Cash cow or money pit? Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell betting big on Mountain Cove Farms

Cash cow or money pit? Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell betting big on Mountain Cove Farms

July 5th, 2015 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

KENSINGTON, Ga. — This was the greatest moment of her career, Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell told the crowd.

The head of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was here. So was the director of the state's land conservation program. So was a military regiment, guns in hands, just waiting to pop in celebration.

It was October 2008, and Heiskell had announced the county's purchase of Mountain Cove Farms. She stood before 300 acres of open fields, stables, cabins, a barn and a home that a rich lawyer built after the government drove out the Cherokees in the early 19th century.

Heiskell has said for years that she didn't plan the $2 million purchase, that it was an opportunity too good to miss. But she'd long wanted a place like this for her county.

Since she took office in 2000, Heiskell had tried to bring tourism to Walker County. Like a company, she said, her county needed a "brand." When she saw its mountains, streams and trails, she saw money.

Mountain Cove Farms could be a destination resort. It could in bring enough cash to keep property taxes low. It would be her legacy.

"It's a national treasure," she said. "There's so much potential."

In the last seven years, county employees have refurbished the barn, the house and the cabins. Mountain Cove Farms now hosts concerts and weddings and county fairs.

By the numbers: Mountain Cove Farms' financials

2009 Expenses: $54,105.33
2009 Revenue*: $0
2010 Expenses: $101,177.76
2010 Revenue: $0
2011 Expenses: $83,128.37
2011 Revenue: $0
2012 Expenses: $113,858.60
2012 Revenue: $15,371.32
2013 Expenses: $357,315.27
2013 Revenue: $225,240.45
2014 Expenses: $1,286,766.41
2014 Revenues: $400,001.95
2015 Expenses: $582,540.99
2015 Revenues (through April): $168,373.60
* Revenue does not include interfund transfers
Source: Walker County budgets

 

Upon first look, Heiskell's plan appears to be working. County finances show a profit over the last seven years of $1.6 million.

But of Mountain Cove Farms' revenue, 81 percent comes from "interfund transfers" — money from other parts of Walker County's general budget moved into the resort's funds.

If those transfers are taken out,Mountain Cove Farms' financial picture looks much different: A $1.8 million loss since the county bought the property.

And the resort's finances are trending downward. Discounting transfers, Mountain Cove Farms lost an average of $94,000 per year from 2009-13, and the property lost about $890,000 in fiscal year 2014, which ended last October.

Between then and May, the resort lost another $415,000, discounting transfers, putting Mountain Cove Farms on pace for its second worst year since the county bought the property.

In a county with a budget of about $20 million, where county general fund property taxes rose 64 percent last year, Heiskell knows her fiscal management will be a key issue in next year's election. But she isn't sure whether her opponent — whoever he or she may be — will target Mountain Cove Farms.

"The world has changed so much," she said. "You just don't know. People can say anything they want to and not back it up."

Dr. Paul Shaw, who lost to Heiskell in the 2012 race by 214 votes, said he wishes he'd talked more about the farm during his campaign.

"We don't need to be in the real estate business," he said.

But Heiskell isn't retreating from her bet on tourism. She's slapping more chips on the table. Mountain Cove Farms can still turn a profit, she said. It can change the county.

POLL: Should Walker County keep funding Mountain Cove Farms?

She wants to host rodeos there, and Fourth of July concerts, and blueberry festivals. She wants to turn the stables into a home for injured horses. She wants to build a $1.7 million lodge, with 54 rooms and a swimming pool.

Heiskell has asked for money from the foundation of O. Wayne Rollins, the Orkin businessman who owned the Mountain Cove Farms property decades before Walker County bought it. She said a lodge could earn the county $300,000 a year.

She is waiting for an answer from the foundation, which did not return a call from the Times Free Press.

"We've got to make more money," she said. "We've got to do something. We've got to have more."

Rich History

The farm is located in McLemore Cove, a 50,000-acre rural stretch between Lookout and Pigeon mountains. Named after the Cherokee and Scottish family that settled there around 1820, the cove is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Rome, Ga., insurance businessman Delos Yancey and a partner bought about 11,000 acres from Rollins' estate for an unknown amount in 1998. Yancey planned to divide the property into lots and form a resort and retirement community, according to Times Free Press archives. That plan never materialized.

Yancey, who according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution gave Georgia Republicans $190,000 in 2006, later sold some of his property to the state and Walker County. In 2008, the state government bought about 1,600 acres for $10.5 million — $6,562 per acre — with some of the money contributed from conservation foundations.

Walker County bought about 300 acres. Heiskell, who as sole commissioner of the county controls all local government decisions, said she paid $2.5 million — $8,333 per acre.

She said the whole purchase happened because then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, who formed the Georgia Land Conservation Program, was in the market for property to preserve. But if the state was going to invest so much in the area, Heiskell said, Perdue told her she needed to have "skin in the game."

Perdue did not return a call seeking comment last week. But Steve Friedman, the Georgia Department of Natural Resource's chief of real estate, said Heiskell's version of events makes sense: State officials often ask local governments to contribute to a land purchase.

Heiskell had plans to develop tourism in the area at least three years before Perdue ever approached her. She met with members of the McLemore Cove Preservation Society in June 2005 to pitch the concept. Investors could build horseback trails, shops, restaurants and a lodge.

