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Bonds to fund new civic center
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Local elected officials unanimously approved a joint resolution Tuesday to support a measure taking out up to $23 million in bonds to fund the public portion of the county's hotel/civic center project.

At a packed meeting at the historic courthouse, the Newton County Board of Commissioners and the Covington City Council approved the support of the $23 million bond measure as well as an increase of local hotel/motel taxes from 5 percent to 8 percent. The increase in taxes will be used to pay down the bonds. They also approved Phil Riley of P.R. Hospitality as the official private developer of the project.

"This is an exciting project, one that I've believed in from the beginning," Riley said.

The bond measure approved is a marked financial increase from a measure approved in December 2006. The county and city originally approved up to $12.2 million in bonds when the project was then headed by private developer, Nobel Investments.

Brian Husky with Merchant Capitol, an investment banking firm, said the civic center and its accompanying 6,000 square feet of conference center space next to the county Administration Building would cost $25 million. Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes will contribute $5 million to the project.

Riley told the BOC and the city council that he intended to spend $12 million on building a hotel to join the civic center. Riley said he hoped to see a either a Hilton Double Tree or a Hilton Garden Inn accompanying the civic center.

The number of the expected hotel rooms was also increased, from the original 100 rooms to 116. Other revealed plans for the project include an enclosed atrium galleria joining the hotel to the 1,200-seat civic center. The galleria will feature space for art exhibits and outdoor dining for the restaurant which will accompany the hotel. A brief video of the schematic designs of the project elicited a loud round of applause from a packed audience of supporters attending Tuesday's meeting.

Jeff Hudspeth, chief technology officer of SKC Inc. briefly spoke on behalf of Newton County's Industry Council in support of the project's conference center.

"The Industry Council really views this as a step forward," Hudspeth said. "SKC Inc. is committed to utilizing the facility. [Industries] would love the opportunity to use it."

Riley said he expected the hotel/civic center would employ 75 to 100 people with an annual payroll of $2 million

"This is an economic development project and not just a hotel," said John Boothby, president of the Covington/Newton County Chamber of commerce and chair of the joint-task force that is heading up the project. "It will create revenue. We will attract first class entertainment to the city."

With Tuesday's resolution, the BOC and the city council gave their support to Newton County's state legislature to initiate the process to change the county's hotel/motel taxes at the state level. The increase will apply to all hotels in the county, including the Hampton Inn and Best Western expected to open in the next few years.

The bonds will not be issued by the Newton County Industrial Development Authority until the city council and BOC approve a development agreement with Riley. It could take up to two months before a development agreement is ready to be signed by all parties as Riley needs to line up his private financing, which is expected to come from BB&T.