BY ASHLEY FIELDING
Thirteen years ago, these halls were filled with the splendor of Olympic athletes and the echoing trumpets of the Olympic Anthem.
Now, these halls echo with a drip from a leaky ceiling.
What started at the Lake Lanier Olympic venue in 1996 could have snowballed into something big that belonged to and rewarded the whole community. But those who deal with the venue on a daily basis say that what could have happened hasn’t.
Today the venue — the only one remaining from the 1996 summer Olympic Games — still serves as an incubator for world-class athletes.
Of the 18 spots available on the national USA Canoe/Kayak Junior World Championship Pool Team, 11 were awarded to athletes from the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, which practices daily at the facility.
Whether for its legacy or the quality of its racing course, the venue still attracts events and athletes from around the world. Just weeks ago, a team from Denmark traveled around the globe just to train here, and today, the venue is host to the 2009 USA Canoe/Kayak Marathon Team Trials, an event which serves as a qualifying race for the Marathon World Championships in Portugal.
But members of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club say the venue’s potential has hit a ceiling — and that ceiling is leaking.
Connie Hagler, the former executive director, recalled a recent visit to the venue’s boathouse, noting numerous needed repairs in the building’s bathrooms and ceilings.
"I was just amazed at how it is looking a bit run-down right now," Hagler said. "It really is."
The vision was disconcerting to Hagler, who has worked with the club since the 1996 Olympics and describes the venue as a "world-class facility."
"It’s the goose that could lay the golden egg for our community, but we’re not recognizing it for what it is," said Hagler. "We’ve got all this potential and we’re just not using it."
A 2004 report by Lose and Associates from Gainesville Parks and Recreations Vision 2014 Strategic Master Plan echoes the sentiment. The report states that the Clarks Bridge Park venue is "the most under-utilized facility ... with the greatest potential to be a new revenue source ..."
The Vision 2014 report calls the current management setup for the venue ineffective. Currently, the city and county rotate the responsibility of maintenance costs at the venue every six months, leaving the every day operations and utility costs up to the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club and the Lake Lanier Rowing Club, according to Melvin Cooper, director of Gainesville’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The Vision 2014 report addresses the pitfalls of that management structure.
"Under the current arrangement, no one is looking at preventive maintenance measures or how to minimize maintenance by spending capital dollars to reduce recurring problems such as soil erosion at the site. Maintenance standards for both agencies are different, and the ability to have a consistent image is not being achieved."
Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club President Loren Collins does not disagree. He said grounds maintenance issues, like putting gravel out on the parking lot, usually are taken care of pretty quickly.
"It’s just those were you have to make a capital improvement, that’s when people start dancing around a little bit," Collins said.
Cooper said the boathouse was built inexpensively, with no insulation or gutters, and is need of several capital improvements.
The boathouse roof needs a patch that could cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the heating and air conditioning system needs an upgrade, Collins said.
"It’s just a matter of where’s the money going to come from?" he said.
Aside from the major issues, like the leaky roof, Collins said the venue’s boathouse just needs a little "TLC." Athletes are in and out of the boathouse everyday, and its wear is starting to show.
Although there are no major problems with the boathouse’s docks, some of the boards on the 13-year-old docks need to be replaced, he said. There are other minor issues, like those at the docks all across the venue.
"We could spend $100,000 very easily just in maintenance and preservation of what we have," Collins said. "Would it take that? No, but we could very easily spend that."
The inconsistencies created by the shifting responsibilities of the county and city could easily be mitigated if both would pay for a facility manager to keep up with maintenance and operations at the venue, Collins said.
"Even though there is some continuity, there’s still not one person that’s really responsible for the entire building as a combined effort," Collins said. "That’d be nice to have a facilities manager that could take care of that."
Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell says it is time for the city and county to make a more conscious effort at working together to take care of the mounting maintenance issues at the venue. Bell said his constituents have complained to him about the conditions in the showers at the boathouse.
"People are feeling as though each (government) is putting it off on the other to get it fixed, and it’s just deteriorating," Bell said. "I think splitting the baby as we have has kind of left us in the situation where we may just pass the buck to the next one for getting certain repairs and certain upkeep done."
"We need to figure out a way of making sure that we can keep it up and we don’t pass the buck between each other, because it’s just going to make the facility worse and we have a world-class facility and I’d hate to have it get a reputation for it being run down on the inside," Bell said.
Bell suggests numerous ideas from having a standing group that oversees maintenance, and creating a maintenance plan, prioritizing repairs and equipment replacement.
Cooper said he and Hall County’s Director of Parks and Leisure Services Greg Walker met recently to discuss the venue. Part of that discussion involved creating a unified budget between the two agencies that would just deal with venue issues "so we’ll both be on the same page," Cooper said.
But the Vision 2014 report recommends that Gainesville take over maintenance and operation of the facility fully and hire a full-time operation manager for the venue to guide planning and marketing.
Gainesville City Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick recently told fellow council members he, too, would like the city to take control of the facility.
Hamrick sees the venue for its potential economic impact. Events at the venue could impact the city’s sales and hotel/motel tax revenues by filling hotels and bringing outside shoppers into the area. He says that the current system is not helping the venue reach its potential.
"We always say we want Gainesville to be sort of a tourist destination," Hamrick said. "This certainly would be a destination."
Hamrick likened the shared management to siblings splitting the responsibility of chores at home.
"If it was just under one control, it would be easier to have a plan and see that it’s carried out," he said.
The effort to realize the venue’s potential is under restraint of the government’s budget.
The city’s parks department budget cannot handle any major repairs at the venue right now and any major restorative projects would have to be paid for using money from other sources, Cooper said.
"Some of those things that are major dollars that need to be addressed through SPLOST projects or other capital dollars somehow," Cooper said. "I know that right now we don’t have any capital dollars in our current budget or in our upcoming budget for any capital projects."
Gainesville Councilman Danny Dunagan said while the venue is certainly a prized asset that he’d hate to see "go to rack and ruin," the reality is that the money is not there.
"With money as tight as it is for both the city and the county, I don’t know what we can do," he said.
City Manager Kip Padgett has asked Cooper to research the plausibility of the city taking over the venue so the council can broach the issue. He said even discussions will not occur any time soon.
"It will definitely be after we finish with our current year’s budget," he said.
Hamrick still thinks its a pertinent discussion despite the budget.
"This is the worst time to suggest this, due to the budget, but at the same time, time moves on and you need to do something," he said.