Developer Duane Horton told Walker County officials on Tuesday that he is still on track to build a resort hotel at his McLemore project on Lookout Mountain despite a delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Walker County Development Authority unanimously granted an extension on an agreement for county help with the major project.
Horton's Scenic Land Company is taking a golf course development that had failed in the past and he said is turning it into an upscale hotel, conference center, golf resort and spa. The McLemore Club is located in Walker County overlooking McLemore Cove and Pigeon Mountain at the site of what was formerly known as Canyon Ridge.
Giving the authority an update, Mr. Horton said that 18 holes of the golf course have been renovated, and the 18th hole has been named the “best finishing hole,” in the U.S. by Golf Digest, creating a lot of interest in the area. Additionally, a six-hole golf course has been built. The club house has opened and the restaurant is open and available to the public by reservation. Nine existing houses in the old development are now being managed by McLemore to house guests before the hotel is built, said Mr. Horton. The hotel will be a Curio Collection by Hilton.
The developer never asked Walker County for money to create the resort, but in 2017 had asked for and received support with a Memo of Understanding (MOU) with agreements that would kick in after the building was complete and the resort was opened. It would provide incentives for the county on the back-end such as increased employment and taxes generated. And these incentives came with time limits for the resort to be finished and operating. Everything was on schedule until the COVID pandemic appeared when much of the work was delayed. The MOU was set to expire Dec. 31, 2020. At the meeting, Mr. Horton asked members of the development authority for an 18-month extension, which was approved.
Shannon Whitfield, Walker County sole commissioner, told the development authority that this group has done everything they said they would do, and that he is confident that it will be completed as agreed upon. Three plans are under consideration now for financing the hotel, but Mr. Horton said that a MOU from the county is needed to ensure the momentum continues. Scenic Land Company has had enough confidence in the project that millions have been spent building the road to the hotel and preparing the site for it and the pool. All permits have also been received.
Mr. Horton said in October about $20,000 was generated by the development in taxes, coming from lodging, food and beverage service and golf sales. That is projected to increase significantly once the hotel is built when there will be spaces for people to stay. He said 71 groups were turned away just in October because there was no lodging available.
Now, 70 jobs have been created and there is the expectation that 10-20 more will be in place by spring, versus 15 jobs before work started on the resort. Property values in the area have increased significantly, he said, with lots that had been selling for $15,000-$20,000 now selling for up to $65,000. He said that every home in the area that has been listed has been sold or is under contract. There are nine new homes being built that average over $1 million each, and two at over $2 million, he said. This will also be a boon to property taxes received by Walker County, he stated.
The request that Scenic Land Company made came to the county without asking for any changes, only to support the extension of the MOU because of the impact from COVID.