With the 1996 Summer Olympics more than 20 years behind it, the Lake Lanier Olympic Park is growing into something new.
Following a master plan under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the park on Clarks Bridge Road is to become a premiere public event space and community park on the north end of the lake. It would be a transformation for the park, which serves as an athletic venue and public park with a relatively limited indoor event space.
The Army Corps should finish its review, which began in February 2017, in the first half of this year. Work on the master plan itself started years ago among the stakeholders in the park: The land is owned by the corps; the city of Gainesville and Hall County government own the lease for the park, and Gainesville-Hall ’96 is the nonprofit that operates the park itself.
The park’s current largest renters are its two clubs: the Lake Lanier Rowing Club and the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club. Together, they occupy the bottom floor of the boathouse.
The master plan stretches across years and would require millions of dollars of investment, but it’s a vision being laid out for the future of the aging Olympic venue.
“With the renovation of the boathouse, we’re looking at adding a public use meeting facility with catering kitchen. That would be rental space on the lake opening up (to the lake). This would be, really, the only public event venue space on the north end of the lake,” said Robyn Lynch, manager of the Olympic venue.
“We’ve got ample parking, and part of our master plan is to add some additional parking as well. There are limited options for large meeting space in the county, so this could really increase our economic impact to the economy.”
Between Lake Lanier Islands, the Gainesville Civic Center, First Baptist Church and smaller venues, Hall County is covered for meetings spaces for 500 people or fewer.
The master plan for the boathouse side of the lake includes an event space large enough to hold 1,000 to 1,300 people. The space would feature expansive glass windows overlooking Lake Lanier from the park’s panoramic view.
“How much time would we have to count the money to rent that space?” said Stacey Dickson, head of the Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau and a board member of Gainesville-Hall ’96. “Because there’s nothing like that on the whole 800 miles of shoreline that I’m aware of that’s a public space — that’s not private.”
A lake-dominated large event space would be both unique for the area and a major selling point to the rest of the nation and world, given Lake Lanier’s huge name recognition.
“That’s the brand outside of our bubble here — that’s how we sell it,” Dickson said. “It works.”
Last year, the Olympic Park generated an estimated $4.6 million in economic activity in Hall County, according to Lynch. With the ICF Dragon Boat World Championships coming to Lake Lanier this fall, the venue is expected to generate more than $10 million around the county.
In a report to the Gainesville City Council earlier this month, Lynch said that the hotels in Gainesville and in the county are booked solid during the September championships. By itself, the USA team in the championships rented an entire Gainesville hotel for the event.
The earliest renovations could begin is after the September championships. In March, Gainesville-Hall ’96 will launch a feasibility study to determine where the millions of dollars needed to fund the renovations could be raised — between public money, private donations and investment.
And it’s not just the boathouse that’s been targeted for major investment.
“We want to demolish and do new restrooms on the park side, which will be open to the public when they’re using the park,” Lynch said. “We also have, in the master plan, three new public park pavilions, some walking trails that run along the inlet that we have as part of our property, some sun shade areas in the plaza for spectators when they’re here for events.”
Some small changes to the vision of the park are already taking place. In 2018, it will be host to three live concerts, a music festival and a triathlon in addition to its regularly scheduled athletic events.
And those athletic events — collegiate rowing competitions and the meetings and competitions of the clubs that operate in the boathouse — will remain a central part of the boathouse and the park.
“I think logistically we can work it out easily,” said Jason Peck, president of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club. “If us and the rowing club coordinate together the days that that one space needs to be rented to the public, we can share the other side of the boathouse.”
Unless both groups continue to expand their memberships, in the short-term neither should be displaced, Peck said.
And in the long term, bringing in more revenue from more public involvement in the park will create a lasting legacy at the park.
“If we truly leveraged our Olympic legacy, we could see development and longevity for multiple generations,” Dickson said.