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Downtown revitalization
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Working with a constrained space, architects of the hotel/civic center project have developed a glass atrium feature which will connect the hotel to the civic/conference center and is envisioned as a multi-use space.

The hotel, which faces Pace Street, largely continues the architectural trend set by the Historic Courthouse and continued by the County Administration Building, which is adjacent to the project, but on a larger scale. The civic/conference center, which faces Elm Street, is a greater departure in architectural continuity with its receding and descending brick fly towers. The civic center's front also includes the large atrium feature and an open balcony.

"A lot of times when you're given more constraints, it generates a more creative result," said Greg Portman, president of PFVS Architects Inc., whose firm designed the project. "That's kind of what I think happened with the plans."

Portman said the firm began with the elementary schematics drawn up under the project's old private developer, Nobel Investments, and made them real with a few additions.

"The atrium space is going to be the most unique space of the whole thing," Portman said. "That ties together the existing admin building with the interface of the other components - hotel, convention center and performing arts theater. The performing arts will be the focus of everything that is there, but they'll all have important contributions to the overall success of the project."

Portman described the atrium, which will have a glass ceiling, as similar to a galleria with an outdoors feeling, though it will be completely enclosed and air conditioned. The atrium space can be used for any number of functions he said, including theatre presentations, art shows, vendor displays, outdoor dining for the hotel's restaurant and spillover space for the conference center.

Though the hotel was originally intended to have 100 rooms, Portman said the decision was made to up the number of hotel rooms to 116 in order to attract a higher end hotel brand.

"To draw in a high enough brand, you had to get the room count up a bit," he said.

In addition to a restaurant, the hotel, which private developer Phil Riley hopes will be either a Hilton DoubleTree or a Hilton Garden Inn, will contain a concierge lounge, an entertainer suite for visiting performers at the civic center and an executive suite.

The civic center is located at an angle from the hotel, which generates the space for the atrium in between. The civic center will contain an 8,000 square-foot ballroom, which will be located between the performing arts theater and the hotel.

The highest point of the project is the theater's tallest fly tower, which is 77 feet above street level, though it is still shorter than the Historic Courthouse's clock tower. The project has a total area of 165,800 square feet, with 81,000 square feet of that coming from the hotel.

"I think it'll be a centerpiece for downtown Covington when it's all done," Portman said.

Construction is expected to take 18 months once a development agreement is signed between Riley and the BOC and city council. A grand opening is expected for 2011.


Sharp increases in the cost of steel and overall increases in construction costs from just a few years ago caused a large portion of the price swelling of the hotel/civic center from an estimated $24 million in 2006 to an estimated $37 million today.

As a result of the cost increase, the Newton County Board of Commissioners and the Covington City Council have agreed to increase the bond amount issued to fund the civic/conference center from up to $12.2 million to up to $23 million. Private funding for the hotel is also expected to increase from the original $9 million Nobel said it would spend to the $12 million Riley said he expected to spend.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the price of steel increased by 30.4 percent in the last year alone.

"There is so much steel to be used in this building that it had a very large impact all by itself," said John Boothby, president of the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce and chair of the joint-task force heading up the project, of the civic center. "The steel costs have gone astronomical."

Since December 2003, the costs of steel-mill products have increased by 121.8 percent and the overall price of materials used by construction industries has increased by 43 percent, according to a recent article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

"I also think this time we took a much more detailed look," said Boothby of the cost analysis by investment banking firm Merchant Capital compared to the broader one done two years ago. "The cost of materials and supplies has gone up. The cost of inflation in general has gone up and [there is] the fact that we drilled down and anticipated every possible thing that would be in there."

Because of the high cost of the project, Boothby said the decision was made to decrease the amount of glass used in the atrium. It was formerly envisioned as being built entirely of glass.

"An entire glass atrium, that we thought would look dramatic, but we thought it would drive the utility costs up so we gave up some dramatic appearance for practicality," Boothby said. "We'll still have good lighting in there with skylights."

The $23 million in bonds is expected to be repaid from tax revenues from hotel/motel taxes, which the council and BOC approved increasing to 8 percent on Tuesday.

"We're looking at this bond issue as a loan that will be repaid from tax revenues in about nine years," Boothby said.

According to an overview of available revenue from the project, hotel/motel taxes are expected to contribute $67.7 million for debt service over the 30-year life of the bonds. The total net debt service is projected at $47.8 million which would result in a $19.9 million surplus. That figure includes revenue generated from all existing hotels plus the anticipated Hilton hotel as well as a Hampton Inn, Best Western and another unidentified hotel brands.

The bonds are expected to become revenue neutral by 2021. After that the BOC and the city council are projected to begin receiving a return on the bonds. All returns and deficits are split 50-50 between the two elected bodies. The figure is based on a 65 percent hotel occupancy rate.

In lieu of ad-valorem taxes on the anticipated Hilton, fees will instead be repaid to retire the bonds - an expected $8.4 million during the life of the bonds. A $5 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax allocation will also fund the civic center.

"It's incorrect to say that this will be paid for by the taxpayers," Boothby said, adding that the task force erred on the conservative side in their tax revenue projections. "We are not playing any 'watch my hand stuff with magic tricks [in our projections]."