With luxury resort announcement, Shannon Whitfield upsets campaign team

With luxury resort announcement, Shannon Whitfield upsets campaign team

May 19th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Scenic Land Company president Duane Horton looks out from an overlook near the site of the planned Canyon Ridge Resort on Thursday, May 11, 2017, in Rising Fawn, Ga.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

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Some of Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield's most active supporters feel betrayed by his decision to back a pricey new Lookout Mountain project.

Developer Duane Horton announced Sunday he is building Canyon Ridge Resort on the south end of the county. He is trying to raise $106 million for the luxury hotel, which will overlook McLemore Cove. He hopes to begin construction next year and open the resort in the fall of 2019.

The county is not giving any direct funding for the project. But it also will not charge Horton any property taxes for the first five years after the hotel opens. And for 25 years beyond that, Horton will only have to pay 10 percent of the total potential property taxes.

Horton and Whitfield began talking about the project in December 2015, when Whitfield announced he would run against Commissioner Bebe Heiskell. But Bobby Teems, Whitfield's campaign manager last year, said he didn't know about this project.

"The biggest thing that Shannon campaigned on was transparency and not being blindsided," said Teems, who added that he has only talked to Whitfield once since he won the election in November. "I think everything he pitched was 'transparency, and everything out front.' It's obvious. This has blindsided everybody."

Whitfield, however, said he is being transparent: That was the point of announcing the project this week. He wants everyone to know what incentives the county's development authority offered. He also believes the project will add an extra $1 million in tax revenue for the county.

He based his estimate on a boost in local sales tax from visitors at Canyon Ridge Resort, as well as increased property values on the homes near the project. Whitfield also will ask the state legislature to implement a hotel/motel tax next year, adding another boost.

In an open letter to county residents Wednesday, Whitfield called the project "a shot in the arm."

"I'm starting to get adjusted to being the punching bag," he told the Times Free Press. "We know it's an excellent project. We're excited."

Horton said he and Whitfield did not announce the project sooner because they wanted to take a couple early steps and make sure the resort was possible. For example, the homeowners' association for the adjacent community had to approve a plan to become a special tax zone, essentially doubling their taxes so the county can build infrastructure around the project.

Dean Kelly, the head of the local Tea Party who worked on Whitfield's campaign, criticized the concept of property tax incentives. He believes the Canyon Ridge Resort upsets small business owners who did not receive similar deals.

Whitfield said Horton would build elsewhere if not for the "appropriate and necessary" incentives. But Kelly argued Horton is from Walker County and already owns the 40-acre land to build the resort.

"When you do an over-the-top deal like this," Kelly said, "you're setting yourself up. Other businesses are going to expect the same thing."

Whitfield said Horton will not receive the property tax deal unless he follows through on two promises: invest more than $100 million into the resort, and maintain at least 180 full-time workers. But Mike Cameron, a member of the county's Republican Party and another Whitfield campaign supporter, said the deal still is not worth it.

Most of those jobs won't pay much, he said. And he thinks most of the higher-level, administrative roles at the hotel will come from a management company outside Walker County.

"I want Shannon to succeed," Cameron said. "If he succeeds, Walker County succeeds. But we're giving away too much. We need to get out of the way and let the market determine who wins."

For his part, Whitfield said most people he talked to this week are excited about the project.

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.