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Increase in hotel/motel tax one step closer

CONYERS - A bill allowing the city of Conyers to increase its hotel/motel tax cleared its first hurdle in the General Assembly last week.

The House voted 123-31 on Thursday to approve the measure that will increase the tax from 6 percent to 8 percent.

House Bill 302 was sponsored on behalf of Conyers by Rep. Robert Mumford, R-Conyers, with support from Rep. Randal Mangham, D-Decatur, and Rep. Pam Stephenson, D-Decatur.

The measure must still pass the Senate, and city officials have asked Sen. Ronald Ramsey, D-Decatur, to serve as the point person to push the legislation through.

Conyers Mayor Randy Mills said he is "cautiously optimistic" the bill will pass this year.

"It's not a done deal, but we hope to hear some good news in the next week or so," Mills said Friday. "And we're certainly grateful to Rep. Mumford and our friends in the General Assembly who understand why this is important to our long-term economic health."

While the bill will only be applicable to Conyers, technically it is not local legislation because it amends part of the state code. Last year, similar legislation failed by a 9-8 vote to get out of the House Ways and Means Committee after concerns were raised from the Tourism Development Alliance of Georgia regarding possible effects the legislation might have in other areas of the state.

This year, however, Mills said the TDAG has been supportive of the measure and the local hotel/motel industry has also been supportive.

"Our goal is to have a steady stream of revenue that we can use to either fund projects directly or pay toward bonded indebtedness if we choose to fund a project in that manner," the mayor said.

The increase in the tax is expected to produce approximately $200,000 annually in additional income, and city officials plan to use the funds for economic development projects focused on improvements and upgrades to the Georgia International Horse Park.

"The Horse Park is vital to our tourism industry, which directly affects our economic health, so being able to fund improvement that keep it a world-class facility is critical," Mills said.

It took the city 10 years to commit to a major improvement project when more than $2 million was invested two years ago to construct an additional permanent barn and a multi-use building at the GIHP, both of which were needed in order to keep the facility in the running to host major equestrian events.

The buildings have already started paying dividends as the GIHP has hosted new events it previously had not been able to attract, and some existing events have increased in size.

At the City Council's annual work retreat earlier this year, GIHP Director Jennifer Bexley noted that to maintain its attraction as a top facility, additional expansion would ultimately be required, which could include an indoor arena and climate-controlled building.

In 2000, the city bumped up the hotel/motel tax by 1 percent and earmarked that money for maintenance and operation of the Big Haynes Creek Nature Center at the GIHP.

Located on a 155-acre tract in the GIHP that includes 50 acres of wetlands, that money helped the Nature Center get off the ground with the construction of a pavilion and canoe launch at the wetlands and walking trails.

"We know in years to come we will have to make major investment decisions regarding the Horse Park, and we'll need options on how to make those investments," Mills said. "This legislation is important because we have to be proactive and can't just sit around and hope the Horse Park will always be the economic engine that it is."

According to figures released by state officials who monitor tourism, Rockdale County received $104 million in tourism revenue in 2006, with $50 million of that figure being attributed to events associated with the GIHP.

Ric Latarski can be reached at ric.latarski@rockdalecitizen.com.