New fi­nanciers ex­pected for civic cen­ter

Orig­i­nal back­ers left months ago

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - By Rachel Oswald

While the orig­i­nal private fi­nanciers of the ho­tel/civic cen­ter project have backed out, par­ties in­volved in the project say they are con­fi­dent that it is still vi­able with new private fi­nanciers ex­pected to step in soon.

No­bel-In­vest­ment Group, an At­lanta-based de­vel­op­ment com­pany, had orig­i­nally agreed to con­trib­ute $9 mil­lion into the build­ing of a 100-room Court­yard by Mar­riott Ho­tel to be lo­cated next to the new Ad­min­is­tra­tion Build­ing which is lo­cated at the in­ter­sec­tion of Pace Street and Usher Street.

The large ho­tel was to ac­com­pany a 1,200 seat civic cen­ter and a con­fer­ence cen­ter with 6,000 square feet of meet­ing space which would be owned and op­er­ated by the county and the city of Cov­ing­ton.

A year ago the to­tal cost of the ho­tel/civic cen­ter project was es­ti­mated to be $24 mil­lion. How­ever with the ris­ing costs of both con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als and la­bor that cost has likely risen.

“We can’t be­lieve that it will re­main the same,” said Cov­ing­ton/ New­ton County Cham­ber of Com­merce Pres­i­dent John Boothby. “We think it will have to go up be­cause ev­ery­thing has gone up within the last year.”

In De­cem­ber 2006 the county Board of Com­mis­sion­ers and the Cov­ing­ton City Coun­cil unan­i­mously ap­proved a mea­sure to back the au­tho­riza­tion of up to $12.1 mil­lion in bonds to be is­sued by the New­ton County In­dus­trial De­vel­op­ment Author­ity.

In ad­di­tion fund­ing for the project was to come from a $5 mil­lion Spe­cial Pur­pose Lo­cal Op­tion Sales Tax al­lo­ca­tion and ho­tel/mo­tel taxes which were ex­pected to con­trib­ute $3.5 mil­lion.

Ac­cord­ing to Boothby, No­bel backed out of the project some six to eight months af­ter the county and city voted to back the bonds.

“The rea­son they gave to us is they thought it was a good project, but it was now too small for their ap­petite of in­vest­ment,” Boothby said. “Their com­pany growth has been so sig­nif­i­cant now they were look­ing for more sig­nif­i­cant projects. They never lost faith in the project. They have told us ‘we think it’s an ex­cel­lent project and an ex­cel­lent lo­ca­tion.’”

Since then Boothby said the project’s joint task force, which in­cludes county com­mis­sion­ers, coun­cil mem­bers and civic lead­ers, has been in talks with sev­eral other private de­vel­op­ers.

“I want to stress that no one has waited a minute on this project,” Boothby said. “Since last year we’ve had tons of meet­ings, phone calls, vis­its and let­ters. It’s a very com­pli­cated and time-con­sum­ing project.”

Ac­cord­ing to the orig­i­nal time­line of the project, con­struc­tion was orig­i­nally ex­pected to be­gin some­time this fall or win­ter once the new county Ad­min­is­tra­tion Build­ing was com­pleted and the old ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing torn down. The ho­tel/civic cen­ter will be built in the lo­ca­tion of the old build­ing.

One of the main com­pli­ca­tions of the project is the ques­tion of suit­able park­ing. Park­ing for the ho­tel/civic cen­ter is ex­pected to be lo­cated at the for­mer Bell South/AT&T park­ing lot which the city of Cov­ing­ton ob­tained the use of through a land swap lease agree­ment in Fe­bru­ary.

The county is also look­ing into ob­tain­ing some park­ing space on land cur­rently owned by Nor­folk South­ern Rail­way which would be lo­cated on the north side of the ho­tel/civic cen­ter.

“Park­ing is an is­sue from a ho­tel point of view,” Boothby said. “We think we have sig­nif­i­cant park­ing; only they (the de­vel­op­ers) can an­swer if it’s close enough.”

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with the de­vel­op­ers is the fact that the size of the ho­tel must be close to 100 rooms as was orig­i­nally agreed to by the county, city and IDA. A smaller ho­tel would likely not bring in the same taxes which would make it more dif­fi­cult to re­tire the debt on the civic cen­ter.

“We’ve got an agree­ment on a cer­tain size ho­tel to help in­sure as best we can the rev­enue stream that will help re­tire the bonds,” Boothby said.

Whether or not the ho­tel will be a Court­yard by Mar­riott ho­tel also re­mains to be seen. Other ho­tel brands which have been men­tioned in­clude a Hil­ton Gar­den or a sim­i­lar up­scale Hy­att prod­uct.

“ There are other ho­tels that are in­ter­ested,” Boothby said. “It’s go­ing to de­pend on the de­vel­oper. It def­i­nitely is go­ing to be a higher qual­ity prop­erty. That’s part of the cache. It takes more work to get higher qual­ity prop­er­ties in the com­mu­nity, but we think it’s worth it.

Ac­cord­ing to Boothby, three main things re­main to be sorted out be­fore con­struc­tion on the ho­tel/civic cen­ter can be­gin. The land from Nor­folk needs to be ac­quired, the old ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing must be torn down and the site cleared and a private de­vel­oper needs to be se­lected.

“ With­out ex­ag­ger­at­ing I can­not re­call a more com­pli­cated project I’ve worked on in 25 years,” Boothby said. “All par­ties have shown the will­ing­ness to do the heavy lift­ing to make this work.”

A meet­ing be­tween the project task force and two private de­vel­op­ers in­ter­ested in con­tribut­ing funds for the project is sched­uled for next week said Boothby. Dur­ing the meet­ing both de­vel­op­ers are ex­pected to make pre­sen­ta­tions to the task force on why they should be se­lected to take part in the project.

Af­ter the pre­sen­ta­tion, Boothby said he ex­pects the task force to choose one private de­vel­oper to re­place No­bel’s role in the project.

The ho­tel/ civic cen­ter is ex­pected to be a large eco­nomic draw for the county as there is no other per­form­ing arts cen­ter com­bined with an up­scale ho­tel east of At­lanta. The clos­est civic cen­ter is in Stone Moun­tain and it has only 120 seats.

While it would be a much sim­pler thing to build a ho­tel close to the in­ter­state, the an­tic­i­pated ben­e­fits of hav­ing it in the heart of Cov­ing­ton’s down­town cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict along­side the civic cen­ter out­weigh the project’s dif­fi­cul­ties said Boothby.

“This is far more dif­fi­cult, far more com­pli­cated and far more ben­e­fi­cial to New­ton County by hav­ing it here,” Boothby said. “When we’re suc­cess­ful, it will make a dif­fer­ence for years to come.”

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