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Lanier venue is key to Hall's Olympic legacy, but faces uncertain future
Docks, other infrastructure worn out by time and use
Participants in the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club Summer Sprints take to the waters of Lake Lanier last weekend. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

More on the 1996 Olympics after 15 years

Venue fixes

The joint venue committee of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club and the Lake Lanier Rowing Club has recommended these improvements at the Lake Lanier Olympic Center:

• Facilities are not adequate to support current programs or additional ones promoting canoe/kayak and rowing.
Boathouse, docks and other facilities need to be enlarged and modernized.
• The center needs renovation to "create a more appealing and accessible, user-friendly venue."
•The boathouse's upstairs section needs reconfiguring and updating
•Boathouse needs updated plumbing and electrical wiring, as well as security enhancement.
•A venue manager needs to be hired.

Source: Joint committee's capital improvement plan

The events

Rowing: Competitors sit backward in the boat and use two oars to propel themselves through water. Oars are fixed to the boat.
Kayaking: A kayak is a closed vessel with a hole in the center where the kayaker sits.  Competitors are called paddlers and use a single, double-sided paddle. Unlike rowers, kayakers face forward when they paddle. 
Canoeing: Competitors are called paddlers and face forward in the canoe as they paddle. A canoe is an open vessel, and athletes use a single, one-sided paddle.

Fifteen years ago this week, Gainesville-Hall County was awash in international attention.

Cameras were trained on Clarks Bridge Park as Olympic athletes dipped their oars and paddles into the chilly waters of Lake Lanier and mobs of spectators swarmed the sun-baked shoreline that hugged the racing course.

It was a magnificent time, perhaps like none other in local lore.

"I remember watching two or three races while I was there," Olympics organizer Billy Payne said. "You couldn't tell who won. They were so exciting, photo finishes. It was awesome. Everybody was upbeat and excited about it."

The Olympic venue still stands today — one of few signs left of the 1996 Olympics — cranking out homegrown, world-class athletes and serving as host to major competitions.

But it has lost some of its shine, its docks and other infrastructure worn out by time and use. Cash-infused venues have emerged in other cities, such as Oklahoma City, Okla., stealing away events that used to go to Lake Lanier.

As a result, private groups operating out of Lake Lanier Olympic Center, as well as club members and government officials, realize some physical improvements need to be done for Lanier to reclaim at least some of its former glory.

The Olympic legacy "is no longer enough for Lake Lanier Olympic Center to stay competitive," states a November improvement plan issued by the Lake Lanier Olympic Center Joint Venue Committee.

The Lake Lanier Rowing Club and Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club have developed a five-year-plan for the future of the Olympic center and submitted it to Hall County Parks and Leisure and Gainesville Parks and Recreation.

The plan outlines nearly $1.9 million in repairs and replacements at the venue, particularly to the main training center and office, boathouse, dock and race course.

Nothing is planned for the timing tower, still standing sturdy on the Lanier shoreline.

"It is no secret that other venues have much better built, managed and maintained facilities," said Stacey Dickson, Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau president.

"We simply have not invested the funds required to keep up with the competition. That being said, I firmly believe that our venue's clubs have done a miraculous job keeping the facility alive.

"If it were not for the dedication of those paddlers and rowers, our Olympic venue would have likely met its demise years ago."

Needed: A leader

Besides repairs and maintenance, Gainesville Parks and Recreation Director Melvin Cooper said the site needs a manager who could organize events and monitor the facilities.

Right now that responsibility falls to members of the two sports clubs.

If the clubs didn't have to worry about the nuts and bolts of running the center, they could focus on training and competing, Lake Lanier Rowing Club President Cliff Ward said.

"That would be a real game-changer for the facility, for the venue as a whole," he said. "It's a lot for these clubs to try to manage their own activities and to attract regattas, and at the same time monitor the facilities and attract events."

On a government level, the city and county share control and take turns maintaining the venue and park. The rest of the work falls to volunteers.

In light of Hall County's $11.5 million shortfall and drastic budget cuts to parks and recreation, Gainesville City Council members have considered taking the lead in maintaining the center.

But those talks are in their infant stages, Councilman Bob Hamrick said.

"At this point, there has been no agreement as to who is going to assume responsibility. We're just to that point where we need to have some meetings and resolve who's going forward with it."

Mayor Ruth Bruner said the city would be willing to take the lead, if necessary.

"Somebody's got to be responsible for managing and keeping it up to snuff," she said. "When it's everybody's baby, it's sort of nobody's baby."

At a meeting a few months ago, Hall County Commissioner Billy Powell suggested the city take a managerial role of the park. The money's just not there, he added.

"I think we missed the boat, so to speak, on some national and even international events because of the facilities needing so much," he said.

Fueled by passion

But what the center lacks in funds, it makes up in the passion of its volunteers and others who want to see it flourish.

Within the next couple of months, the same committee that brought the Olympics to Lake Lanier plans to re-form and act as an advisory board for the clubs.

Jim Mathis, chairman of Gainesville-Hall '96 said it is time to think about the future.

"We've left it pretty much to the two clubs recently," Mathis said.

After the games, the city and county leased the center to Gainesville-Hall '96.

The organizational committee in turn subleased the center to the two sports clubs. The center has almost no staff and operates with a limited number of volunteers.

Doug Smith, president of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, acknowledges the venue needs improvements, something expected after 15 years of repeated use.

"It's aging, but we still have a gem here," he said of the venue. "We have something of tremendous value. After going to these other (venues) and coming back here, I realize what all we take for granted here."

Other cities might have splashy facilities, but "there's really no other venue like what we have at Lake Lanier," Smith said. "It's just a natural, God-given straight river channel ... and we've got the man-made lake that compliments that. It's just an outstanding place to paddle."

One thing he pointed out about Lanier is the breezes.

"With our sport, wind is always a factor," Smith said.

"We can't control the wind, but what I hear consistently about Lanier is wind is not a problem here."

Unlike other venues, "when we do have wind, it's consistent throughout the day," he said.

World-class incubator

Cheryl Smith of Flowery Branch said much of the venue's strength lies in the athletes it produces.

Her daughter, Morgan, a West Hall High School graduate, has been involved in canoe/kayak since the 2003 Sprint Canoe/Kayak World Championships and is now eyeing the Olympics.

"She has traveled all over the world because of that venue and what we do out there," Smith said. "We have kids who are Olympic hopefuls, who represent, in the truest fashion, their home community.

"Every time they go to Romania or California or Lake Placid (N.Y.), they represent their home community," she said. "They represent a legacy that very, very few communities in this country can offer."

Smith added, "I'm not really sure the citizens of this county realize what a true asset and gem (Lanier) really is and can be."

The economic impact of the venue "is nearly impossible to calculate," Dickson said.

That's because "the number of events per year, as well as attendance, varies so widely," she said.

"We have the potential to be an Olympic training facility like Lake Placid or Chula Vista, Calif., but it would cost millions to do it right," Dickson said.

"Is it worth it? Without professional evaluation and some performance data, I would not dare to speculate. My heart says yes, our Olympic legacy is worth the investment. But my head says, show me the data that proves it."

Connie Hagler, former executive director of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, said the Oklahoma City venue is successful because board members are community leaders.

They view improvements as a "quality of life" issue.

The community probably poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the site.

"Decisions are being made to bring events in and to support the venue at a higher level than they are in our community," said Hagler, now president of CMIT Solutions of Lanier in Gainesville.