The Lake Lanier Olympic Venue emerged from years of languish to shine in the autumn sunlight last month as local and district officials gathered to celebrate its re-birth. Speakers at the ceremonial ground breaking for a planned $1.6 million Phase 1 renovation of the 1996 Olympic site praised those who revived the Olympic ideal at the aging facility and touted its tourism boost to the local economy.
“I see the Olympic spirit coming up again,” said Ninth District U.S. Congress Representative Doug Collins. Speaking before about 100 attendees on the plaza near the tower base, Collins recalled how the community rallied around the venue before Olympic canoeists, kayakers and rowers stroked on Lake Lanier nearly 20 years ago.
“Then, the stands went away, the trees grew up (across the lake where temporary grandstands originally were located), but the tower is still here.” It rises above the stone grandstands and plaza built for another international canoe/kayak event in 2003.
The red and white tower reigns over the finish line of the Olympic course and shelters officials who document race times from above. In the past two years it broadened its reach to welcome numerous local clubs and businesses meeting inside its glassed conference room with a near-panoramic view of Lake Lanier.
It is also one of the places where Gainesville Hall ’96 reconvened in 2013 to summon the community to rescue an Olympic legacy. New GH ’96 members rekindled the energy of their forebears who labored to bring the Olympics to Lake Lanier. They brainstormed, networked, and plotted about how to resurrect what many deemed a neglected community treasure, a diamond in the rough, in need of burnishing on the cusp of its 20th anniversary.
As of mid-November, GH ’96 had secured about $1 million in public and private funds for LLOV renovations. The first phase of the ambitious $7-10 million project centers on the venue’s tower side. Gainesville contractor Carroll Daniel Construction expected to begin work by this month on a bridge from the plaza to the tower second floor and an accessibility ramp for the disabled. Local architect Robin Millard’s Phase 1 design also shows restrooms inside the tower and renovations to the service building on the plaza.
Construction crews aim to finish a few weeks before canoe/kayak 2016 Olympic hopefuls hit the water May 19-22 in the Pan American Sprint Canoe/Kayak Championships. About 200 of the best paddlers from North, South and Central America plus Cuba and island countries in the Caribbean and Bahamas will compete in the Pan Am Games, the final continental qualifier before the Summer Olympics in Brazil. Six Lanier Canoe & Kayak athletes on the U.S. National Team are among contenders for Olympic berths.
LLOV manager Morgan House, once an Olympic hopeful himself, told those at the groundbreaking ceremony that his “dream of seeing the venue becoming one of the best in the world is now coming a reality.” He credited hundreds of volunteers and “the true powerhouse behind the scenes,” GH ’96, for their efforts to realize its potential.
GH ’96 chairperson Mimi Collins said the Phase 1 renovations will “make the tower more functional for the community.” Phase 2 includes construction of new bathrooms at Clarks Bridge Park and a pavilion that “will be a great value to family members enjoying the park and beach,” she said. Additionally, enhancements at the boathouse, including a wide balcony and windows overlooking the lake and a new entryway, will give the community a lakeside gathering place unlike any local public facility.
Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan invoked former mayor and current council member Ruth Bruner’s goal several years ago to support LLOV. The city has followed through, he said, en route to making it “the best.” He indicated the venue’s economic impact, estimated at $6.2 million this year, is worth the city’s investment. Gainesville and Hall County governments have contributed a total of $800,000 to GH ’96 from their general funds and Special Local Option Sales Tax budgets.
Hall County Commission chair Dick Mecum said he pondered several years ago about what happened to the venue. He said the county is excited about the revival of a “vital community asset” and “unique feature of our community.”
State Senator Butch Miller described the ground breaking as “a great moment for Hall County and Northeast Georgia and the quality of life in our community.”
Doug Collins said improvements at the tower will make it accessible not only to his daughter, who uses a wheelchair, but also to the community. He likened the venue to a shining light where athletes pushing for their personal best go through life-changing moments. He added he is excited about his district containing a great economic engine that is known and talked about world wide.