More than a decade after it was first proposed, site work began last week on a luxury mountaintop hotel retreat that its backers believe will draw tourists and business groups from around the country to Northwest Georgia.
More than $188 million of tax-exempt bonds were sold on Aug. 19 to finance the development of a 245-room lodge, conference center and spa along the eastern edge of Lookout Mountain next to the McLemore golf course. The project, which is scheduled to open by December 2023, is the largest single investment ever in Walker County, Georgia and should give a major boost to the adjacent 18-hole McLemore golf course and residential development.
"McLemore is and will be a landmark destination," said Roland Abert, a master planner for Hart Howerton who has helped design the resort and residential complex formerly known as Canyon Ridge. "Every venue within the hotel is designed in response to the unique nuances of Lookout Mountain's rugged terrain - from its dining options, indoor and outdoor bar options, to the conference center and variety of guest accommodations. The lodge will offer stunning views of McLemore Cove, Pigeon Mountain and the Blue Ridge Mountains."
Duane Horton, the Chattanooga developer and president of McLemore, said the new hotel and conference center will be on par with major business resorts such as Greenbrier in West Virginia and the Reynolds Plantation in Georgia.
"We want to attract people and conventions from across the county and create a place where people want to come for generations," he said.
ABOUT McLEMORE COVE
McLemore Cove in Walker County, Ga., is named for the late John McLemore, a Cherokee chief and U.S. Army captain. He settled in the cove to raise his family and farm the land.
The new Hilton hotel will be erected near the McLemore golf course, which Golf Digest magazine last year recognized as having two of the best golf course holes in America.
Numerous on-site amenities are planned for guests to the McLemore property, including swimming pools, a fitness facility, yoga studio, and retail center. An outdoor program will also provide guests with guides and gear to enjoy the numerous outdoor activities available at McLemore and the surrounding area, including hiking, rock climbing and bouldering, mountain biking and road cycling, spelunking, hang gliding, and paragliding.
"McLemore is surrounded by thousands of acres of federal and state parks and protected wildlife areas," Horton said. "We are looking forward to introducing people to the undiscovered natural beauty of northwest Georgia and the tremendous opportunities the Chattanooga metropolitan area has to offer."
The five-star lodge, conference center and spa will offer multi-level dining and entertainment terraces, infinity edge pools and spas, as well as spaces that blend the building with the landscape, including a large outdoor events venue. The completed facility will provide banquet and meeting space for corporate events and weddings, as well as on-site lodging for golfers, families and couples looking for a romantic getaway.
Preliminary plans call for hotel rooms to rent for an average of about $300 a night, Horton said.
Horton said McLemore is within a 2-hour drive for over 14 million people and is positioned as an outdoor-oriented meeting facility that should appeal to business conventions as well as traveling tourists.
"There are 28 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in this region and this is reasonably accessible from three different interstate highway but still offer an extraordinary outdoor experience that many more people are looking for in this pandemic time for businesses to regroup and for individuals and families to be refreshed," he said.
The lodge at McLemore will be a Curio Collection Hotel by Hilton and is projected to provide approximately 2,000 construction jobs. Once opened, the lodge, conference center and spa will employ over 300 full-time, direct employees. Atlanta-based General Contractor, New South Construction has obtained permits for land disturbance, as well as for foundations. Chattanooga- based, GenTech Construction will provide Construction Management services.
The hotel will be operated by the Atlanta-based Valor Hospitality, which is led by Glaswegian, Euan McGlashan, whose launch of the Cape Grace hotel in South Africa secured the number one spot in the world by Condé Nast Traveler's 2000 Reader's Choice award.
"McLemore provides us with the unique opportunity to continue our mission of reimagining hospitality," McGlashan said in a statement about the new McLemore hotel and convention center. "The mixture of southern hospitality with Valor's service-based DNA gives us an extraordinary opportunity to position McLemore as a world-class destination."
McGlashan's team is currently managing club operations at McLemore, including The Creag restaurant and the Stay & Play program, with the oversight of General Manager Tom Schreiner.
Adding to the line-up are Craig Peavy and Thomas Palmer, each a principal in Chattanooga-based firm, Tinker Ma, and Architects of Record for the hotel at McLemore.
"We challenged ourselves to create a place that is both reflective of and complimentary to McLemore's vistas," says Peavy. "Bringing such an economic catalyst to the region is going to be a journey of a lifetime."
Horton has been working on the project for the past 14 years. The mountaintop development, originally known as Canyon Ridge, boasts the award-winning 18-hole golf course plus about 90 homes built or under construction on the residential portion of the 800-acre development.
"We're preparing to add a new townhome golf village that will have nearly 100 units and we continue to develop our Clubhouse Lane, which will have about 25 home lots with million-dollar-plus homes," Horton said.
Horton, president of Scenic Land investors, tried a decade ago to develop a hotel and convention center next to the golf course and residential development, but he claimed the plan was thwarted by the former owners of Canyon Ridge who Horton said worked for another rival development. Horton sued the the former Canyon Ridge developers and was ultimately awarded nearly $20.6 million in compensatory damages and $11.5 million in punitive damages.
Horton took over the project and renamed the development McLemore in 2017.
The bond issue for the new hotel was ultimately approved earlier this year by the Walker County Development Authority and the $188 million of bonds were sold at 4.5% to 6.5% rates, Horton said. The bond issue attracted national investors, which Horton said underscores the appeal of the project.
The taxes on much of the increased property taxes generated by the development will be waived for the next 30 years, but Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield stressed that county government has no financial liability in the project.
"Walker County government or the development authority or any local government have zero liability risk on these bonds," he said. "If for some reason, the project is unsuccessful, it is the bondholders who are at risk for any impact."
The project is also getting sales tax incentives under the Georgia Tourism Development Act adopted in 2013. McLemore will be allowed to use the additional state sales tax revenues generated by the project to help repay the bonds over the next 10 years.
Whitfield said the Curio designation by Hilton is a premier brand that is granted only for truly unique facilities.
"McLemore is already a world-class golf destination and having this hotel and convention facility will draw a lot of businesses during the week and a lot of visitors and their families on the weekend," Whitfield said. "This should be a nationally acclaimed destination and a great addition to this area."
Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or at 423-757-6340.