
“We’re expecting to have a record year this year (in hotel-motel tax revenue), with the last two years being records over any other previous year,” Lackey said. “We’re confident that’ll cover it.”
The city raised the tax from 6% to 8% in 2019 to raise funds for improvements at the park. In the event that revenues come in below expectations, Lackey said the city would dip into its economic development fund, which is fueled by sales of industrial park lots, such as those at Gainesville’s 85 industrial park.
Gainesville officials plan for the boathouse to be revenue neutral once fully operational.
The building will have storage in the bottom level with workout space and locker rooms for teams. The main floor will include the high-ceiling ballroom, catering kitchen, a bridal suite and a covered outdoor terrace area. The top floor will have offices and an executive board room with a fireplace, an option for business retreats or board meetings for those in the community, according to site plans.
And it will have a better view of the lake with all glass on the backside.
“Right now it’s like a submarine,” Watson said.
The boathouse will feature the same amount of storage space for boats, and rowing clubs will be moving their equipment to a temporary storage building over the next two months. The park will add 92 parking spaces near the boathouse as part of the project.
There have been pushes over the years to upgrade the boathouse, including inquiries from club teams in the 2000s. But ownership of the park and who would pay for it was complicated.
“You’re on a federal park… county property, but the city and the county together took care of it, and then you have the clubs, and you have the (Lake Lanier Olympic Park) Foundation” Lynch said.
The city of Gainesville took over operations of the park in 2019, the same year it raised hotel-motel taxes to start raising money for a project like this.
Before then, “nobody was really sure if they rebuilt it, who was going to own it,” Watson said.
The boathouse isn’t the only work being done at the park.
The Lake Lanier Olympic Park Foundation helped raise money for a new plaza pavilion, expected to be constructed by the end of the year, fueled by a $600,000 donation from Northeast Georgia Health System. The pavilion is just one part of a plan to construct new trails, add a courtesy dock and install new public art. New restrooms were finished at the park last year, replacing facilities that were built more than 50 years ago.
The boathouse project is expected to finish construction in the fall of 2023.