Commissioner Shannon Whitfield said he "personally" doesn't support bringing a casino to the Canyon Ridge development on Lookout Mountain.
"I have no desire to see that take place," Whitfield said Tuesday, June 6, "and it is my understanding that the developers, the current developers, have no desire for that either. I personally would not support a casino."
Rumors have circulated that a casino could come to Canyon Ridge Resort, a proposed $106 million upscale hotel resort on Lookout Mountain with 178 rooms, conference center, spa, infinity pool and upgrades to an existing golf course. The complex is scheduled to be complete and ready to open by the end of 2019.
Casino gambling in Georgia isn't going to happen this year, as the General Assembly did not pass a bill in the most recent session that would permit it.
The previous commissioner, Bebe Heiskell, was open to the idea of a casino at the county-owned Mountain Cove Farms.
Whitfield, along with Canyon Ridge developer and Scenic Land Investments President Duane Horton and Walker County Development Authority Chairman Robert Wardlaw, answered questions and addressed criticism of the project at a town hall meetings held at the Walker County Civic Center on Monday, June
6, and on Wednesday, June 7.
The commissioner said the meetings were a success.
"I thought it went fantastic," Whitfield said about the first town hall meeting. "I was very thrilled that the citizens of Walker County are concerned about the future of our county. They're concerned about making sure we bring great businesses to Walker County, so I was thrilled with having over 100 people in attendance."
That more than 40 questions were asked during the three-hour meeting, showed people are engaged and interested in seeing the project succeed, he said.
Whitfield has received a lot of criticism from some of the biggest supporters of his election campaign.
Criticism has revolved mostly around three issues: the county's tax-break agreement with the developer was too sweet a deal; the project's future success is being overestimated; and Whitfield, who campaigned on having a transparent administration, having kept the project secret for too long.
Under the deal, the $106 million project must employ at least 180 full-time workers if it wants a tax break.
Slated to be built and open by the end of 2019, Canyon Ridge Resort would receive a 30-year tax abatement — pay no property taxes for the first five years and 10 percent of the current tax rate for 25 years.
"Some of my supporters were criticizing me a couple weeks ago because I had kept this project very confidential through the election cycle," Whitfield said on June 6. "I gave the developer my word that I would not make this a campaign issue, or I would not leak this out — publically — until they were ready to go public with it.
"So there were some people close to me that felt like that I should have shared it with them and possibly gone against that commitment that I made to the developer of not disclosing any information."
Whitfield said this is the largest investment ever made in Walker County at one time.
"This is over $100 million," he said. "There are other industries, I'm sure, that have — over time—invested over $100 million. But as far a single startup new investment over $100 million, I don't think it has ever been done."
Whitfield said he understand why people are — and should be — skeptical.
"They should question the facts of the project and want to see the details of the project once it goes public," he said.
That is why two public meetings were scheduled, he said.
"We want them to help us vet this out and make sure that the developer understands that we want a win-win for Walker County," Whitfield said. "We want to see the development be successful. And if the development is successful, Walker County will be successful.".
Whitfield said a lot of minds were changed after the June 5 meeting.
"Several people came up to me afterwards and said that if they would have had this information two or three weeks ago, they would have had a whole different outlook on this project," he said.
Asked about criticism of not holding out for a better deal to come along, Whitfield said the original deal with Canyon Ridge was for the county to not make any debt commitments, but offer a 100-percent tax abatement for 40 years.
Instead, a 30year agreement was negotiated, one with a 100 percent (tax abatement) for the first five years followed by a 90 percent abatement for the remaining 25 years.
"We felt like that really put us and the developer — both — in a win-win position," Whitfield said. "That helps us with revenue long-term. That also puts them in a position where they can still also be successful".
Asked about the issue of transparency, Whitfield said a only a handful of citizens attended a full presentation that was given at the Walker County Development Authority meeting in March.
One of those attending was former commissioner candidate Perry Lamb.
"I was glad that he was able to attend," Whitfield said. "Once Perry saw the presentation, he was very excited and complimentary."
