Mike O'Neal

Even before assuming his position as head of Walker County government, Commissioner-elect Shannon Whitfield must address issues raised during the 2016 political campaign.

One hot-button item is the county development authority possibly leasing Mountain Cove Farms Resort, particularly since such a proposal was presented during the authority's Nov. 22 meeting.

For such a serene setting, the land in McLemore Cove has proved to be a hornet's nest of political wrangling since its becoming public property when Commissioner Bebe Heiskell in 2008 committed $2.15 million of county funds to its purchase.

Located at the junction of Pigeon and Lookout mountains, the county's roughly 280 acres were part of a larger acquisition by the county, state and conservation trusts of slightly more than 1,800 acres with a total price tag of about $10.5 million.

"The Georgia Land Conservation Program is proud to play a significant role in protecting the McLemore Cove property," GLCP director Curt Soper said when the purchase was announced about eight years ago. "As one of the most beautiful and biologically significant parts of our state, this property will now be conserved for the use and enjoyment of current and future generations."

The state had long been interested in securing land in McLemore Cove to link two state-owned tracts that form a conservation area of more than 31 square miles — more than twice the size of the cities of Chickamauga, LaFayette, Lookout Mountain and Rossville combined.

The county chose as its portion of the overall site the relatively flat farm and pasture land, as well as barns and a circa 1835 farm house.

The main farm house and eight two-bedroom tenant houses were renovated and are regularly rented for weddings, retreats and other gatherings. A 6,500-square-foot barn where prize-winning Hereford cattle were once shown has been restored and now is used as an event venue, while a dilapidated hay barn has been repaired for those wanting to hold a rustic wedding. And, a standalone building was converted into The Manor House Restaurant.

The restaurant opened in 2013 to serve those attending the 150th commemoration of the Battle of Chickamauga. After several months of success, business slowed, hours of operation became sporadic and operating losses mounted to a point that the restaurant closed.

For several years, Heiskell faced charges that the county had overpaid for the property, its upkeep was greater than expected and that local government had no business trying to run a restaurant. Some claimed the county "bought the farm" with its Mountain Cove purchase and that acreage endangered the county's financial footing.

Several different proposals were bandied about regarding the resort's fate, all with the understanding that governments have no reason — or legal right — to operate a for-profit business.

But the purchase was never intended as a business. Instead, its acquisition was seen as a benefit to all, both natives and visitors.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, in a piece titled "Treasured cove added to northwest Georgia conservation lands" says this about the cove and its acquisition:

McLemore Cove is many things. Beautiful valley. Biological treasure. Historic site. But one thing McLemore has not been is public property. At least not until October, when the Georgia Department of Natural Resources joined with leaders from the Georgia Land Conservation Program, Walker County, the Open Space Institute Inc. and others to announce the acquisition of 1,839 acres of the cove where Pigeon and Lookout mountains meet.

The $10.5 million acquisition connects with state Transportation Department property to cross the head of the northwest Georgia cove and provide a wildlife and recreation corridor between state-owned Crockford-Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area and Zahnd Natural Area. That's nearly 20,000 contiguous acres in all for conservation.

The DNR and Georgia Land Conservation Program bought 1,544 acres of the McClemore tract. Walker County added 295. The plan is to manage all of the acreage, including the large DOT holdings set aside for mitigation, as one unit.

Formerly part of Mountain Cove Farms, owned by the Yancey family, the property lies within one of the top six acquisition areas targeted by Georgia's Wildlife Action Plan, a blueprint for conservation. The tracts provide habitat for rare species such as the green salamander, barksdale trillium and Georgian cave beetle.

The biological diversity is a result of the sites topography and location at the Pigeon/Lookout Mountain junction and the transition between the Cumberland Plateau and Ridge and Valley physiographic provinces. The flat, sandstone plateau top allows water to seep through cracks and crevices, dissolving the underlying limestone layers, creating miles of underground passages or caves and flowing out at numerous springs around the base of the mountain.

