published Saturday, February 20th, 2010

'Hilltop' revealed: Costco

by Andy Johns

RINGGOLD, Ga. -- Catoosa County leaders voted Friday to buy land, improve it and sell it to Costco Wholesale for a store at Cloud Springs Road and Interstate 75.

Catoosa County attorney Chad Young unveiled details of the county's plans with the warehouse club -- plans that officially were referred to only as "Project Hilltop" until now -- at a joint meeting of the Catoosa County Commission and the Economic Development Authority.

Fort Oglethorpe Mayor Ronnie Cobb, who was called the "tip of the spear" in the 18-month negotiations, said completing the paperwork and announcing the county's secret suitor in Project Hilltop was like the birth of a grandchild he'd been expecting for nearly two years.

  • photo
    Staff photo by Patrick Smith/Chattanooga Times Free Press Fort Oglethope Mayor Ronnie Cobb; Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga.; and Keith Greene, chairman of the Catoosa County Commission, from left, answer questions following a news conference that announced the retail giant Costco will locate just off exit 353 in Catoosa County, Ga. The store is expected to initially employ 150-180 people.

"I'm like a proud father," he said.

Both boards unanimously approved a short list of actions agreeing on things such as rights of way and bid contracts.

Under the agreements, the Economic Development Authority bought the 16 acres for the store for $4.8 million. The authority will borrow about $4.5 million to prepare the site and partially fund a new detention pond across Scruggs Road to handle stormwater runoff.

Once the site prep is completed sometime in late May, the authority will sell the land to Costco for $4.8 million. The club expects to finish its building in 110 days, putting the completion date in mid-August, officials said.

The county will use sales tax revenue from the store to pay the debt from the improvements. Based on forecasts using half of Costco's average annual sales per store -- about $135 million, according to the company -- the payoff will take about five years.

"This is a project that will pay for itself," Mr. Young told the commission.

As a stipulation of the contract, Costco agreed to put $4.8 million into an escrow account to ensure that the county is covered if the deal were to fall through.

Officials said the store will be a full-service warehouse about the size of three football fields with a wine department, a gas station, tire shop, furniture and fresh foods, among other departments.

No Costco representative attended the news conference, and the company's chief financial office declined to comment Friday night.

Sam's Club, Costco's chief competitor, has been in the Chattanooga market since 1987. Officials with Sam's said Friday the store has built a strong shopper base that shouldn't be affected much by the new store.

"We have been serving that market for a long time, and we have some very loyal customers," said Kristy Reed, a spokeswoman for Sam's and a native of Murray County, Ga. "I think we'll still be fine keeping our members."

But both Catoosa Commission Chairman Keith Greene and Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, expect the store to draw customers from across the state line.

"This will not just impact Fort Oglethorpe or Catoosa County but the whole region," Sen. Mullis said.

He and others said the location's visibility and accessibility from I-75 should make it a popular shopping destination.

"I think this can be one of their bigger stores," Sen. Mullis said. "My wife said she was going to make it that, so I'm a little worried."

about Andy Johns...

Andy began working at the Times Free Press in July 2008 as a general assignment reporter before focusing on Northwest Georgia and Georgia politics in May of 2009. Before coming to the Times Free Press, Andy worked for the Anniston Star, the Rome News Tribune and the Campus Carrier at Berry College, where he graduated with a communications degree in 2006. He is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Tennessee ...

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