When the Development Authority met in May to finalize the project's approval, that too was a public meeting, he said.
"No one showed up," Whitfield said. "So we were transparent with the meeting process and everything was presented in the public eye. But no one attended the second meeting and only a handful were at the first meeting."
The county did not issue press releases and social media posts about the project because the county was waiting on the developer to provide such information..
"My personal preference, I would have probably waited until the project was fully funded, but the developer was ready to move forward," Whitfield said.
No skin in the game
Whitfield, when announcing the project on May 14, said, "It is ... important to note that (this project) do(es) not include any financial contributions or risk backing from Walker County or the Development Authority. Even though it was never requested, we made it abundantly clear from the beginning that Walker County is not in a position to take on any financial investment or risk at this time."
Canyon Ridge homeowners agreed to a special tax district that will bring tax hikes — as much as double the current rate — for properties within the district. Those funds will be used to provide government facilities and services for public roads, streetscapping, lighting, fire and EMS facilities and equipment, public recreations and parks, walking trails, as well as water, sewer and other county-owned utilities.
Whitfield reiterated that the county will have "zero money in it" with "zero debt."
Whitfield said Canyon Ridge residents agreed to increase, from 24.5 mills to as much as 50 mills, their property taxes to improve public infrastructure within the special tax district.
"The community at Canyon Ridge is so convinced that this project is good for their
About 70 people turned out for the second, and final, town hall meeting to talk about Canyon Ridge Resort, a proposed $106 million upscale luxury hotel and conference center to be built on Lookout Mountain.
During the second public meeting, several residents voiced opposition.
Eli Everette, 25, a neighbor to the Canyon Ridge property, sharply criticized the project saying this was "all about the money."
Everette said he represented those too afraid to speak up.
"I think it is a terrible idea," he said. "I think there's already too many people up there and there's going to be even more."
Another resident, who declined giving his name, said the noise and odors from the current sewer treatment plant were unwelcome. And while the resort might lead to increased property values for nearby land owners, that would also mean an increase in
property tax bills.
The upscale complex will include 178 rooms, conference center, spa, infinity pool, and upgrades to an existing golf course. It will employ at least 180 fulltime workers and is scheduled to open by summer 2020.
The first town hall meeting was held June 4, with about 100 people attending.
Duane Horton, CEO of Scenic Lands Company and Canyon Ridge Developer, introduced himself and outlined his plans for the resort.
Horton gave his pledge that what was being presented was what could be expected and would be delivered.
"If you ever hear anything different than this, come to us. Verify it. Don't believe what you are reading," he said. "We will prove it."
"Absolutely no existing tax revenues will be used by Scenic Land Company or even requested from Walker County to build this project. We are not going to ask for it. We haven't asked for it. It's been made very clear that even if we did ask for it, we are not going to get it."
The developer said he had other opportunities for such a project, but, as a Walker County native, he is familiar with the natural beauty of the area and wants only to enhance, not harm it.
When questioned about the accessibility of a mountaintop resort, Horton spoke of how many major markets would be within a two-hour drive of Canyon Ridge. Within that range are about 14 million people, something he said is not seen in the rest of the southeastern states.
The developer pointed out that there are 28 Fortune 500 companies within this two-hour drive and tourism destinations already exist in this area which has low sales tax rates and a willing work force.
One perceived weakness, the lack of direct interstate highway access, is not really such a problem, as Horton insists guests do not want to "hop off of an interstate" and be at a resort. They want a little bit of a scenic drive.
"You don't have an interstate connection, but you are close enough to them, that it's perfect," he said.
Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield discussed how this project affects taxpayers.
Property taxes now collected on the existing golf course and the 48-acre tract of land already owned by Scenic Land Partners totals less than $17,000 annually.
Those taxes will continue to be paid, the commissioner said.
"So, what they are getting an abatement on is the taxes on the new development they are doing," Whitfield said.
That 30-year abatement is: no property taxes for five years, then 10 percent of the value for the next 25 years.
