Lake Winnie in limbo over water park tax breaks

Lake Winnie in limbo over water park tax breaks

February 27th, 2013 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Lake Winnepesaukah

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, talks during an interview.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

The family that owns Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park was counting on getting some $200,000 worth of tax breaks during the construction of SoakYa, the five-acre water park that opens May 24.

So they were disappointed to learn last week at a meeting in Atlanta that the 2011 law that would have granted the break has been found lacking and must go back through the legislative process.

"We're kind of in limbo," park representative Tommy Dickinson said. Lake Winnie officials won't know what their odds are of getting the tax break until a revised law is passed, he said.

The water park, now under construction, will open on schedule with or without the tax break, he said. But the owners may have to use less-expensive components.

"Do you go with the Cadillac ... or do you go with a non-Cadillac?" he said.

The Catoosa County Board of Commissioners in December unanimously backed a sales and use tax break valued at $85,050.

"The board of commissioners was ready to give them the county portion of the tax and we sent a letter to the [state] agency that oversees this," county attorney Skip Patty said.

Lake Winnie hoped to get that plus a $113,000 break in Georgia sales and use taxes from state officials.

But the tax break aimed at jump-starting new tourist attractions in Georgia has yet to be given to a single project in the two years since it was passed, a situation lawmakers are trying to fix.

Passed by the Legislature in 2011, the Georgia Tourism Development Act offered a sweet deal for building new museums, water parks, convention hotels and other tourism magnets. Approved attractions would get to keep a portion of the sales taxes they collect for 10 years.

But the state never started taking applications. State agencies responsible for overseeing the program finally declared last fall that technical flaws in the law made it impossible to write the rules and regulations needed to make the tax break a reality. They said the Legislature would need to make changes to the incentive.

Rep. Ron Stephens, author of the 2011 tax break, has submitted a new version that was approved by a House committee last week and now awaits a vote by the full House.

'No legal authority'

Under the existing law, local governments would receive less sales tax revenue for things such as schools because some of the money would be kept by the attractions. State agencies warned that created a problem when dealing with penny sales taxes approved by voters, because the state has no legal authority to rebate that money. The revised bill instead ensures that local governments get their full share of sales taxes, and cities and counties will have to offer other financial incentives.

"If we can get this thing in place, make the rules and regulations fit and get one or two projects under way, this could be the biggest economic development tool for tourism ever in Georgia," said Stephens, R-Savannah. "It is a massive, massive tool."

He said the revisions were recommended by the state Department of Revenue and Department of Community Affairs - two agencies that balked at the original tax break. A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal said the governor's office approved the proposed changes.

Some details of the tourism tax rebate that state agencies had previously singled out as too subjective remain in the new version. To qualify for the tax break, tourist attractions still would need to show they would draw 25 percent of their customers from outside Georgia. And projects that would compete with existing attractions are to be denied the tax rebates.

Brian Williamson, the deputy commissioner who oversees economic development programs for the Department of Community Affairs, said the agency ultimately decided it could write rules that deal fairly with both those requirements.

The original law's requirement that the governor make the final decision on whether projects get the tax break also remains untouched in the new version. No other tax incentive in Georgia requires that.

Deal's spokesman, Brian Robinson, said the governor "backs the agencies' efforts to craft a more finely tuned law." But he stopped short of saying Deal endorses the bill, noting lawmakers could make more changes before sending it to the governor for his signature.

"We'll obviously have to wait to see what the final product is," Robinson said.

Mullis backs SoakYa

State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, was working to shepherd Lake Winnie's request through the state bureaucracy. Mullis couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

"He's done everything in his power," Dickinson said. "He's been wonderful."

State lawmakers and local officials say there are other projects waiting to apply for the tax rebate as soon as it's available.

In Bartow County north of Atlanta, economic development officials hope the tax break will help fund development of a 1,200-acre sports and entertainment complex on Lake Alatoona. The LakePoint Sporting Community and Town Center project, which broke ground last November, will aim to lure sports tournaments for children's teams with dozens of fields for baseball, softball and soccer and a giant indoor space for basketball, gymnastics and other sports. Hotels, restaurants and shopping all will be located on the site.

"It is a priority piece of legislation, in my opinion," said Melinda Lemmon, executive director of the Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Economic Development. "It's still very much an issue that we would like to see resolved for the benefit of the project."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.