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Officials say Mountains Center needs upgrades to bring business back
City hopes renovations will attract conferences to Gainesville
The Georgia Mountain Players perform recently in front of an audience at the Georgia Mountains Center. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

How the Georgia Mountains Center stacks up

Gainesville (Hall County)
Population: 36,000
Facility name: Georgia Mountains Center
Capacity: 18,000 square foot arena, theater seats 300 people, three meeting rooms, one boardroom
Proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: 63 miles

Dalton (Whitfield County)
Population: 34,000
Facility name: Northwest Georgia Trade & Convention Center
Capacity: Two-story convention center with 3,500-square foot outdoor exhibit area, two exhibit halls around 20,000 square feet, two ballrooms with 4,000-6,500 square feet, nine meeting rooms, 2,400 square foot lecture hall and two boardrooms
Proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: 97 miles
Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport: 30 miles

Valdosta (Lowndes County)
Population: 52,000
Facility name: James H. Rainwater Conference Center
Capacity: 4,000 square foot conference room, seven breakout rooms, two boardrooms, 4,000 square-foot covered outdoor exhibit area
Proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: 223 miles
Jacksonville International Airport: 123 miles

Forsyth (Monroe County)
Population: 5,000
Facility name: Central Georgia
Convention Center
Capacity: 5,600 square-foot ballroom,
10 meeting rooms, two boardrooms
Proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: 57 miles

Compiled by Carolyn Crist

When it first opened more than 30 years ago, the Georgia Mountains Center was Gainesville’s shiny new magnet to lure convention business.

The power of the building’s pull has faded in recent years, for various reasons. Yet Gainesville officials again are looking to the Mountains Center to bring business back to downtown.

The city issued a request for proposals in January to revamp 4 acres around the square, including the Georgia Mountains Center and the two parking lots at Main and Maple streets that face Jesse Jewell Parkway.

The facility sits as the centerpoint of the proposal, with officials hoping for new ideas to repurpose the regional convention center.

“We really have no preconceived notions about what will happen,” said Angela Sheppard, assistant city manager and project manager for the proposal. “It could include retail, even a residential component. We hope it will be pedestrian-friendly and aesthetically tie in with downtown.”

A 2004 feasibility study recommended that the center should expand, but officials were unable to move forward before the economy took a downturn.

“To benefit the community, it does need to expand,” said Carol Moore, director of the center. “When we opened in 1980, we were the only thing around. We were the queen bee.”

But after the opening of two larger arenas nearby — the Classic Center in Athens in 1995 and the Gwinnett County Civic Center in Duluth in 2003 — business started to fall off.

“We used to have 2,000-person conventions that brought those outside dollars into the community, and now we’re getting 500-person conferences,” Moore said. “We need to get back into the ballgame and get those larger conventions to generate that economic impact.”

Sheppard and Moore aren’t quite sure what that may mean for developers.

“There’s a lot of great things that could be joined with us, and I’m excited to see what suggestions we get,” Moore said.

“We’ve been functioning more as a community center than a regional convention center. But if we expanded to bring in 2,000-person conventions again, that could put people in the hotels and in the downtown shops at lunchtime.”

Sheppard has received several suggestions already. City officials will hold a pre-proposal meeting March 8 to give an overview of the plan, answer questions and tour the center.

“I think a lot of developers have been on hold for several years, and this process has shown us that they’re starting to get a little excited about potential developments,” Sheppard said. “We recognize the development may still be three to five years out, but the timing really seemed right for this planning phase.”

During the past few years, the center has remained on the positive side of the ledger through facility rentals and hotel/motel taxes. Officials don’t see redevelopment as a boon to the center but rather to the community.

“You’ll hear places like this called a ‘white elephant’ because the general public doesn’t understand what conventions bring to the community,” Moore said. “With several nights of hotel rooms, shopping during off time and buying gas to get back home, it all goes into the city coffers to help with city budgeting and keep property taxes down.”

Most convention centers break even with operating budgets, instead looking to the overall economic impact numbers to the area, said Wendy Kavanagh, president of the Georgia Society of Association Executives.

“When you look at the Georgia World Congress Center as the largest in the Southeast, sometimes it has a loss. But at the same time, you’ve got groups coming in to eat out, buy souvenirs, use taxis and transportation services and stay in hotels,” she said. “This helps the waiter at the local steakhouse who receives more tips or a maid at a hotel who provides additional linen services or the small-business owner who is nearby.”

Gainesville’s center is a member of the statewide group, which brings in conventions and meetings for a wide range of associations. Redevelopment of the center would fit in with Gainesville’s City View Center project to connect a 10-story hotel or office building by way of the pedestrian bridge.

“Capacity really depends on the capacity of hotels because you never want to have a convention center that holds more than what the hotels hold for a night,” Kavanagh said. “That was the situation in Athens for a few years. If you’re only trying to draw visitors in a one-hour radius, it’s fine. But once you start talking regional conferences, people need to have places to sleep.”

City officials began planning for the original Georgia Mountains Center in 1976 to help with the revitalization of downtown retail in a square of 20 vacant buildings. Construction began in 1977; the facility opened in January 1980 with a three-day industrial fair.

Officials held a formal dedication in April 1980, and the three-day celebration evolved into the annual Mule Camp Market festival, now held in the fall.

“About 75 percent of our business is repeat, which is good because it means we only need to market 25 percent, but it also means we did a good job because they continue to come back,” Moore said. “We form relationships, and that’s how you get business.”

The center employs seven full-time workers, including a box office manager, marketing manager, custodian and attendants who perform all setup, repair and cleanup duties.

“It’s a lean, mean, operating machine,” Moore said with a laugh. “We handle all the cleanup, even the bull-riding event with all the dirt. They wear a lot of hats.”

The center includes an arena that seats 2,500, three meeting rooms and a theater that seats 300. It cost $6.8 million to build, mostly through federal grants. The city only paid $100,000.

“It’s truly a multipurpose venue, as small as we are,” Moore said. “Our mission is to enrich the lives of citizens in Northeast Georgia as a place to meet, be educated and be entertained, and we want to stay current with that.”