"So our total taxes that we would get over a 30-year project is going to be a little over $3.1 million. ... If we keep the status quo, nothing changes, the land stays as it is. This is going to bring in a half-million dollars over 30 years versus us doing the abatement, we're going to get $2.6 million over that 30 years cycling that last 25-year period," Whitfield said.
Development authority's role
Development Authority Chairman Robert Wardlaw discussed the authority's role, insisting that it works for the county as a whole and that no county funds are being invested in this project.
"Along the lines of what I would be wanting to know if I were you...Number one is 'on a project of this scale, what does that guy stand to gain?' The answer to that is nothing, except to help my community. I don't get paid for anything at all. I do not own any property down in or around that resort, anywhere on the mountain or anywhere close — even in the valley, Wardlaw said.
Wardlaw said the development authority was created by the state in 1964 as a means to recruit and retain industry that increases tax revenue that benefits all citizens within a community.
"To address a few other things that I hear quite a bit (about the authority) like, 'Well, the board does the bidding of the commissioner.' That is absolutely not true," he said. "I mean this with all due respect — what I am about to say and I don't want you (Whitfield) to take this wrong — but, the past administration (Heiskell) would certainly vouch for what I am about to say and the current administration would vouch as well. Certainly — from my part — if it is a bad deal, the answer is 'no.' It was before (a bad deal) and quite honestly, if a bad deal gets presented today, the answer would be 'no' from your development authority.
"Especially right now when it comes to spending money that we do not have," Wardlaw said.
The idea of Father's Day was conceived more than a century ago by Sonora Dodd of Spokane, Wash., while she listened to a Mother's Day sermon in 1909. Dodd wanted a special day to honor her father, William Smart, a widowed Civil War veteran who was left to raise his six children on a farm. A day in June was chosen for the first Father's Day celebration,
June 19, 1910, proclaimed by Spokane's mayor because it was the month of Smart's birth.
The first presidential proclamation honoring fathers was issued in 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson designated the third Sunday in June as Father's Day. Father's Day has been celebrated annually since 1972 when President Richard Nixon signed the public law that made it permanent.
How Many Fathers?
The estimated number of fathers across the nation in 2014, the most recent year for which data are available.
The number of fathers living in married-couple family groups with children younger than age 18 in 2016.
The number of single fathers in 2016 living with their children under age 18; 17 percent of single parents were men.
• Nine percent were raising three or more children younger than age 18.
• About 40 percent were divorced, 38 percent were never married, 16 percent were separated, and 6 percent were widowed.
• About 46 percent had an annual family income of $50,000 or more.
The percentage of dads who have kids with their current spouse or partner, but also have kids with someone else.
The number of fathers who are also grandfathers.
Thinking of You, Dad
The number of clothing stores, department stores, warehouse clubs and supercenters around the country where you could buy dad a dress shirt in 2012. Sales totaled an estimated $2.6 billion at these locations.
The number of hardware stores in 2015, a place to buy hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers and other items high on the list of Father's Day gifts. Additionally, there were 6,505 home centers across the country in 2015.
21,890 The number of sporting goods stores in 2015. These stores were good places to purchase traditional gifts for dad, such as fishing rods and golf clubs.
The number of men's clothing stores around the country in 2015, a good place to buy dad a tie or shirt.
The estimated number of stay-at-home dads in 2016. These married fathers with children younger than age 15 have remained out of the labor force for at least one year, primarily so they can care for the family while their wife works outside the home. These fathers cared for about 392,000 children under age 15.
The amount of child support received by custodial fathers in 2013; they were due $4.2 billion. Custodial mothers received $19.4 billion of the $28.7 billion in support that was due.
The percentage of custodial fathers who received all child support that was due in 2013, not statistically different from the corresponding percentage for custodial mothers, 46.2 percent.
The percentage of custodial fathers receiving noncash support in 2013, such as gifts or coverage of expenses, on behalf of their children. The corresponding proportion for mothers was 59.9 percent.
With Father's Day coming up, we thought we'd ask some Catoosa and Walker County folks to share their favorite recollections of their dads.
