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Commentary: Brenau's move into Mountains Center carries heavy responsibility
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Ed L. Schrader

In mid-December, some Brenau trustees, administrators, employees and faculty members joined with city officials, business leaders and other guests for an informal coffee klatch commemorating the beginning of the university’s long-term lease arrangement with the city.

The celebration formally inaugurated a downtown Gainesville location to house the expansion of Brenau’s graduate health care programs. As the “new tenant,” I thought it appropriate to welcome the group — not to the Georgia Mountains Center but to the “new Brenau University Downtown Center.”

The audience greeted my thankful and optimistic comments with enough silence to take me by surprise. That gave me time to notice a sort of shock of recognition on some of the faces — the kind of expression classroom teachers occasionally see on faces of their students as scales fall from their eyes and they finally understand.

For my audience that morning this no longer was the sometimes abstract proposition that we have discussed for the past two years as “a good idea.” It was a reality. As Brenau Trustees Chairman Pete Miller put it just a few weeks ago as the board prepared to vote on the $6.5 million financial package for the project, “This is not a proposal. This is happening.”

Indeed, that little ceremony did drive home reality. The character of the place will change. Construction will begin this month to convert the 2,500-seat arena into two floors of laboratories and classrooms. The name of the university will go up on the side of the building near the intersection of Main Street and Jesse Jewell Parkway. The Brenau logo will be one of the most visible symbols on the Gainesville cityscape.

One thing will not change: Brenau University’s commitment to the long-term health and viability of the community that it has called home for 135 years.

When we place that Brenau University imprimatur on and around the building, it will be great advertising for Brenau. Rest assured, however, that new signage and Brenau’s presence on the square also signify — and seal — the university’s long-standing covenant with its home community and with the citizens of Gainesville.

Brenau enrollment currently approaches 3,000 students in nationally recognized academic programs online and on five campuses around Georgia, but Gainesville has been and will be “home base.”

No one disputes that over the past 35 years, the Mountains Center provided many memories for members of our community. There have been family events, unforgettable concerts, and even many commencements for Brenau and several local schools. But the reality is that all the commencement ceremonies and other regular arena events must find new homes.

We all must adjust to make room for community progress — and that includes Brenau University, which after 25 years this May moves graduation exercises back to the front lawn of our historic campus five blocks away.

We will not rehash the facts here the Mountains Center has outlived its initial purpose and was costing the city more to staff and maintain than it generated in revenues. Brenau’s plan to “repurpose” the building primarily as an academic center includes improving and maintaining the existing theater and meeting rooms with state-of-the art internet and digital communications technology while keeping them available for use by community groups, like Georgia Mountain Players.

The former Mountains Center personnel are now on the university payroll, part of a team working aggressively to help patrons identify among all Brenau assets the places in Gainesville most appropriate for their meetings and events. Our staff will also drive efforts to bring other activities to the center – events like health care professional meetings that previously would not have considered the venue.

The major impact will be economic — an estimated $40 million a year with the growth in graduate student enrollment projected in the next decade. That kind of productivity could never have resulted from use of the Mountains Center exclusively as an events venue.

At full capacity the center will operate with the addition of a student body of as many as 700 students in and out of the building on a year round basis, most of them graduate students embarking on well-paying careers in health care professions and many of them remaining in north Georgia. It will also come from addition of many new staff members and faculty, most of whom already have doctorates. Some will have, or will establish, professional practices in the area in addition to teaching and research responsibilities. And that, too, will create jobs and have a positive impact on the economy.

In the next year, you will see (behind that new sign that says Brenau University) the fruits of the university’s spending several million dollars in construction and renovation with additional millions for technology improvements and equipment purchases for doctoral-level health care education programs — one of the biggest improvement or construction projects in the Gainesville Square area in years.

We will spend up to another $2.5 million staffing up for the academic programs, starting with immediate hiring of a chair for the physical therapy department and other faculty and staff members that need to be on bard before we can seek accreditation for the program and recruit students. These are not city dollars or tax revenues but money invested by Brenau, its donors and philanthropic supporters to help us ensure that the facility will be something that the community will be extremely proud of and will come to regard as a crown jewel for the city.

Brenau takes its responsibility to its reputation and national position very seriously. We will not put the university’s name in big, bold letters on anything less than a world-class, remarkable facility. Likewise, we take seriously the responsibility of citizenship that comes with raising the Brenau flag in the heart of our hometown.

We want you to take pride in Brenau because Brenau certainly takes pride in being part of the Gainesville community.

Ed L. Schrader is president of Brenau University.

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