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Meeting set to discuss civic center
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On Tuesday, the Newton County Board of Commissioners and the Covington City Council will vote on a number of issues concerning the hotel/civic center project, among them officially selecting a private developer for the project and the increasing of hotel/motel taxes to pay for the project.

The joint meeting of the two elected bodies will be held at 7 p.m. at the Historic Courthouse in downtown Covington. The Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce and the selected private developer, Phil Riley, owner and president of PR Hospitality Group, will give a presentation on the schematic designs of the hotel/civic center. The public is encouraged to attend.

"Up till now we've had a handshake deal [with Riley]. Now we're trying to make it formal," said John Boothby, president of the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce. "Nothing has been done in securing a hotel name because we've only shopped those possibilities."

The hotel/civic center project, which is to be built at the site of the old county administration office building on Usher Street, has been in the planning stages for more than two years now. Originally estimated to cost $24 million, the price tag of the hotel/civic center has risen due to construction cost increases though no final cost is yet known. In December 2006, the BOC and city council approved the financing of up to $12.1 million in bonds to pay for the civic center.

In late 2007, Riley stepped into the role of private developer of the project after the original developer, Nobel-Investment Group, stepped out. Riley has said he envisions a 100-room Hilton DoubleTree with 6,000 square feet of conference space accompanying the 1,200-seat civic center. The hotel will be privately financed and the civic center will be publicly financed.

"This is an economic development project that is going to result in other things coming to take advantage of it," Boothby said. "It's really going to help the downtown area prosper."

Financing for the hotel is expected to come from $5 million in previously allocated Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes, hotel/motel taxes and the bonds sold by the Newton County Industrial Development Authority. Boothby said he expects private financing to kick in north of $13 million for the hotel.

"The fundamental thing is the presentation," Boothby said of Tuesday's meeting. "We have been trying to educate the elected officials to make the most reasoned decision that will help protect the taxpayers from being exposed, unnecessarily, to risk."

The BOC and city council are also expected to vote on a measure to increase hotel/motel taxes in order to retire the bonds faster. If they approve the measure, it will be handed off to Newton County's state legislative delegation, which will be charged with seeing its passage through at the capitol. Hotel/motel taxes are not a tax on county residents but a tax on persons who pay for rooms at a hotel.

Boothby said time is of the essence in getting government approval for the hotel/motel taxes and of officially selecting a private developer so Riley can move ahead with securing private financing for the project.

"We certainly need them to approve the developer," Boothby said. "We've picked the developer but that needs to be specified in order to move ahead with the financing on the private side of it. We've got to make sure that he's got the documentation to go to the lender."