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Group plans to reinvent Lake Lanier

BUFORD - Imagine, when you drive up to Lake Lanier, a 40-foot cascading waterfall that takes your breath away.

There will be shops and restaurants in a village - before a required gate fee to enter the resort - then a brightly lit bridge to remind you that you are entering another world.

Inside, life will be slower. Electric cars, bicycles and Segways, an electric scooter, will share room on the roads. There will be pull-offs to enjoy the scenery and walking trails to get closer to nature.

Then there are the buildings: a lodge that will look like it has grown from the ground, cottages, a wellness center, a spa, yacht club and wedding chapel.

And that's only the beginning.

Virgil Williams, who with his family purchased the lease on the Lake Lanier Islands and Emerald Pointe Resort last year, has a vision for the 1,100-acre property near Gwinnett's northern tip that is much broader than golf courses and hotels.

"We want more tranquility, more of a sanctuary feel. When you come on the islands, we want life to slow down for you for a little bit," he said. "Everywhere you go, you're in a car, out on the freeway, speeding along, in traffic or at red lights. We want to change that."

Williams' vision, presented to the Lake Lanier Islands' Board of Directors Friday, is a reimagining of what the resort can be. He said plans for the many projects will probably be completed in the spring of 2007 and construction could begin in 2008. One of the first projects could be a replacement for the PineIsle Resort, which closed last fall.

"We're anxious to do it," he said.

The changes to Lake Lanier Islands will range from streets and speed limits to gate access to signs and activities. Even some holes on the Emerald Pointe golf course may be moved.

Art Oldham, who is helping the Williams family craft their plans, spoke of an iconography in rebranding the lake. The waterfall at its entrance will let people know that they have arrived at their destination and signs and buildings made from indigenous materials will blend into the landscape, he said.

"It will be the sign, it will be the image, it will be the icon to this place," Oldham said.

Roundabouts to make traffic flow more smoothly could be designed with Sidney Lanier, the lake's namesake, in mind, Oldham said. Lines from his poems might be engraved in stonework around the roundabouts or trees mentioned in his writings could be planted in their centers.

Other traffic-related ideas include the construction of 110,000 feet of walking trails where there are currently none, a reduced speed limit of 20 miles per hour to accommodate electric vehicles and bicycles, pull-off lanes every quarter mile to allow motorists to stop and enjoy the scenery and the enhancement of the bridge to the islands that will add characteristics to give it the illusion of being a suspension bridge.

All those changes will be secondary to new building construction that will draw visitors to the lake. Considerations include moving the entry gate back to that bridge and creating a village with restaurants that people can frequent without having to pay an entry fee.

"We want to make sure the local populace won't have any barriers to come to the Islands," Williams said.

Once inside the gate, the number of destinations will multiply considerably. Williams talked about a wedding chapel and reception hall, a new amphitheater with larger capacity that could draw big-name acts or summer theater to the lake, a wellness center and spa, beach and yacht clubs, rustic cottages, bed and breakfasts and a lodge reminiscent of those in many of the nation's national parks.

Board members were wowed by the ideas. Craig Dowdy said he could not think of a single resort like it in the region and thought Williams' plan was comprehensive.

"There's something for all sizes of pocketbooks to come and enjoy," he said.

John Gibb, another board member and Buford resident, demonstrated how to use a Segway - he has two at home - for some of his fellow board members. He said he is thrilled about the plans and looking forward to playing an active role in the development.

"Now we can invest in an exciting process," he said. "We're not just caretakers anymore. We're caregivers."

Williams said he is in the midst of doing research about the different plans and that nothing will be finalized until the board approves of it.

He expects the results of that research, which will be back in the fall, to solidify what changes people want to the lake and in what order. The presentation, he said, was to give a glimpse of what Lake Lanier could be.

"We wanted to raise the shade just a little bit of the window and show what our visions are, what we're thinking," he said. "We want it to have a different feel than it may have now."