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Civic center to be a Hilton DoubleTree
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The city council, short two members Monday night: Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams and Councilman Roger Tingler, unanimously gave its support to the execution of a document by Newton County Chairman Aaron Varner authorizing Riley to spend $242,500 on architect fees and contract fees for the project's schematic design and drawings.

The BOC, short District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson, was in attendance to hear Riley's proposal as well. Because Monday night was only a work session for the BOC, the board did not vote on the proposal but were expected to vote on it at their Tuesday night meeting.

Riley told the two groups that it looked like the hotel would be a Hilton DoubleTree.

"I have a commitment from Hilton for a DoubleTree franchise," Riley said.

Riley estimated a 28 month timeline for the project but added that the timeframe might be pushed back if the legislative approval process required developers/contractors to go before both bodies each time they wished to take action on the project.

Newton County Attorney Tommy Craig also advised the two bodies to come up with a method of approving government action on the project without having to bring together both bodies to vote every time.

"We have got to find a way to be more nimble," Craig said. "I don't think we can ask (Riley) to wait 30 days every time."

Craig said the BOC expressed reluctance to move on Riley's phase one proposal, detailed in a memo to Varner on Dec. 3, without bringing it before the city council first as it was a collaborative effort between the two government bodies.

Project challenges

Just over one year ago, the BOC and the city council met in a joint session to unanimously approve a measure to take out up to $12.1 million in bonds to finance the civic center.

Since that time the project has switched private developers with Nobel-Investment Group stepping out and PR Hospitality stepping in. Other obstacles in the way of the project have been removed: the Newton County Administration Building was completed this summer which now allows for the demolition of the old administration building behind it and the construction of the civic center in its place, additional parking for the project has been acquired through a land-swap lease agreement with BellSouth/AT&T and from the purchase of land from Norfolk Southern Railway by the county.

One year ago the hotel/civic center was estimated to cost $24 million. Though no current project figures are available, the project's cost is expected to have risen due to the rising cost of construction materials.

Craig briefed the BOC and city council on some of the challenges associated with the project such as the necessity to place the public meeting rooms on the second floor of the hotel/civic center which would require higher than normal ceilings.

Craig said a grand staircase or escalators would likely be necessary to facilitate the movement of foot traffic before and after shows at the civic center. Craig said elevators alone would not be a practical solution. Additionally he said the seating space of the civic center would likely preclude the use of columns in the architecture of the building as they would significantly impair audience views.

Riley said that parking was a major concern for the project. Riley estimated that the hotel would need a minimum of 140 in-house parking spaces (70 for hotel employees and 70 for guests).

"It makes it a higher degree of success if we have parking," Riley said.

Covington Mayor Sam Ramsey, at his last meeting as mayor, told the city council that he had been in discussions with Norfolk Southern Railway for the purchase of some additional land which could be used as parking space. Ramsey said the rail company had indicated that they were willing to sell 35 feet by 206 feet of land for $130,000.

"This is the cheapest parking we could possibly get," Ramsey said.