A stunning multi-million-dollar city of Gainesville public facility set to open next month on the northern end of Lake Lanier blends not only the architectural elements of aesthetics and function, it shines as a legacy to those who dream big. Built on the spot where the 1996 Olympians set off from a temporary basic building seeking gold, The Boathouse at Lake Lanier Olympic Park embodies much more than the original structure. The $21.6 million Boathouse, funded by a city bond paid through the hotel/motel tax, is touted as a one-of-a-kind public-accessible jewel on the lake.
“It’s just exciting to see the vision for this park as a community facility,” said Gainesville Tourism Director Robyn Lynch. She and the foundation that grew out of the Olympic movement on the lake in the 1990s view The Boathouse as the crown of a LLOP master plan that evolved about a decade ago. In mid-January, Lynch guided a Lakeside reporter on the first tour given to a journalist as The Boathouse neared completion. Workers with Gainesville contractor Carroll Daniel Construction were finishing tasks before the following week’s furniture delivery.
On the exterior, sky-blue rough split shake siding on the upper levels settles into a multi-hued stone foundation on the quiet lake cove. White columns and trim, beige vertical siding on three pitched tiers, and black metal railings and accents present a classic boathouse exterior. Soaring barrel-vault ceilings planked with linear metal that replicates cherry wood greet visitors at the front entries in a nautical homage to old-school rowing shells and canoes. Loops of light reminiscent of Olympic rings suspend from the ceilings. Views of the lake form the main backdrop of an expansive ballroom and other public spaces where weddings, corporate meetings, and banquets are already scheduled every weekend through June.
A wide, covered porch beckons a step outside, where a massive stone fireplace creates a warm ambiance with a striking lake view. The porch and adjacent terrace stretch across the entire back side offering more than 4,500 square feet of covered outdoor lakefront space.
A black metal geometric-railed staircase from the main level leads to the third-floor boardroom and tribute hall to community champions. Another fireplace is situated on the boardroom balcony.
On the bottom level beats the heart of the facility’s origin: boat storage for canoes, kayaks and rowing shells, a locker room, and workout/team meeting space. The Lake Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club, Lake Lanier Rowing Club, and University of North Georgia Rowing Club rent space from the city. Visiting crews training can store equipment in a designated area. The foundation was raised four feet higher to mitigate flooding that plagued the basement in recent years.
The design harkens to traditional northeastern boathouses, “but it’s really a pretty flexible facility … it has to be” said The Boathouse architect Matthew Millard, partner in the Roswell firm founded by his father, Robin. “One week it can handle a large wedding and the next, a regatta. It has the capacity to handle both.” Both Millards have taken up oars at various times with LLRC.
“We got a lot of input from a lot of stakeholders” Millard said, including the clubs that inhabit it, the city, and the non-profit Lake Lanier Olympic Park Foundation, formerly Gainesville Hall ’96, led by Mimi Collins since 2014. “We all sat down and brainstormed about what it could be. And now it’s here,” she said.
“Oh my gosh, it doesn’t feel real to me. It’s amazing,” said Collins, who became involved with the Olympic park when her son, Stanton, paddled internationally for LCKC. “A lot of times I wasn’t sure, but a lot of us kept trudging saying we gotta make this happen. It’s a beautiful building and such a legacy of what this community can do.”
Lynch indicated the city’s investment bolstered The Boathouse as an Olympic site that had persevered due to the clubs that used it but had not been polished to its potential when Gainesville and Hall County shared LLOP responsibilities. “Having the city step in and annex the park and see the value of the venue has been the biggest boost to its vitality,” Lynch said.
Since the 1996 Olympics, the venue, which includes the Olympic tower and plaza across Clarks Bridge from The Boathouse, has hosted national and international rowing and canoe/kayak regattas, a Pan American canoe/kayak Olympic qualifier, national and regional dragon boat festivals, and annual collegiate rowing team training. Venue managers expanded its culture to include Food Truck Fridays, lakefront galas, concerts, corporate programs, weddings and motorboat events. In 2020 NCAA selected LLOP to host its 2026 women’s rowing national championships.
Seeing its potential as an economic engine, the city in 2022 allotted a portion of a tax-exempt bond to finance boathouse construction, according to Gainesville Finance Director Jeremy Perry. The city increased its hotel/motel tax from 6% to 8% in 2019 and designated the extra 2% to the tourism department, which input funds to The Boathouse. Lynch said the construction comes at no cost to city property taxpayers or the city’s general fund. The original boathouse was demolished in July 2022. Groundbreaking came a month later.
An opening ceremony is planned in early spring. No date had been set as of last month. Before the official opening, United Way of Hall County will celebrate its 75th anniversary at The Boathouse on March 9. The John Ferriss Sprint Regatta, named for the longtime LLRC coach and officer who’s held numerous roles at LLOP since the 1996 Olympics, is set for March 25.
Feature photo: by Vicki Hope, all other photos by Jane Harrison