GAINESVILLE — Five interlocking, rusted rings are silhouetted against the sparkling waters of Lake Lanier, where paddlers flock from across the hemisphere to train.
The Lake Lanier Olympic Park, previously dubbed the Olympic venue, has been a fixture in Gainesville for 20 years. But the site of the kayaking and rowing events in the 1996 Olympic Games was loosely maintained for two decades.
Today, a $1.6 million renovation is under way, adding a butterfly garden, wheelchair-accessible walkways and updates to the judges’ tower and the concession area.
The park offers one of the best courses in the world for practice, and the facilities are being improved for better overall quality.
“Everything happening out here is included in phase one,” said Morgan House, park manager. “That includes the concession/service building, expanding concessions and renovating the public restrooms.”
House gave an update on the renovations at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce meeting Thursday. He said the catalyst for updating the area is an influx of athletes this spring.
Late April will bring both the U.S. Olympic qualifier and the Canadian Olympic qualifier to the park. Then the Pan American Championships will be held May 19-22.
“It’s the last Olympic qualifier for the Olympics,” House said. “So if you are a paddler in North, South or Central America and you want to go to Rio this year, you have to come here first. There’s no other way.”
The renovations are well under way. A ramp was installed, providing access from the upper plaza to the platform below.
The service building, where House’s office is located, has new windows, a conference area for private events, a second office for meetings and a private bathroom.
The building will better accommodate the events housed at the park, from races to festivals and weddings.
“Before, if a bride wanted to get married out here, it was very tough for me to sell it to her,” House said. “She would say, ‘Where do I get dressed?’ And I would say, ‘Well, you can use my office and the public restrooms.’ That didn’t work too well.”
Adjacent to the service building is the new two-part butterfly garden, just inside the gates of the park. House said the garden will have a walkway, fountain and benches. More than 250 butterflies will be released in the garden this spring, he said.
The original Olympic rings affixed to a post at the park will be restored and moved into the butterfly garden.
“We’re taking that down, going to sandblast it and get it nice again,” House said. “It’s just been there, rusting away. We’ll dress it up and bring it back to its former glory.”
A walkway stretches from the park plaza to the second story of the judges’ tower, giving wheelchair-bound judges and guests easy access to the tower for the first time.
A massive LED screen is hung against one side of the tower, which will display a variety of messaging.
“We can put results up there, and we will,” House said. “A quarter of it will be used for Springer Mountain Farms advertising, and the three other quarters will be used for messaging, sponsor logos, video, pictures, whatever we’d like. It’s top of the line.”
Inside, the tower is getting its first bathroom.
“For 20 years, we’ve never had water in here,” House said. “So all the judges, in any event we had, had to run up the stairs to the public restrooms.”
On the second story, a new platform for the judges’ camera will be built, protecting it from the elements. It was previously mounted on the top floor of the tower.
“When weather came in, there was nothing to protect it except throw a bag over it,” House said. “And in throwing a bag over it, you might misalign it. So we’re building a platform inside with a permanent mount for the camera.”
Finally, the top floor and bottom floor of the tower will have some small updates, from drywall and paint to new HVAC. Both rooms will be used for private events.
Brian Daniel, chairman of the chamber board, commended House and all those investing in the Olympic park.
“We have such fantastic leadership, generation to generation, including Jim Mathis and what he did to bring the Olympics here in 1996,” Daniel said. “Morgan and what [his] board and staff do will take us well into the future.”
House reiterated he believes the Lake Lanier Olympic Park offers athletes from across the country and the world one of the best venues to practice and compete.
“I’ve seen almost every course in the world myself,” House said. “I personally have competed on them. And we have the best. We really do.”