Civic minded
County, city OK convention center, hotel

COVINGTON - Both the Covington City Council and Newton County Board of Commissioners pledged support for the long-planned hotel/civic center/conference center Tuesday night, approving a joint resolution authorizing the issuance of $23 million in revenue bonds for the project.

The resolution also supports an increase in the hotel/motel tax and names PR Hospitality out of Buford as the selected hotel developer.

The City Council joined the commissioners at their regular 7 p.m. meeting at the Newton County Historic Courthouse to get an update on the project and view new renderings of the building, which will be located adjacent to the Newton County Administration Building on Usher Street.

Both bodies unanimously approved the resolution, which puts the public funding for the project in place. PR Hospitality is funding the $12 million hotel.

The cost for the civic center and conference center is about $25 million, according to Brian Huskey of investment banking firm Merchant Capital.

Commissioners previously allocated $5 million in special purpose local option sales tax revenues for the project, leaving $20 million in need of financing. The bond amount will be up to $23 million to cover any additional expenses.

According to County Attorney Tommy Craig, county and city officials have been insistent that the project be as self-supporting as possible so as not to burden taxpayers.

Therefore, officials agreed to pursue an increase of the hotel/motel tax from 5 percent to 8 percent, with the additional revenue to go toward paying off debt service on the civic and conference centers. The county will need permission from the state legislature to increase the tax.

The hotel operator will also make payments to offset debt in lieu of property taxes.

The project will include a 1,200-seat civic center that proponents say will draw top entertainment acts to town, along with a 6,000-square-foot conference/convention center.

Phil Riley of PR Hospitality said the 116-room "upscale, full-service" hotel will include a restaurant, lobby lounge, concierge lounge, fitness center and pool. The hotel will be of the Hilton brand, likely a Hilton Garden Inn or a Doubletree Hotel.

Initially, the hotel will employ between 75 and 100 people, Riley said.

John Boothby, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce and chairman of a task force assigned to study the project, told officials the project before them is more than what meets the eye.

"This is an economic development project. It's not just a hotel. It's not just a civic center, and it's not just a conference center," he said.

Jeff Hudspeth, chief technology officer for SKC Inc. and chairman of the chamber's Industry Council, agreed.

During public comments, Hudspeth said the project would be a big draw for prospective employees of SKC, who list quality of life as a top priority when considering moving to a new community.

Hudspeth said SKC is committed to using meeting space in the facility, adding that with the rising cost of fuel, management wants to find local meeting spots. In the past, they've used facilities at the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers and Chateau Elan in Braselton, he said.

"We'd like to get away, but we'd like to do it in Newton County," he said.

But Bobby Sigman said the cost may not outweigh the benefits of the project. He said the hotel/motel tax increase won't be enough to cover the debt incurred, and taxpayers will likely wind up bearing the burden.

"Look at the taxpayers pocketbooks before you vote on this," he said.

Greeley Ellis raised concerns about whether there will be sufficient parking to accommodate hotel employees and guests, as well as visitors to the civic and conference centers.

Ellis pointed out that the parking deck serving the Administration Building is a block away from the front entrance.

"It isn't bad for the able-bodied, but for some of us, it's a real obstacle course ... Please keep in mind the need for adequate, convenient parking in all kinds of places for all kinds of people," he said.

Along with the parking deck already in use, BellSouth has donated its lot on Pace Street to the city for additional parking for the project. Other plans for parking are being studied, Boothby said on Wednesday.

"We've got two years to come up with a plan that is good now," Boothby said. "We had to get over the hurdle to get approval, and now we can turn our full attention to some challenges that are secondary."

A development agreement with PR Hospitality must still be approved before bonds are issued, according to Craig.

The agreement should be in place within 60 days, Craig said.

Once construction begins, the project will take about 18 months to complete.

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