After drawing criticism for what some called a lack of transparency, Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield is holding public meetings about the proposed Canyon Ridge Resort project on Lookout Mountain.
On June 5 and 7, residents can question Whitfield about the county's involvement in the planned luxury hotel and conference center. The meetings will take place at 6 p.m. each day at the Walker County Civic Center on U.S. Highway 27 in Rock Spring.
In addition to Whitfield, Walker County Development Authority Chairman Robert Wardlaw and members of developer Duane Horton's Scenic Land Co. will be available to answer questions.
Horton said he is pulling together $106 million to build the 178-room luxury hotel and conference center. There will be restaurants, he said. An infinity pool and a spa. A reworked golf course and a clubhouse.
He hopes to raise the money this year and break ground in March. He is eyeing an opening in the fall of 2019.
"This," said Whitfield, "will be the catalyst to grow the area."
But some of his most active supporters felt betrayed by Whitfield's decision to back the project, which he and Horton began discussing in December 2015, when Whitfield announced he would run against then-commissioner Bebe Heiskell. 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. "This has blindsided everybody."
Whitfield said he is being transparent: That was the point of announcing the project. He wants everyone to know what incentives the county's development authority offered.
Horton and other investors will receive a property tax abatement, paying nothing for the hotel's first five years and only 10 percent of the tax rate for 25 years after that.
Whitfield 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. He also will ask the state Legislature to implement a hotel/motel tax next year, adding another boost.
In an open letter to county residents May 17, Whitfield called the project "a shot in the arm."
Horton said he and Whitfield did not announce the project sooner because they wanted to take a couple of 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.
Owners of the 80 to 100 homes in the Canyon Ridge community next to the hotel site have agreed to a property tax increase of up to 103 percent so the county can build roads and a fire department to support the overall project.
Horton also is applying for special sales tax rebates from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, offered through the Tourism Development Act, and hopes for approval by September.
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 are excited about the project.
Horton said his company has already put $10 million into the $106 million project, and he expects to drop in another $5 million to $10 million soon. He also said the group is in talks with "a number of financial institutions" about a key loan to make the project work.
"Our numbers work well for all their metrics," said Horton. " We believe we have a structure where we're confident about the whole thing."
He already has partnerships with an architect and a hotel management firm. He said he is sifting through offers for a sponsor.
Horton believes the project could attract 35,000-50,000 visitors per year, about 70 percent of them from out of state. The resort would be close to the Atlanta, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Huntsville, Knoxville and Nashville markets. He thinks he can attract businesses to the conference center during the week, and families on the weekends.
The hotel could turn out $22 million in revenue every year and, at the beginning, employ 190 people.
"We've already overcome many challenges," he said. "We're in this for the long term."