GAINESVILLE, Georgia — Nearly 20 years after the world watched the Olympic Games in Gainesville, the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue is on the verge of a makeover.
A $1.6 million renovation is poised to get underway, the first step in an eventual $7.5 million to $10 million plan to redo the venue — on both sides of Clarks Bridge Road/Ga. 284 — and turn it into more than just a sporting complex.
"I see a lonely (clock) tower getting a lot of friends," U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said during a Thursday ceremony at the venue kicking off the first round of work.
"I see a venue that's not only going to serve a community that likes to kayak and row, but go across the street . to a beach and where (people) can come and meet, where the community as a whole, not as a segment, can take part.
"Don't let anybody tell you this (project) is for a special few. This is for all of Hall County, Gainesville, North Georgia and the world. When we focus on that, we all win."
Morgan House, the venue manager, echoed that sentiment.
"I want to see this venue, in part, not only grow to be the best venue in the world, but I want to see it become a prime meeting spot through private events, outdoor activities and everyday recreation," he said.
Mimi Collins, Gainesville-Hall '96 chairwoman, said the first phase of work will include handicapped-accessible ramps from the Olympic Plaza to the tower, tower renovations (including bathrooms) and construction of a bridge that leads from the top of the plaza to the second floor of the tower.
Also planned is work to public restrooms near the plaza and construction of new bathrooms on the beach side of Clarks Bridge Park.
The project is being paid for by government funding, private donations and a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
The plan is to get it done by March, or well before the Pan American Championships for sprint kayak taking place in May.
"That Olympic spirit is also found in accessibility," said Collins, whose daughter Jordan has spina bifida and is in a wheelchair.
"When a community looks after all its members, everyone is risen and everyone takes pride."
The venue was the home of canoe/kayak/rowing events held during the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games and has served as a training and competition center for flatwater sports since the games.
"This is the last remaining venue used for its intended purpose," said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.
"This is a great moment for Hall County . and for the economic development and quality of life in our community," he said.
Gainesville-Hall '96, a private nonprofit entity in charge of running the venue, was formed in 1993 to bring the Olympics to Gainesville.
"Once the Olympics came and went, (the group) became dormant," House said.
About three years ago, the group was revamped with the intent to "bringing the venue back to life and revitalizing this invaluable community asset," he said.
A press release from the venue stated: "With the 20th anniversary of the Olympics in Atlanta coming up next summer, the stewards of this Olympic legacy venue agreed the time has come to invest in the area's sports heritage."
Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said the venue has had an economic impact this year of $6.2 million.
"So, we're just in the beginning stages of this . but we're headed that way in a fast direction," he said.
Richard Mecum, Hall County Board of Commissioners chairman, said, "We look forward to seeing a long-term vision that Gainesville-Hall '96 has for (the venue). The venue is a truly unique feature of our community."
Information from: The Times, http://www.gainesvilletimes.com