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Design work to proceed
Hotel/civic center project goes forward

COVINGTON - The City Council gave its nod of approval Monday night to proceed with a new design for the hotel/civic center planned for downtown Covington.

In November, members of a task force charged with overseeing the project selected a new investor, PR Hospitality Group out of Buford, whose president, Phil Riley, attended the meeting to explain the new plan and timeline for the project.

Previous investors Noble Investment Group backed out in July because "they were looking for bigger projects," according to John Boothby, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the task force.

Riley said the previous $26 million cost established for the project is three years old and will likely have increased.

Initially, Noble's commitment was for $9 million, with other funding coming from $12.1 million in bonds backed by the Newton County Industrial Development Authority and $5 million in special purpose local option sales tax revenues.

Prior to Riley's presentation, County Attorney Tommy Craig, also a member of the task force, told the council that, "We've got to have an architectural firm with experience in hotels/conference centers to come up with a schematic design," before a final cost can be established.

"We're all really hostage to the cost. We don't know what that is yet," Craig said.

Lyman Davidson and Dooley, the architects that designed the Newton County Administration Office, previously worked on the project, but the work centered on the feasibility of fitting the hotel and civic center on one lot, said Buncie Lanners, a task force member. The study cost $41,832, with Noble Investment paying $13,000 of that, leaving a net cost of $28,832, according to Newton County Executive Officer John Middleton.

"They had to do enough of a design to know if it would fit. If we had not had what they did, we would not have had another hotelier," she said, adding that this design schematic will be at a "higher level."

The project will include a 1,200-seat civic center, a 100-room hotel, a conference center and restaurant and will be located adjacent to the Newton County Administration Office.

The design poses some challenges, Craig said, because the meeting space will need to be on the second floor, with the first floor consumed by the lobby, restaurant and civic center. Because elevators will likely not be sufficient to keep the foot traffic flowing quickly and safely, a grand staircase and escalators may be needed as well, Craig said.

Another problem is how to provide adequate structural support without using columns, which would obstruct the view in the meeting area, he said.

Riley said the architect must also be an approved vendor of Hilton, adding that he has a commitment from that brand to open a Doubletree Hotel there.

The design phase of the project will take three months to complete and cost $240,000. Once the design is complete, it would be 28 months to complete the project, meaning that the hotel/civic center would open its doors in 2010, Riley said.

The city council unanimously pledged its support of the project moving forward, though the funding source for phase one was not discussed.

Based on the funding sources already established, "Somewhere down the road it all washes out to where it would be a shared cost," City Manager Steve Horton said.

Newton County commissioners held their own work session at the meeting Monday night. Commissioners were expected to vote on the proposal at their regular Tuesday night meeting.

In other news, Mayor Sam Ramsey said talks are in the works with CSX Railroad to acquire property adjacent to the hotel site for parking. Two of the three train tracks running across the lot would have to be removed. Ramsey said the property would cost an estimated $130,000 and is vital to the project because of its proximity to the hotel.

Riley agreed that parking was a top priority.

"Most people want to be able to park within the confines of the hotel. No one wants to pull their luggage across the street," he said.

The parking budget has been established at $705,000, according to Lanners. Acquisition of an AT&T parking lot, which has already taken place, was budgeted at $80,000, while the paving and striping of City Park was budgeted at $625,000. But Ramsey said Monday night that the city would prefer not to destroy the park.

A parking deck under construction by the county, along with parking around the square, could also be used, Craig said, adding that there are about 1,200 spaces available.

But even so, "At times there will be a shortage of parking," Riley said. "There will be a lot of need for parking in downtown Covington."

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.