Getting a new lake look
Renovations part of 10-year plan for facility

LAKE LANIER ISLANDS - When Sugar Hill resident Virgil Williams bought the 1,100-acre resort known as Lake Lanier Islands in late 2005, some of the words used to describe it were aged, dilapidated and rundown.

But those descriptions have changed greatly in just under four years. Today if you wanted to describe the resort, you could use words like majestic, chic and promising.

Simply put, the 10-year, $300 million renovation and restoration effort that started with construction in January 2007 is starting to show signs of major progress.

That progress has nothing to do with the now rising Lake Lanier level either, although Williams admitted the lake being nearly full makes him quite happy.

Williams and his team spent 2006 planning the renovation effort of the resort that opened in 1974, and so far Williams is happy with the changes he sees.

"We're very pleased," he said. "And we've been very demanding and hard to please. But we feel very rewarded by the result so far."

There are lots of visible results, too, from the new signage, lighting, roads and entrance bridge to the new spa, golf course and luxury lake villas. And more changes are still coming.

The "we" Williams refers to is his wife and four children, who've been very active in the planning and development process. It was largely Williams' family that made him want to buy the property in the first place.

"It was not only a good investment and opportunity, but more importantly," he said, "it gave me the opportunity to work with my children in a way I was never able to."

Those regular board meetings with the children in tow have paid off, too, and the end goal is a resort that is perfect for the entire family to visit.

For example, Williams credits a family brainstorming session for coming up with the idea of including food in your greens fees at the new Legacy on Lanier golf course. It just opened after the closing of the PineIsle golf course and golfers are invited into the clubhouse either before or after their round to have a bite.

"That's just not done in the industry and by doing it we're trying to differentiate ourselves," Williams said. "And that's the type of creativity I'm able to get from my children."

Another new resort feature is the more than four miles of trails already completed that connect the Legacy Lodge - which is the renovated 221-room hotel formerly known as the Emerald Point Hotel - with the golf course, the harbor area and the beach and waterpark. Patrons can bike, walk, take a golf cart or motorized Segway on the trails to take in the island at their own pace, and they'll never have to worry about interference from car traffic. The plans call for a total of six-and-a-half miles of trails when the restoration is complete.

An improved service and offering of the resort that Williams spoke of highly was the one he called nearly "recession proof." He also promised additional offerings to come in the future to support it.

"The wedding business has quadrupled since we took over and the services we offer added value to the island," he said. "We wanted to have that."

To that end comes the resort's new, six lakeside villas, which are each 4,500 square feet and contain six bedrooms and bathrooms complete with privacy, balconies overlooking Lanier, flat screen televisions, granite countertops and hardwood floors.

As for changes still to come, Williams said next on the list is the construction of another golf course and hotel, which will replace the old Marriott-owned property which was taken down. He said were it not for the recession, construction would be under way already.

Stephanie Orr, the director of Sales and Marketing at the Legacy Lodge, said also on the list were renovations of the resort's 30 lakehouses, which are two-bedroom cottages nestled beneath tall Georgia pines. Eventually, she said, the plan is to move the entrance to the waterpark so that visitors coming just for it no longer have to pay the island's $8 gate entry fee.

That news was welcomed by Dacula resident Jennifer Taaffe and her friends and family. Taaffe said she's been coming to the waterpark since it only had two slides.

"That would be sweet," Taaffe said.

She also said she liked the visible changes of the islands so far.

"It's nicer and prettier," she said. "And it's still a good family destination."

Being a great local destination for families seems to be the ultimate goal for the Williams' family and their Lake Lanier Islands Resort.

"It's the kind of recreation environment that practically every family can enjoy," Williams said. "Its significance in size, it's priced at a level that is affordable and is close to Atlanta. The metro area has this at its doorstep."

And the welcome mat is down at that doorstep and the resort is open for everyone, for hopefully many generations of Georgians to enjoy.

"They've (The Williams' family) been on a mission to create a legacy here, something that the state of Georgia could be proud of and something that everyone would want to visit," Orr said. "And they're trying to make it open and inclusive to everyone in the community. They're a very community-oriented family."