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Posted: Sunday, December 9th 2012 at 11:05am

Brenau assumes responsibility for GMC Sat., begins $6.5 million health care expansion

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Artist rendering of what the mountains center, as seen from Jesse Jewell Parkway, will look like in the future.
GAINESVILLE - Brenau University will take possession of the city-owned Georgia Mountains Center (GMC) Saturday as part of a long-term lease agreement with the Gainesville Redevelopment Authority that will pave the way for a $6.5 million expansion of the university's health care professions graduate programs.

Brenau President Ed Schrader said that Brenau's occupancy of the building means that it can start work in January on major internal renovations to the property. Pending approvals by various academic and professional standards accrediting boards, the university plans to offer graduate programs in physical therapy and other professional health care disciplines in 2014.

In negotiating the lease with the university, city government representatives insisted that Brenau take possession by the end of this year. Although the lease technically begins Saturday, the ceremonial hand off will occur on Monday, Dec. 17.

With the execution of the lease, the university assumes responsibility for managing all aspects of the facility, including renting the theater, ballroom/meeting rooms, commercial kitchen and other public use areas in the building.

A major change, which takes place immediately, is that the 2,500-seat arena will no longer be available for rent. The redevelopment design calls for doubling usable floor space in that portion of the building by using it for classrooms, laboratories and other academic-oriented space.

The 30-year-old facility was losing money steadily in recent years, primarily because of the availability of newer, larger convention and meeting centers that have emerged in North Georgia to accommodate the size audiences that are required to keep such a facility vibrant. Ironically, one of the remaining major events in the arena each year has been Brenau's May commencement exercises, which will now have to find a new home.

"We see this arrangement as a higher calling for a still-useful building in the heart of Brenau University's hometown," said Schrader.  "Although the building will no longer accommodate, say, a small rodeo, it will attract state and regional meetings of health care professionals. Plus, on a daily basis, it will draw to the downtown core scores of faculty and graduate students engaged in preparing for high-paying jobs in health care professions."

Schrader added that the university will accommodate long-standing arrangements with community groups, like the Georgia Mountain Players theatrical group, which use the 350-seat theater in the building a couple of times a year. In addition, it will leverage the availability of the facility to add additional programs, including concerts, recitals, plays and lectures.

Brenau's investment in the project totals about $6.5 million. That includes costs of renovations, building technology infrastructure, equipment for high-level health-related graduate programs and research, and other costs associated with starting new professional health care programs. Funding will come from the university with monies raised through donations, grants and possibly bonds. Schrader says Brenau already has commitments and cash on hand representing about two-thirds of the projected costs.

The investment will put into action Brenau's long-term plans to expand graduate-level programs leading to masters degrees and doctorates in the health care and rehabilitative services professional disciplines like physical therapy, pharmacy and physician assistant preparation.

Initial estimates project that, once the programs that Brenau envisions for the Mountains Center operate at planned capacity, Brenau's expansion in the Gainesville town square area will result in $40 million a year in direct economic impact. That includes creation of between 50 and 100 administrative and faculty positions. Many of the new employees would hold doctorates and other advanced professional degrees in high-paying faculty positions. The university also projects that the new programs within eight years could bring in between 400 and 700 students, most of them seeking advanced degrees.

Along with the construction renovation Brenau will soon begin staffing up for the physical therapy program, first with the hiring of a chair for the department.

Brenau currently enrolls about 2,800 students, 1,054 of whom are in graduate programs. About 41 percent of the graduate students are enrolled in health-related masters degree programs: nursing, occupational therapy, clinical psychology, physician assistant, applied gerontology and health services administration. Schrader said the university envisions a 5,000-student enrollment by 2025 with more than half seeking advanced degrees. The health services professional preparation will be a major contributor to that growth.

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