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Dec. 11, 2017
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On a mission: Hyltons embrace vision of Ark on Lake Lanier

 
By Pamela A. Keene 
 
It all started with having their desire to purchase their dream lakeside home turned down more than a dozen years ago. But something about the two-plus acre farmhouse property kept beckoning Jeff and Alycea Hylton to Lake Lanier from their home on the other side of Gainesville.
 
“We really fell in love with the property from the moment we first saw it,” says Jeff, now an executive and financial adviser with Merrill Lynch in Gainesville. “At the time, the current owners, who also owned another home, didn’t really want to sell it, although Jeff tried to negotiate. Then in early 2006, Jeff’s father in Augusta was diagnosed with brain cancer, and any plans to purchase the property were set aside. 
 
“I made a deal with God when we moved back to Augusta to take care of my father,” Jeff said. “I told God that I was walking away from the property and if He wanted me to have it, He’d have to bring it back to me. About six months later, we got an email from the owners of the property. They had decided they didn’t need two mortgages so they were willing to sell it, and they came to us first. We jumped at the chance.”
 
Jeff and Alycea spent the next six months planning and implementing major renovations with the guidance of Alycea’s father Dick Young, who was a contractor at the time. The renovations included updating the then-10,000-square-foot house’s layout, kitchen, bathrooms and common areas. The couple developed the overall design and worked with architects in Atlanta and, in April 2007, they moved into the main house with their three children – Brittany Claire, Brooks and Bennett – and began a journey of faith that has connected them with people around the globe. 
 
The family envisioned it as a working farm and soon purchased two goats that became seven goats, two alpacas and 15 chickens. They renovated the pool and pool house and created a lakeside fire pit for entertaining. 
 
The end of the summer in 2008 was “memorable” for the family in many ways. “The stock market crashed, the lake was down over 20 feet, and while we were on vacation at Hilton Head over Labor Day, we got a call that the house was on fire,” he said wryly. Two rooms and part of the garage were destroyed; the cause was spontaneous combustion as a result of cleaning materials that had been stored. “Needless to say, it was very disorienting.”
 
Within six months, the house had been cleaned and partially repaired, but not rebuilt. Jeff and Alycea felt like the house needed to be expanded, and since it sounded like a crazy idea, they didn’t do anything at first. They put up temporary sheetrock to cover the areas still under construction. “People couldn’t understand why we wanted to build more bedrooms and baths,” Jeff said. “The economy was in a downturn and the market was in the tank, but we just kept having the feeling that we needed to build more bedrooms, even though we already had 10 or 11. People thought we had lost out minds.”
 
Another year went by and still the Hyltons felt like they needed to add more rooms to the house. They renovated both cabins, eventually bringing the total to 14 bedrooms and 12 baths and creating space to sleep more than 40 people. They also built a state-of-the-art home theater with 16 leather reclining seats and created more areas for gathering and niches for private time with views of the lake.
 
Soon, the mission became clear. “We were working with a group called Adventures in Missions and a group of missionaries from out of town was scheduled to come to Gainesville for training, and at the last minute their housing fell through,” he said. “That August and September we ended up with 15 or 16 missionaries in their 20s living here, with all the room they needed.”
 
Within a few months, it was apparent that either the missionaries or the Hyltons had to go. So the Hyltons rented a home on Riverside Drive and let the missionaries have the house to themselves. “It was beautiful chaos, having 16 extra house guests. My entire family made lifelong friends, and we made some wonderful memories. It was the time of our life, but it was also time for us to go.” 
 
The next year, when the missionaries moved out, “We were shown that it was our purpose to make the home a self-sustaining ministry house, so by 2013 we began offering it through Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) and soon had people coming here and paying rent for family reunions, corporate retreats and the like,” he said. “Now it stays rented during the spring, summer and fall. In fact, our VRBO revenue covers the expenses to operate the house all year.” 
 
Jeff said that the property is one of nine registered VRBOs in Hall County, and that they pay approximately 75 percent of the county’s total Hotel/Motel tax that’s collected annually. Those monies are used to fund tourism marketing in Hall County.
 
Through VRBO, it rents for $4,000 per night and will sleep 40 or so people. There’s a three-night minimum, but many people rent it for a week. When the house is not rented by clients paying full price, it’s used for church retreats and to house missionaries and the pricing is flexible. 
 
“It’s a place of peace and refuge for people from around the world,” Alycea said. “And we are always hearing comments about the property and the house. One older man told us that the house has ‘happy walls,’ and I guess that’s true. It certainly is a spiritual place, a gathering place where good things happen.” 
 
So how did the property become known as Ark on Lake Lanier? “Alycea’s mother Brenda Young gave me this little figurine of Noah’s ark with animals surrounding it,” Jeff said. “She told me that I reminded her of Noah. And I certainly felt like Noah … remodeling this huge house and adding bedrooms at a time that didn’t seem to make sense. And since we had farm animals for a while and were looking for a name for the place it just stuck – Ark on Lake Lanier.”
 
Even though people from around the world have found their way to the shores of Lake Lanier and the Ark, Jeff said that he’s amazed people right here in Northeast Georgia don’t know about it. “We’re not a Christian retreat center, and we never set out with this dream. I never thought when I bought it that we’d ever rent it out, but it continues to evolve,” Jeff said.  “If it weren’t for our relationship with God, we never would have had this place, but it’s our mission to give back to the community and to provide a place for rejuvenation and a respite from the day-to-day world.”

Posted online 9/29/17
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