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The Local Agenda: Mountains Center lease plan raises questions
Citizens concerned Brenau takeover will lead to loss of cultural opportunities
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Gainesville City Council won't exactly be handing over the Georgia Mountains Center keys to Brenau University tonight.

However, the council's vote at its 5:30 p.m. meeting is expected to end with that result by the end of the year - even as questions are raised in the community about benefits to taxpayers.

Last week, city staff presented a drafted lease agreement to City Council that, if also approved by City Council and the university's Board of Trustees, would have Brenau running the Mountains Center for the next 10 years.

The university officials have said they would use the 30-year-old convention center to house graduate-level health studies programs, such as physical education. They have also stated they would continue to allow the public to use theater and convention center space for community events.

Both city and Brenau officials agree the move would be a boon for downtown Gainesville.

The city and university envision the center's housing of Brenau's Allied Health Service Program would draw at least 400 graduate-level students to the downtown area.

They say it will also bring conferences in the health field to the center and the yet-to-be constructed hotel on the City View Center site.

Brenau President Ed Schrader projects a $40 million annual economic impact to Gainesville and Hall County once the university's programs are up and running in 2014 or 2015.

However, not everyone agrees the change will benefit Gainesville.

"How will losing a major community facility bring economic revival to downtown?" asks David Smith, a Gainesville resident.

In an email to The Times, Smith argues that the Mountains Center is intended to offer community events that draw people from the across the region to downtown Gainesville. He said that mission is best served under city control.

"It seems that the city council and the mayor are being a little short sighted here," he wrote. "They appear to be giving away an asset that many communities would gladly pay for in the interest of their quality of life image. Locking the citizens out of the Georgia Mountains Center does not appear to have the long-term interest of the city in mind."

Other groups who use or benefit from the Mountains Center have also wondered how they'll fit in with Brenau running the show.

Controversy was sparked last fall when members of the Georgia Mountain Players theater group raised concerns that they would be pushed out of using the Mountains Center theater, which they'd relied on for decades. To address that concern, a portion of the lease would require Brenau to cooperate with the Mountain Players in scheduling performances during a five-year period.

Vincent Vore, a member of the North Hall Lions Club, said his group has parked cars at Mountains Center functions to raise money for Lighthouse for the Blind and other charities. He said he doesn't know yet if his group will be able to continue that service as a fundraiser.
Vore added that while he understands the Mountains Center may not be making enough money for the city, he hates to see it change hands.

Here are some details from the proposed lease:
Gainesville City Council would transfer the title to the Mountains Center to the Gainesville Redevelopment Authority, which would execute the lease with the university.

Brenau University would take over the entire Mountains Center building, as well as its loading docks, but not the parking deck beside it.

Brenau would not owe rent on the building for the first five years. During that time, the university officials say they will pour money into renovating the center and building health education programs. The lease states the university's "substantial capital investment" would "significantly increase the market value of the property."

After five years, Brenau will begin paying the city $10,000 per month for use of the center. Brenau will honor current scheduled events at the center through 2012.

At the end of the 10-year lease, the university could propose purchase of the center or seek to renew.

Aaron Hale covers government issues for The Times. Share your thoughts, news tips and questions with him: