BUFORD — Virgil Williams is equally excited about two things: the opening of the renovated Lake Lanier Islands resort and the rising water level of Lake Lanier.
When the Williams family was at the peak of its massive remake of the 1,100-acre resort, the lake was hovering at or near record lows. For a time, the bridge at the entrance to the islands spanned over a section of dry lake bed.
This week, Williams beamed as he walked across the bridge with much more water on both sides.
While Williams is clearly the boss and driving force of the islands, this is his first business venture that has involved all of his adult children. Sons Virgil Jr., Brad and Mike, his daughter, Mendy Williams Bowling, and his wife, Sara, all have a role in the development of the islands.
“We’ve seen a part of my dad that we hadn’t seen,” Bowling said. “I’ve had more fun in the last four years involving my husband and my kids, too.”
The biggest difference is that dad now treats the children as partners and seeks their input on everything from major construction details to the interior colors of the lodge.
“It’s like a family reunion every time we have a board meeting,” Brad Williams said.
Mike Williams, who is involved in the day-to-day operations, says his father is changing.
“He’s mellowing out a little,” he said. “He’s given us more authority and more options in making decisions here. When we were children, he made all the decisions.”
Creating a new legacy
Virgil Williams, who has a reputation as a no-nonsense businessman, was a developer when the massive growth in Gwinnett County was in its infancy. He also has found success in engineering and banking.
Four years ago, he acquired the lease on the state-owned islands property. A short time later, he was sidelined by a respiratory ailment that lasted most of a year. Yet it did not slow down his plans and vision for the resort, which he wants to be a lasting legacy for himself and his family.
“Legacy” is a cornerstone word at the islands. It was adopted as the new name for what once was the Emerald Pointe resort and golf course. The lodge reopened last year after a massive face-lift, giving it a more rustic and relaxed feel. The golf course, one of two on the islands, is set to open in June with features that are the talk of Georgia’s golfing enthusiasts.
Sara Williams, who was a stay-at-home mother and homemaker while her husband was enjoying skyrocketing success in business, now is his business partner and adviser.
“It’s been so much fun for me to get to work with him and our children,” she said. “I probably have more appreciation for what he went through all those years working for us. I’ve seen some of the things he’s done here, including some stressful situations, like the lake going down.”
All say the senior Williams is a stickler for both details and quality. If he sees something at the resort he doesn’t like, he’s not going to wait to make it known.
Being in business with his children has been everything he expected, Williams said.
“The reason I’m doing it is an opportunity to work with the family and let them experience my values system, my methods and rationale,” Virgil Williams said. “I want them to learn how I make decisions and what that’s taught me about being successful, not only financially, but also with product and services.
“As an individual, I’ve always set high expectations, not only for myself, but for employees and the product, whether that was banking, engineering or construction.”
New Islands await visitors
This week, Williams lifts the curtain on a very different Lake Lanier Islands. He estimates he has invested between $30 million and $35 million of his personal fortune in the project.
At the same time, the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority, the state board which oversees the islands, has also invested $30 million in improvements to roads, walkways and a new wastewater treatment plant.
As they enter the gates, visitors are greeted by a court of flags. The first island, named Georgia Island, pays homage to the various flags that have flown over the state. The two streets leading from the main road have been renamed in honor of the state’s two largest universities. To the right is Bulldog Bite, a nod to the University of Georgia. To the left is Yellow Jacket Sting, paying homage to Williams’ alma mater, Georgia Tech.
Gone are most of the four-way intersections on the main thoroughfares. They have been replaced with traffic-friendly roundabouts, each with a different centerpiece ranging from a clock tower to a collection of life-size bronzed wildlife figures.
Williams said learning to operate within an environment that requires either state participation or approval has been a learning experience. He is used to making instant decisions that generate prompt action.
“It’s not my normal standard in terms of getting things done and getting your product online,” he said.
But Williams is clearly enthused about introducing the public to a resort with a very different look.
“It’s coming from a construction look to a complete look real quickly,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where you can see the difference. When you come in the gate, you feel good about it. When you see them put the grass out and you’ve been looking a mud for months, it clicks.”
For the past few years, Williams’ offices on the islands have held numerous artists’ renderings of how the new resort would look.
“Your dreams you had laid out there and these sketches all of a sudden become real,” he said.
Rain finally brings relief
For three of the four years Williams has held the islands’ lease, the region has been plagued by record drought. His optimism for the resort has been bolstered recently by the increasing water levels, now up to 1,064 feet, just seven feet below full pool.
He believes that this year’s business may be boosted by Georgians staying closer to home both for business and personal travel.
“People who might have gone to Orlando or the Gulf Coast or might have had a meeting at a high-end hotel or resort, see Lake Lanier Islands as a better and less expensive alternative,” Williams said.
Williams has additional plans for the resort, including a signature hotel to be built at the site of the former PineIsle hotel, which was razed last year. He said that he was ready to take on a hotel partner for the estimated $150 million facility, but the collapse of the banking industry left them without a source of financing.
“We’re having to delay that start and we’re going to lose a minimum of a year,” Williams said. “We would have had plans ready by now and construction would have started in the next six months on that hotel.”
His 10-year plan calls for three additional hotels at the resort. He said the timetable for such a plan likely would be extended by the length of the current economic downturn, meaning some of the final projects could be as much as 12 or 13 years out.
Williams said he enjoys doing business in Hall County and has found both the county government and the city of Gainesville, supplier of water for the resort, to be enthusiastic participants in the process.
Williams will get to show off his facility to local leaders later this month when the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce holds its annual gala at the resort, marking the first time the business organization has met outside of Gainesville.