LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Hoping for a lot of money from a fancy resort on the mountain, Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield introduced a hotel tax Thursday night.
The county will charge 8 percent of a room's rate, the maximum amount allowed in Georgia. Whitfield hopes to create a serious stream of revenue with the construction of McLemore, a planned 180-room hotel and conference center on Lookout Mountain.
Developer Duane Horton said the project will cost $100 million.
"This is not a tax on the local citizens," Whitfield said. "This is a tax on people visiting our community."
Since taking office in 2017, Whitfield has increased revenue for the county in a number of ways. Compared to the year before, property owners had to pay 50-70 percent more this year, through a property tax increase and a special fee to pay back a debt to Erlanger Health System. He also increased many homeowners' fire safety fees, and in November voters approved a new 1 percent sales tax for transportation projects.
Whitfield said the moves were necessary. Capped with a federal court order to pay $8.7 million to Erlanger hospital, the county was $70 million in debt when Whitfield took office. Sales tax revenue should cover some of that money, but the commissioner pointed out the county had a negative-net position on his first day on the job.
Horton's luxury resort could provide relief, Whitfield believes. The developer and commissioner announced the project together in May, drawing the ire of some local conservatives for the project's 30-year tax abatement. But Whitfield believes it will have a positive effect for county taxpayers, seeing that he'll be getting extra money from people outside the county.
The hotel tax could take effect July 1, though the start date is really up to state legislators, who will introduce a local act in Atlanta this year. Whitfield said he's talked with state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, about the legislation, and Mullis is ready to file it.
Whitfield will have to account for money coming in from the tax with annual reports to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. He has to spend two-thirds of the revenue promoting tourism in the county. The rest of the money goes into the general fund.
In LaFayette, a hotel tax brought $51,000 to the city government in fiscal year 2016.
"This is just getting us up to the 21st Century," Whitfield said.
In addition to McLemore, the county-owned Mountain Cove Farms in the Kensington community also will charge the hotel tax. Whitfield said people who rent out their private property overnight, such as with Airbnb, will charge the tax, too.
Since his announcement last May, Horton has not said much about the Lookout Mountain resort project. But he told the Times Free Press on Thursday that he hopes to make formal announcements about his progress in the coming weeks. He also said he is working with the Lulu Lake Land Trust to create a "natural amenities map" that shows the region's outdoor offerings.
At his meeting Thursday night, Whitfield said Horton's team will renovate the Canyon Ridge Golf Course in April. The course runs next to the resort's planned site. The team will move the 18th hole to a lower brow and build a clubhouse and restaurant overlooking the bluff.
He said Horton also will soon announce a partnership with a hotel chain.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.