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Is club stranded without a paddle?
Haglers departure leaves future of the Olympic venue in limbo
The Dragon Boat Festival is another key event that has been held at the Clarks Bridge Park Olympic venue. - photo by Tom Reed The Times

GAINESVILLE -- The departure of Connie Hagler from the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club has some people wondering if the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue is now without its paddle.

Hagler left her position as the executive director of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club early in October after working with the club for more than 10 years.

She got onboard during the excitement of the 1996 Summer Olympics and helped bring events to Gainesville such as the Canoe and Kayak World Championships, the Olympic team trials and the Dragon Boat Festival. But now, Hagler says her time at the club has run its course.

Hagler said she realized she had been putting a lot of hours in to bring events to the venue, but with the changes in the canoe and kayak community all her work was not enough to keep the Lanier venue at a competitive level.

"I got to the point ... I was just done ... I felt like I just had my thumb in the dam, but it wasn't enough to do the facility any good, as far as events," Hagler said.

The venue has done well so far, and has played host to prestigious events since its Olympic debut. But it is time to step up the competitive nature of the venue, Hagler said. Her work, alone and with the LCKC, could not take the venue there, she said.

"It wasn't what the venue needed," Hagler said. "It's to the point where it really needs to be the community as a whole."

Now that Hagler is no longer executive director of the LCKC, it will continue on without her at the club level, but without a new executive director. "The club really doesn't have the funds to pay an executive director to do what I was doing," Hagler said. "Part of it is because we're not going to have the events next year that would have paid my salary had I stayed."

The clubs have borne all the financial burden of bringing events to the venue over the years. And, in turn, they have had to charge higher prices to participants in order to pay for the events' necessities, such as setting up the race courses.

As canoe, kayak and rowing competitions became more popular in the United States, Hagler watched as the Head of the Hooch festival moved to Chattanooga, Tenn.; a Brazilian team decided against training at the venue; and the Olympic team trials moved to Chula Vista, Calif., and then to Oklahoma City.

"The playing field has changed dramatically for doing events," Hagler said. "It's just something that's changed, and what worked before (with LCKC) isn't going to work anymore, competition is that way."

Hagler said the athletic side of the program can continue at the club level without her. The club is self-supporting with top-level coaches, but the venue needs more.

"Taking it to the next level, it's going to take more of an investment to do that," Hagler said.

The Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club is not a division of the city or county government, but the venue is jointly owned by the city and the county. Officials from both governments have discussed taking some of the financial burden off the venue from time to time, Gainesville City Manager Bryan Shuler said.

But the only time any of that talk has come to fruition was in 2003, when Lake Lanier was host to the 2003 Canoe and Kayak World Championships. The city and county doled out some money to add on to the venue, and the result was outstanding, according to Hagler.

"It was phenomenal," Hagler said. "We ran this thing without the backing of the Atlanta committee for the Olympic Games."

"It was, at it's time, the best world championships that had been run."

Hagler said the biggest weakness with the 2003 championships was the lack of housing for athletes and high-end hotels for spectators and dignitaries. The hospitality problem continued to haunt the venue. Later, a Brazilian team decided against training at the facility because there was not enough housing for the athletes.

David Yarborough, executive director of USA Canoe/Kayak, said the organization moves its events back and forth from the East and West coasts to help make travel costs fairer for all the athletes. It has held events in Chula Vista, Calif., for the past two years. Oklahoma City's new venue, the Chesapeake Boathouse, won the competition to play host to the 2008 National Championships.

One of the great advantages of the Oklahoma City venue is that it is nearly in the geographic center of the United States. Also, with an urban settling, and the venue does not have problems attracting big sponsors such as Chesapeake Power.

However, the Oklahoma City community's investment in the venue has given it another advantage over Lanier, Yarborough said. "They are pouring millions of dollars in the venue," Yarborough said of Oklahoma City. "The community spirit is amazing."

Hagler said she believes that Lake Lanier has a better rowing venue than Oklahoma City, but that the city is better at holding events than Gainesville. "When they put on events, it's phenomenal," Hagler said of the Chesapeake Boathouse in Oklahoma City.

"It's very well-backed, and it was just a delight to be there."

The Oklahoma City venue enjoys the funding of major sponsors, but the community also levies a one-cent special purpose local option sales tax to help fund the venue, Hagler said.

She said Lake Placid, N.Y., has held two Olympic events in years past. New York officials created the Olympic Regional Development Authority, a state-level funding initiative, that helps to maintain the Lake Placid venues, Hagler said.

"They have invested in that, and the community thrives on those events," Hagler said.

In Seattle, the rowing venue is part of the parks and recreation fund. "It allows them to take it up to the next level," Hagler said.

The Lake Lanier venue has not enjoyed the same community investment, Hagler said. Gainesville and Hall County officials talked about taking the burden of the utility bills at the facility off the clubs earlier in the year, Shuler said. But nothing ever came of it after the county did not include funding in the past year's budget.

"We couldn't do it just on our own with the money we had budgeted," Shuler said. "It was going to take both to do it the right way."

"That opportunity, I think, still exists, but either the city would have to bear that whole burden... or the county would need to come up and agree to do that," Shuler said.

But as of now, both Shuler and county officials say there currently is no talk of lending the venue a hand. "Until the elected officials decide they want to get involved," Phil Sutton, assistant Hall County manager, said. "It will continue on as it is."

Tom Mickle, chair of the board of directors at USA Canoe/Kayak and Gainesville resident, said Gainesville could improve the venue by adding housing and a cafeteria on site for athletes to train at the venue.

"If we want to continue to be a part of this ... we've got to put some more money back into the venue and offer some of the things our competing venues already have," Mickle said.

Yarborough agrees. "Gainesville has been endowed with this amazing facility on this beautiful lake ... its not like you have to start from scratch," Yarborough said. "You have this amazing starting point from which to add on and keep yourself in first place."

Hagler hopes her departure from the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club will bring attention to the need for Gainesville and Hall County's investment in the venue. "There's a million different ways to skin a cat, and it's time to look at some of the other models and see if we can make it work," Hagler said.

Hagler said city and county officials need to get together and decide if they want to keep the venue going. If so, they need to be more proactive in seeking out funding, whether it is state, federal or local, for the venue's upkeep, because it cannot flourish on the work of volunteers for much longer.

"Hopefully, while the club is very vibrant and doing well the community will just help pick it up and take it to the next level," Hagler said.

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