The McLemore Cove tract is within the ecologically important West Chickamauga Creek watershed and contains a variety of habitats, including hardwood and pine dominated forests, sandstone outcrops, caves, springs and open pastureland.

The property also sits within the heart of the Mountain Cove Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places for periods of significance dating from 1825 to 1949. The cove served as a temporary encampment for 15,000 Union troops during the Civil War.

Geological history dates the areas historical significance much farther back. Evidence of ocean life can be found on top of the mountains. Artifacts reveal the areas American Indian culture.

The acquisition included nearly $6.5 million from the Georgia Land Conservation Program, $2.15 million from Walker County, $750,000 from a grant from the Open Space Institute, Inc., nearly $270,000 from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, $100,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and more than $730,000 in state funds.

This is neither the first, nor the last time, that the Messenger has championed the Cove's importance yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Some have called its purchase a waste of taxpayer money, claiming it takes taxable property off the assessor’s books. But the tax bill on land dedicated to agricultural use or that is protected in conservation trusts is minimal.

The property was purchased by the Walker County Development Authority in 2015 in a sale that served several purposes. The county was mired in a legal battle related to the failure of Hutcheson Medical Center and needed cash. Not only did the transfer of ownership boost the county's finances, it meant the Development Authority could issue long-term bonds using the land as collateral. The Development Authority is able to lease the property while setting restrictions that guarantee its conservation and access to the public.

The adage that "one thing they don’t make anymore is land" and it is nearly like present and future generations were given a second chance when it was procured in 2008..

It was not the first time the state expressed interest in procuring all or part of an 11,500-acre farm owned by O. Wayne Rollins, an Atlanta businessman and Catoosa County native, who died in 1991.

Named for Robert and John McLemore, sons of a white trader and a Cherokee mother, McLemore Cove marks the end of roughly 17-mile-long Chattanooga Valley and is where Lookout and Pigeon mountains meet. Home to American Indians and European settlers, the Cove was a battleground during the Civil War. Following World War II, the valley’s fertile pasture land attracted beef and dairy cattlemen.

In August 1998, a real estate development group from Rome bought the farm from Rollins’ estate with the expressed intention of building a golf course, club house and retirement village as well as mixed residential/agricultural use development.

That same year, state officials began negotiations to buy about 4,500 acres and lease an additional 2,700 acres that were part of McLemore Cove Farm’s acreage.

The development partners' grand plans for development faltered until in 2008 the farm was sold to the state and citizens of Walker County.

"This property is a tremendous asset for the people of Walker County and all Georgians," Heiskell said during ceremonies announcing the purchase of the Cove.

That purchase provided the county a core for a resort complex. Something similar occurred when in 1988 the state spent roughly $30 million to purchase 503 acres near Young Harris that today is known as Brasstown Valley Resort.

Those worried about lost property tax revenue should know the farm was zoned agricultural and had conservation easements which meant its tax bill was small.

Some say the county should not be in competition with private enterprise, that local government should be more concerned with paving roads than building resorts.

While true, such thinking misses the point that the land itself is the greatest treasure.

To understand what can happen, and quickly, with unfettered development, look no further than Chattanooga. Until Hamilton Place Mall opened in 1987 the affluence of those living along Gunbarrel Road could be judged by whether there was a one-, two- or three-stall barn behind the house. Today, former pasture land is paved parking lots, homes have been replaced by hospitals and a rural landscape has become a retail mecca where Starbucks' clientele, not bucking horses, roam.

Other examples abound. Coolidge Park exists only because the Navy and Marine Reserve Center occupied the northern shore of the Tennessee River between the Market and Walnut street bridges and for years refused relocation.

But perhaps the most important piece of this area’s past that, though altered, has the potential of becoming a source of public pride and preservation is Moccasin Bend.

Archeological examinations of the Bend have found artifacts that prove without doubt that American Indians lived there for several thousands of years before they were forced to vacate their homes and follow the Trail of Tears. And defensive artillery emplacements used by Union troops during the 1863 siege of Chattanooga are easily visible today.