Walker County resident Lisa Shirley says her father, George, was strict but also knew how to have fun with his children. "He spent time playing ball with us and also taught us how to show people respect. He taught us manners and how to tell the truth."
Jonathan White of Lookout Mountain was fresh out of high school, in his first year of college at Arizona State University when his father, David, made a simple but profound comment to him. "I was talking to Dad on the phone one night and he said, 'Son, don't forget to look up. I hear the stars are really beautiful out there.' I hadn't even noticed them before that."
"My dad was one of the nicest men you could ever meet," says George Anderson, manager of Sear's Shoe Store in Fort Oglethorpe. "He put me through military school and college, but I wanted to do what my dad did. My best memories are from when we were in business together. We owned some billiard parlors and a skating rink. That's what gave me a business mind."
Jerry Sear, owner of Sear's Shoe Store, says his father taught him how to have a good work ethic by example. "He worked 80 hours a week. He taught me that if you want something, you have to work for it. When he bought me a new car, it was with the understanding that I would work for it."
Connie Rollins, who lives in Walker County, says when she was six or seven years old, she was watching the Swap Shop in Dalton and saw some ponies for sale. She called in and gave her phone number.
"When Dad got home from work, Mom told him what I'd done and he got a truck and went and got those two ponies for me." Rollins says her 88-year-old father, Calvin, is a stern but giving man. "He still plants a huge garden every year and gives away most of the produce."
Reba Self recalls her father Frank's garden. "He would work in the mills all day, then come home and plow with a mule till sundown." One day, Self begged her father to let her ride on the crosstie he was using to smooth freshly plowed ground. "He said no, but I kept begging and he gave in. He said, 'Okay, but if you fall off, I'm not stopping.'" Self says her father was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1950s but declined the offer because he had a family to support and baseball didn't pay much at that time.
Tommy Kimbrell, a Walker County resident and a manager at Sear's Shoe Store, spent a lot of time with his dad growing up. "We gardened and went hunting and fishing and cut fire wood together. One day, we were fishing on a river and were passing between two bushes when a fish jumped out of the water and went down the back of my dad's shirt. He pulled his shirttail out of his pants and let it out." Kimbrell's father, Jessie, was an Atlanta police officer who installed burglar alarms at a time when the police
department offered that service. "He started with the department in 1951, and they issued him a pearl-handled .38 revolver. When he retired in 1983, he was still using the same gun and they let him keep it."
"My dad was a smart, funny man," says Walker County resident Stacy Evans. "If my sister or I got into trouble – got a ticket or had an accident, he took it in stride. When he was sick with cancer, I was driving his prized truck to the hospital and someone hit it. I dreaded telling him, but when I did, he said, 'Don't worry about it. That ain't nothing.' His family was his world." Evans says her dad, Houston, was also a good father figure to her friends.
Rossville resident Michael Stackpole says that his dad, David, was a Marine and liked things done the Marine way. "But he was a great guy. He worked his butt off every day so we could have a good lifestyle, as any father would." Stackpole, whose parents adopted him and his two younger siblings when they were eight, four and three years old, says his dad went to their sporting events and sometimes coached their teams and also took them hunting and fishing. "Dad has Parkinson's now, but he takes it like a champ and is still working."
Martha Kent, of Fort Oglethorpe, remembers her father, Dub, going to their garden and picking a watermelon for her and her brother and breaking it open right on the ground so they could eat it immediately. "He was always taking us places," says Kent. "He'd take us to the movies and the carnival and just for rides." In his later years, Dub suffered from Alzheimer's and was a resident in a nursing home and Kent went to see him every day. "He would smile real big and say, 'Did you bring me a peppermint?' and I'd say, 'You know I brought you one.'"
During his last weeks of life, when he was in the hospital, Dub offered his daughter the ultimate gift any loving but imperfect father could. "I went to see him," says Kent, "and he said to me, "Marth, I asked God to forgive me. Will you forgive me?"
Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there working hard to make their children's lives good.