Hotel/motel tax projects unveiled
Committee recommends list of six ideas for consideration

COVINGTON - A committee assigned to come up with projects that could be funded through a proposed increase to the hotel/motel tax has completed its task.

The Tourism Product Development Committee submitted a list of six projects to the city for consideration. Serving on the committee were Maurice Carter, a member of the Chamber of Commerce Tourism Advisory Council; Cheryl Delk, special projects coordinator for the county; Josephine Kelly, director of Main Street Covington; and Clara Deemer, director of tourism for the Chamber.

First on the list is the civic/conference center, which Mayor Kim Carter said Monday night the city still fully supports. Carter said in November that the project is on hold due to the economy, in particular the high interest rates that would be owed on $23 million in revenue bonds, which would be paid off in part by the tax increase.

Carter said the first choice is still to use 100 percent of the increase to fund the civic/conference center - the hotel that is part of the project is to be funded by a private developer.

However, "that project just isn't viable right now. I don't think we can afford it," she said.

A new provision in state law allows local governments to designate alternative tourism-related projects that could be funded with such a tax increase, in effect "banking the money for future use," should the planned use fall through, according to Carter.

If the civic center is not viable, Carter recommended priority be given to purchasing directional signs to help visitors locate attractions and amenities such as public restrooms, visitor information and local services, as well as to purchasing rights of way for a rails to trails project.

Specifically, railroad right of way would be purchased within the historic district as part of a larger plan to secure 38 miles of property for trails connecting Covington to Shady Dale, Monticello, Madison, Bishop, Watkinsville and Athens.

Other recommended projects include the conversion of the historic jail on Stallings Street into a history center; funding of Chimney Park, a passive play area accessible to special needs children and families; and improvements to the Hunter/Stallings street corridor, a pedestrian corridor that will be developed between the historic courthouse, judicial center, history and civic center, administrative building and parking deck.

The council did not take action on the committee recommendations, instead tabling the issue for further study.

Chamber President John Boothby, who chaired the civic center task force, said the project is still a top priority.

"The Chamber of Commerce continues to support the position that an active arts community and first-class center will have a positive effect on attracting new investment to the community," he said. "As such, the Chamber remains committed to making the civic center/conference center a reality. If other funding mechanisms are needed, or another more favorable location is needed, then we hope these are pursued with the same vigor that the city and the county have given to this project over the last several years."

The hotel/motel tax increase from 5 to 8 percent must be approved by the Georgia General Assembly, along with the projects it will fund.

If approved, 1.5 percent of revenues generated by the increase must go to a designated tourism organization, in this case the Chamber of Commerce, with the remaining 1.5 percent to fund tourism-related projects.

The city has seven hotels and one bed and breakfast, with construction on an eighth hotel under way, according to Clara Deemer, tourism director for the Chamber of Commerce. There are no hotels in the unincorporated county.

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