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How Jimmy Buffett will change Lake Lanier
Margaritaville team working on theme park, excited about future
Visitors eat at Paradise Beach Cantina at Margaritaville at Lanier Islands in Buford, on Wednesday, June 13, 2018, during a grand opening event. As part of the new additions, LanierWorld is rebranded as LandShark Landing, which features a floating concert stage and several restaurants and drinking spots. -Photo David Barnes

BUFORD - With $11 million already invested, Margaritaville at Lanier Islands has a $250 million plan to remake Lake Lanier Islands.

Safe Harbor Development owner Darby Campbell and Margaritaville CEO John Cohlan talked with The Times on Wednesday, June 13, at the newest Margaritaville location about their plans for the 1,500 acres of the islands on the southern end of Lake Lanier.

To say the two men, who manage hundreds of millions of dollars of property and business around the United States and the world, are bullish on Lake Lanier and North Georgia is a profound understatement.

“This property, you could develop forever. This is one of the only Corps leases in the United States that allow you to do a water park, all these things,” Campbell said as Jimmy Buffett songs and other beach tunes rang across the lake. “To have this much shoreline with 6.5 million people — I couldn’t finish this project, all the potential, in my lifetime and probably my son’s.”

With $11 million already invested in the project, Margaritaville at Lanier Islands is in “early phase one,” said Cohlan, who has been Jimmy Buffett’s longtime business partner and head of the Margaritaville company.

The Lake Lanier property is being developed by Campbell, who has a long-term lease with the Lake Lanier Islands Management Co., and licensed by Margaritaville. The new attraction welcomed local officials and residents on Wednesday for a meet-and-greet event with the leadership of the property. 

Speakers during the Wednesday event included an obviously at-ease Virgil Williams, chairman of the Lake Lanier Islands Management Co., who told the audience his relief at being able to give control of the resort over to capable hands.

“This is a special day for our family. We’ve been dreaming about having a partner like Safe Harbor and Margaritaville for 12 years now,” Williams said. “We knew, matter of fact I knew, that a Georgia Tech engineer didn’t know much about entertainment and marinas and camping. We’ve been looking all this time (for a partner).”

Lanier Islands was “in pretty difficult shape” when the Williams family took over, he said, and support from the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority and the state government allowed the family to turn the property around.

Now, plans are in the works to grow what was Lake Lanier Islands into a full-blown theme park.

In the near term, Safe Harbor is making plans to build a new hotel and convention center and hotel resort, indoor water park and more rides and entertainment on the property. Ultimately, the investors plan a $250 million buildout of the islands. 

“I think this becomes the leading entertainment destination in the Southeast, I really do,” Cohlan said, noting the additions coming to the property. “And, you get to go to the beach. Imagine being able to go to Disney and Universal and spend the day at the beach and only have to drive 40 minutes from a major city. To me, this is on par or better than Orlando.”

Margaritaville has a location in Universal Studios in Orlando, and Cohlan noted that world-class theme park sits on only about 500 acres in Florida. Campbell’s lease in Lake Lanier covers almost three times as much land — all of it with sewer, road access and permission to build.

And building it are people who know what they’re doing. Margaritaville pulled in $1.5 billion in revenue in 2017 and has billions of dollars of development in the works. Campbell’s Safe Harbor owns and operates 11 marinas around the eastern United States.

The pair also have experience working together with other properties.

“It’s a working team,” Cohlan said. “It’s a very well-oiled, fun machine.’

Margaritaville at Lanier Islands will be Campbell’s biggest project ever, he said, and Cohlan said the large acreage on the islands “is a canvas you can keep stretching” for the experience-driven company. 

“In most situations, you’re confined. You’re having to choose great things you can do that just don’t fit because you don’t have space,” Cohlan said. “Here, we can really build out the idea, the attitude, that is Margaritaville.”