Taking it all in: Tourism a major draw to Northeast Georgia

The economic impact of Hall County’s tourism industry reached a record high of $282.9 million in 2014, according to the most recent report released this year by the Georgia Department of Economic Development and U.S. Travel Association.
Hall County ranks 12th out of Georgia’s 159 counties in visitor spending.
“We are closing the gap between us and No. 11 ranked Cherokee County, with only $7.92 million more in spending needed to pull even to this other North Georgia destination,” said Stacey Dickson, president of the Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Gainesville-Hall County is at the cusp of a potential hotel development boom.”
Hotel occupancy rates have also hit record highs and 90 new jobs were added in the tourism sector that year, a 3 percent increase. As a result, Gainesville’s hotel/motel tax revenue has jumped from $591.8 million in the 2013 fiscal year to $829 million in the 2015 fiscal year, which ended June 30 of last year.
And revenues are up month-over-month this fiscal year.
The pull of Gainesville and Hall County can be seen with events at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park, the opening of the new Atlanta Botanical Garden-Gainesville, and public art promotions, for example.
A $1.6 million renovation at the Olympic venue is the first step in an eventual $7.5 million to $10 million plan to remake the site at Clarks Bridge Park and turn it into more than just a sporting complex.
Hall County is also known for its great parks, whether along Lake Lanier or in the foothills. The 32-acre Linwood Nature Preserve on Linwood Drive in Gainesville, for example, is a product of a public-private partnership between Gainesville Parks and Recreation and the Redbud Project.
Rising further up the rankings will require the development of new hotels and attractions, she added.
Macon-Bibb County is ranked No. 10 for tourist spending in Georgia, pulling in an estimated a $45.52 million more than Hall.

What’s next?
In 2015, state and local tourism agencies promoted North Georgia’s culinary and drink destinations, with an eye on the emergence of growler bars and breweries. Growlers, such as Downtown Drafts and Tap It, moved into Gainesville in 2014, and the craft beer producer Left Nut Brewing Co. opened this year.
Food- and beverage-themed destinations, such as the emergence of the county’s first farm winery in Sweet Acre Farms, offer unique escapes, as do agritourism draws such as Jaemor Farms in Alto.

Visitors take a tour of Jaemor Farms in Alto.
Visitors take a tour of Jaemor Farms in Alto.

“Culinary tourism is a very important part of the economic impact of travel,” Dickson said. “Where to eat and where to buy food-related souvenirs are our most frequently asked questions from visitors.”
Tourism officials also are also banking on more movie and television productions taking place in Hall. Lanier Islands has been a key location in the county for several Hollywood movies in the past few years, including “Blended,” featuring Adam Sandler, which shot for 55 days here.
Recent shoots in downtown Gainesville include scenes for the recent release of “Creed,” latest in the “Rocky” series.

“Blended,” starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore filmed at Four Seasons on Lanier subdivision in South Hall in 2013.

“The next steps for Hall County to continue to lead in visitor spending involve further infrastructure investments by our existing and new industry partners,” Dickson said. “Continued development and expanded programming at Lanier Islands is another boost to the economy by attracting more and more new faces to the area.”
Other movies and television productions filmed throughout the county include “Hall Pass,” starring Owen Wilson, “Sabotage,” featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the television series “The Vampire Diaries.”
Georgia provides a 20 percent tax credit for companies that spend half a million dollars or more during production and post-production in the state.
The state offers another 10 percent tax credit if a promotional logo provided by the state is included in the final cut.
About $1.7 billion was spent in the state during the filming of 248 movie and television productions between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2015, according to the state Department of Economic Development.
The Georgia Department of Economic Development cites a 2011 study reporting that the music industry in the state is worth $3.7 billion, supporting nearly 20,000 jobs. Advocates say tax credits for music recorded here, particularly for film, television and theater, could help the industry attract new artists, retain and nurture up-and-comers, and spur the development of new recording facilities and event spaces.
The state holds its own when it comes to the number of legacy musicians and bands that call Georgia home. From Ray Charles to REM to Outkast, there is much to be celebrated.
With events hosted by The Arts Council bringing in world-class musical performers and groups like Gainesville Theatre Alliance, “music is vibrant and flourishing in the area,” Dickson said.
Live music venues, from outdoor amphitheaters at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Olympic venue to pubs and restaurants with acoustic, jazz and rock performances, there is a little something for everyone, she added.
Gainesville spokeswoman Catiel Felts said the city prioritizes music above nearly everything else when it comes to organizing local events like the Mutts on Main and Spring Chicken Festival, which include concert performances.
“The first question we always ask ourselves when planning an event in Gainesville is, ‘What kind of music do we want?’” she said. “We already have more than 30 events planned with local artists performing. Music is at the core of everything we do.”
Facilitating travel and tourism in Gainesville and Hall County has been met with innovative ideas from local government officials. For example, Gainesville officials have selected a design template for new wayfinding signs in the city, a first step toward construction and installation. The three-year project includes placing welcome signs, directional markers and points of interest maps at key locations throughout Gainesville.
“Gateway” signs will be placed at three exits along Interstate 985, as well as along Dawsonville Highway, as a way to welcome people to the city.
Secondary welcome signs will be placed along Thompson Bridge Road, Cleveland Highway and Browns Bridge Road.

Story by Joshua Silavent | Photography for Home Magazine

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