"They'd like to see some tourism developed," Heiskell told the Times Free Press after the meeting.

Three years later, she bought the property. And the county spent about $350,000 over the next four years preparing it for the events she believed would bring thousands of tourists into the secluded area.

If you build it

The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga would be the watershed event for the Walker County brand. For several years, county employees and volunteers prepared for re-eneactors to pour into McLemore Cove in September 2013, when they would re-create one of the Civil War's bloodiest battles.

The Battle of Chickamauga was one of the Confederate states' last victories of the Civil War. But it was a hollow win. Their leaders thought they could have delivered a more devastating blow to the Union if only they'd had more soldiers that day.

Illustration by Matt McClane

Likewise, Walker County leaders were pleased with the re-enactment. The event organizers estimated that 15,000 spectators drove to Mountain Cove Farms to watch 6,000 dressed-up soldiers recreate the historic battle. But the county could not capitalize on the opportunity.

Two inches of rain and a miles-long traffic jam suppressed the size of the crowd. And Heiskell said the county didn't make money on entrance fees; the Blue Gray Alliance that organized the event did.

By the end of the fiscal year, county financial records show, Walker County had still lost $132,000, not counting revenue transfers.

Heiskell hopes the resort will make more money this October, when the county hosts re-enactments for the Battle of Missionary Ridge and the Battle of Lookout Mountain. She said former Chickamauga City Manager John Culpepper is organizing those events, and the county will get to keep the entrance fees.

Heiskell now concedes that the Battle of Chickamauga two years ago also led to another financial pitfall for the county. In the months leading up to the re-enactment, Heiskell launched a restaurant inside the mansion at Mountain Cove Farms. She now says she only planned to operate the eatery through September 2013, so the spectators and re-eneactors had access to food at the event.

"We pretty much slapped together the restaurant," she said. But she said people liked the food. And if she wanted to continue to attract tourists, she decided, the restaurant needed to stay open. Visitors would get hungry, and the resort is 20 miles from downtown LaFayette.

But two years later, those visitors haven't come yet. Not enough of them, at least.

Since Heiskell opened the restaurant in 2013, it has lost about $800,000 if revenue transfers are left out. The county spent about $610,000 on operations costs and more than $225,000 on food.

Heiskell now blames her former chef, whom she eventually fired. She said his tastes were too expensive.

"The food was costing too much," she said.

She has since limited the restaurant to a three-day-a-week operation. She also said she asked for a cheaper menu, swapping prime rib for pizza. Still, through April, the county has lost nearly another $224,000 on the restaurant this year not counting the revenue transfers.

Heiskell said she may shut it down, if only temporarily.

Funding your competition

Regardless of whether Mountain Cove Farms is making money, some local business owners have questioned whether it is ethical for a local government to operate a resort.

Susan Hayes, who owns Susan's Diner in Flintstone, doesn't want her tax dollars going toward the food at Mountain Cove Farms.

"When I started my restaurant, we had to pay for it," she said. "I didn't get all new equipment, and I didn't get all new tables and chairs. I had to pay for my food and beverages and my service and my lease. We had to pay for it and had to hope we could get enough revenue to keep us going.

Gallery: Cash cow or money pit?Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell betting big on Mountain Cove Farms

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"(Heiskell is) in competition with every individual in Walker County who owns a restaurant. We feel like, as taxpayers, we pay for it."

Heiskell disagrees. She doesn't see business as a zero-sum game. Mountain Cove Farms' restaurant and Hayes' restaurant can both survive.

"I don't think we've caused anybody to lose business," she said. "We're not really in competition. We're just trying to keep our heads above water so we can have something nice for this community."

Sally Worland, owner of Hidden Hollow Resort about 15 miles north of Mountain Cove Farms, tries not to see Heiskell as competition. God will provide for both businesses, Worland said, if that is His will.

Her family has owned Hidden Hollow for about 40 years. And like the county-owned resort, it offers cabin rentals and a wedding venue.

Worland says she wants Mountain Cove Farms to make money. She thinks it's beautiful. Her daughter even got married there.

Still, she sometimes wonders whether it should exist.

"How can they keep going when they're losing money?" she said. "The rest of us would have to close."

Mountain Cove Future

When Heiskell hears criticism of Mountain Cove Farms, she wants to ask for patience. Just take time to look around, she wants to say.

Look at the trees, at the fields. Listen to the birds.

For just a minute, she wants to say, think about what this place could be.

And even her biggest critics concede: The cove is beautiful. And maybe it can make money, she suggests. Maybe the first seven years are just a speed bump — a $4.3 million speed bump, counting the cost of the property and money spent so far.

Maybe people will give her money for that lodge, and maybe tourists will pour into the secluded area, and maybe the dynamics of the whole county will shift. Maybe that's how people will remember Heiskell, decades from now.

Maybe.

Today, though, people can only dream. Or dread.

"She should be commended for what she's trying to do," said Sid Hetzler, a McLemore Cove resident.

"She has spent us into poverty," said Shaw, her 2012 opponent.

"She really does have the best interests of the county in mind," said Blackwell Smith, a member of the McLemore Cove Preservation Society.

"I don't know why we keep electing her," said Dale Bearden, a Walker County resident.

"I'm just a trier," said Heiskell. "I've been trying all these years.

"And I'm still trying."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6476.

 


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