Political fight over Mountain Cove Farms offer

A tent is set up for a wedding at Mountain Cove Farms on Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Chickamauga, Ga.
A tent is set up for a wedding at Mountain Cove Farms on Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Chickamauga, Ga.
photo A wooden frame is decorated for a wedding at Mountain Cove Farms on Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Chickamauga, Ga.

With a leadership change looming, members of the Walker County Development Authority declined last week to act on a lease offer for Mountain Cove Farms, the controversial county-owned resort in Kensington, Ga.

Authority Chairman Robert Wardlaw said the offer - $24,000 to the county annually for at least five years - should not be entertained until after Commissioner Bebe Heiskell leaves office at the end of December. Heiskell's replacement, Commissioner-elect Shannon Whitfield, did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

"I've got some ethical concerns with entering into any long-term agreement when there's a change in administration about to happen," Wardlaw said during the authority meeting Tuesday. "That is concerning to me. I don't think that is a good thing to do."

The development authority postponed any decision on the offer.

The proposal came from Lea Kapherr, who runs a business renting antique furniture, linens and decorations to couples who are getting married. She believes she can make more money operating a wedding venue.

Kapherr said Friday her offer had nothing to do with Heiskell's exit from office. She said she's been looking at a number of potential venues to purchase. Mountain Cove Farms actually is her second choice, though she declined to name her first option.

Kapherr heard Mountain Cove Farms had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and thought she could make a relatively cheap offer. She said she called the county offices earlier this month to propose the lease agreement, though she doesn't remember whom specifically she talked to. She said nobody had advertised that Heiskell was looking to make a deal.

When she arrived at the development authority meeting Tuesday, she found a packed room waiting and said she felt like she'd stumbled into the middle of a political fight between Heiskell's and Whitfield's supporters. On a Facebook page devoted to county politics, Kapherr read comments suggesting the offer actually was made by Heiskell or was simply a way to undermine Whitfield before he took office.

"That was a little overwhelming," Kapherr said Friday, standing in her driveway in Harrison.

Her husband, Mike, wonders if someone else in the county wants to operate Mountain Cove Farms.

"I think there's some bigwigs in Walker County that want in," he said. "If they want in, good. We don't want to deal with the politics."

Kapherr offered to lease 297 acres for $2,000 per month. The deal would run for five years, with renewals in five-year increments for up to 45 years. In addition to weddings, she would rent cabins and space at an RV park, both of which the county now operates at Mountain Cove Farms.

She also planned to open a Christmas tree farm, a garden, a greenhouse, a flower shop, a livestock farm, an animal rescue center and a horse show venue. She would like to continue existing activities in the cove, including the annual Walker County Fair and Civil War re-enactments.

She said in her offer that she will renovate the property. This would include $300,000-$450,000 to remodel buildings over five years, $20,000 to plant trees around the RV park, $40,000 to plant seed and fertilize about 200 acres and another $17,500 for general maintenance.

Mountain Cove Farms is in McLemore Cove, a rural area between Lookout and Pigeon mountains, Heiskell paid $2.15 million of county money for it in 2008, according to Times Free Press archives. From 2009-11, county workers spent about $240,000 refurbishing an old barn, house and cabins, preparing to draw in tourists.

But county financial records show Mountain Cove Farms was a financial bust. From 2012-14, the county lost $1.1 million.

During his campaign this year, Whitfield criticized Heiskell for trying to rent cabins and a restaurant with county money. He said local government should not be in the tourism business, that it was turning out to be a burden for the county. Heiskell has maintained the project could work, given enough time and investment.

Heiskell gave the development authority the property in September 2015 after the authority issued a $15 million bond that allowed Heiskell to convert the county's short-term debt into long- term debt.

During last week's meeting, Wardlaw said Kapherr's $24,000-per-year lease offer for Mountain Cove Farms was too low. He estimated the property is worth $6 million, though he did not clarify how he came to that estimate.

Wardlaw did not return a call seeking comment Friday, and the county property appraiser valued the 297 acres at $2.1 million.

Heiskell said during Tuesday's meeting that Kapherr's offer is pretty good, given the struggles at Mountain Cove Farms. "Considering the losses the county has experienced in the past, that would be a 7 percent return," she said.

"I would rather make a penny than lose a dollar," Wardlaw responded. "There's no question about that. However, I do not believe that a penny is all we can aspire to here."

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

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