Several times it has nearly become public park land. In 1949 a bill authorizing the transfer of 1,400 acres of land in the Moccasin Bend area to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park was unanimously approved by Congress. But in early 1953 Gov. Frank Clement vetoed a $100,000 appropriation, the state match, to assist in the land acquisition, claiming it was too costly a item to add to Tennessee’s budget.

Plans were made to develop the Bend as a city or county park, complete with swimming and recreation areas, but never adopted. Instead, the city built a sewage treatment plant and public golf course on part of the property, the state constructed a mental hospital and some of the land was sold to local businesses.

This is nothing new. When Civil War veterans serving in Congress voted in 1890 to make the battlefield at Chickamauga our nation’s first and largest military park, plans called for it being bigger. Reeds Bridge was an original boundary to the east, and the envisioned northern boundary of the park is now home to a Krystal restaurant in Fort Oglethorpe.

Commissioner Heiskell repeatedly said that the county did not need to be in the business of running a resort. After making necessary repairs and improvements to its buildings and reaching agreement with the state on use of the air strip and a dilapidated barn, the county contracted an outside firm to run a restaurant, the Manor House, and resort.

This is not uncommon. The National Park Service leases concessions in many parks — Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Cumberland Island and Great Smoky Mountains among them — that outsource some services.

But at Mountain Cove, results were less than stellar. But that is not unusual.

Over the years, Georgia has done the same and with mixed results. Vogel and FDR state parks were leased to a private operators in 1955 before being returned to state operation in 1963. During those years of private operation the parks gained a reputation as "party centers" and were allowed to fall into disrepair in order to maximize profit.

Gov. Zell Miller in an effort to control spending and downsize government turned Unicoi, Red Top Mountain and Amicalola Falls — lodge parks — over to private operators. But within four years those 20-year leases were canceled and the state park service again took over lodge operations.

Similarly, a scheme to privatize maintenance of the state’s historic markers, like the ones situated in front of Gordon Hall in LaFayette and at John Ross House in Rossville, failed. The cost to repaint signs rose from $157 per sign when performed by state employees to about $500 per sign when the work was done by for-profit businesses.

But the county's stewardship of its McLemore Cove holding has had problems.

There were EPD fines for paving without proper permits inside the historic conservation district that is the Cove.

What was to have been Mountain Cove Resort’s public debut, the 150th commemoration of the Battle of Chickamauga, was marred by soaking rains that made a quagmire of pastures converted to parking lots.

And there was the failure of the restaurant.

But issues have been or are being addressed.

Spending money to refurbish the houses is paying off as those Mountain Cove Resort rental units are becoming a destination for weddings, reunions and retreats.

The Walker County Fair, after a hiatus of 50 odd years, now calls the property home and attracts tens of thousands — who pay to play — at what is again an annual event.

And this month, local restaurateur Greg Cornelison will reopen a resurrected restaurant as Mountain Cove Grill.

Figuring out what to do with the Cove, and how to pay for it, has not been smooth. But what if, in 1938, the state had decided not to go through with the purchase of what is today's Cloudland Canyon State Park?

In Chattanooga, the Blue Cross Blue Shield complex is situated on the site where in 1903 the city built Boynton Park to commemorate the 1863 siege of Chattanooga. And all along Crest Road on Missionary Ridge, observation towers once offered views where the Union troops broke the siege and began Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Today, so much of our heritage exists only in photographs or on the pages of history books and maps.

Mountain Cove deserves better — we deserve better — and its preservation makes us all, now and in the future, better.

And now, the newly elected commissioner Whitfield has an opportunity to carefully and thoughtfully work with the Development Authority to continue the work already underway to protect, as the state says, "a treasure" to be cherished and that should make every taxpayer proud.

Mike O'Neal is assistant editor for the Walker County Messenger. He can be reached at moneal@npco.com.