|By Maria Saporta, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 10, 2005 - Gwinnett businessman Virgil Williams is negotiating to buy the rights to operate Lake Lanier Islands, the 1,000-acre resort he hopes to rejuvenate into one of Georgia's premier recreational destinations.
Williams' bid of $14.5 million to acquire the leasehold rights has already been accepted by Orlando-based CNL Hotels and Resorts, which holds a long-term lease on the property. Now Williams must get approval from the myriad other groups with rights to the property, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
If approved, the deal would give Williams a resort that includes the Beach & Waterpark, the 216-room Emerald Pointe Resort and its conference center and golf club, 30 villas tucked into the wooded areas around the lake, and Harbor Landing with its fleet of boats. The resort also has several restaurants, equestrian and camping facilities.
Williams said Tuesday that he, his wife and four children decided to bid for the leasehold interests because they believe Lake Lanier Islands has the potential to become an attraction on par with the Reynolds Plantation, Sea Island and Callaway Gardens.
Williams said he wants to upgrade the facilities so that it becomes a higher-quality destination while keeping it open to the general public. He offered few details, however, saying it was premature and that he plans to hire a master planner to determine Lake Lanier Islands' next step.
Lake Lanier Islands opened in 1974 and is showing signs of wear, Williams said. As part of the transaction, the state-run group that oversees the property -- the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority -- will consider making a multimillion-dollar investment to improve the infrastructure over several years.
That includes reconstructing roads and upgrading the Islands' sewer system. But Williams doesn't intend to increase the volume of treated wastewater in Lake Lanier; instead, if additional capacity is needed, he plans to use treated wastewater to irrigate hundreds of acres of golf course.
Plans also call for developing multiuse trails for bicyclists and pedestrians, building new picnic and pavilion areas, and stabilizing the eroding Lake Lanier shoreline.
"The islands have yet to reach their true potential as envisioned when they were originally opened in 1974," Williams said. "They envisioned these islands as being rather highly developed. They just never completed the long-term view."
In 1996, the state and the development authority decided to privatize the facility and operations at Lake Lanier Islands. KSL Lake Lanier Inc. obtained the original lease in 1997 for $9 million, but the company was then acquired in April 2004 by CNL Hotels and Resorts.
In February, with 43 years remaining on the lease and an option to extend it for another decade, CNL put the Islands on the market.
The company has said that the property was not a good fit with the rest of its hotel and resort portfolio.
For Williams, buying the interests to Lake Lanier Islands will be an opportunity to combine business and family to create a legacy.
In recent years, he has sold his interests in engineering and environmental companies. Williams also sold the Georgia Force Arena Football League team to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank.
This marks the first time he has embarked on a business venture with his wife and children.
"We got together as a family to look at it very carefully," Williams said. "Every family member had the option to participate or not. Part of my whole objective is teaching them whatever skills I have. I'm going to be mentoring the family."
Williams said he and his family envision the islands being built out as population in the region expands. The resort attracts about 650,000 people annually.
"From our perspective, there will need to be a really good balance between the amenities that are developed and the natural environment of the islands with its hilltops and all its beautiful shorelines," he said.
The transaction is particularly complicated because of the number of parties involved. The land is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has leased the property to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. DNR, in turn, established the authority to oversee the property.
Today, Williams will ask the authority to approve the deal.
In addition to the purchase price, Williams also said he will invest at least $5 million in the property within the first five years. He also must pay annual rent of $3 million plus 3.5 percent of Lake Lanier Islands' annual profits.
Williams is a veteran businessman with strong ties to state government. He chaired Zell Miller's first gubernatorial campaign and then served as Miller's chief of staff.
During Miller's first term, Williams chaired the Governor's Commission on Effectiveness and Economy in Government. The commission studied the possibility of privatizing Lake Lanier Islands Waterpark but recommended against it.
Years later, Miller convened the Governor's Commission on the Privatization of Government Services. That commission, of which Williams was not a member, believed Lake Lanier Islands was competing directly with the private sector and decided to privatize the property in 1996.
Story Filed By The Atlanta Journal-Constitution AP-NY-08-10-05 0139EDT<
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