Sale of land helps ease Callaway Gardens' debt problems



PINE MOUNTAIN, Ga. — Callaway Gardens has sold another 2,560 acres of land that its chairman says put the Pine Mountain resort on sound financial footing.

Chairman and CEO Edward Callaway said the forested land was sold Thursday to Atlanta real estate broker Brad Smith for $4.63 million.

Smith told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer that he plans to use it for recreation because his two teenage sons like to hunt.

The deal completes Callaway Gardens’ strategy of selling off large pieces of land to pay down a debt that had grown to more than $44 million in March 2011.

In July, the resort’s foundation sold 4,500 acres to Lands’ South Ventures LLC, headed by Waffle House Chairman and CEO Joe Rogers Jr., for $8 million.

The resort also sold its conference center to Atlanta-based Noble Investments for $12 million, along with 40 cottages for $4 million.

Callaway, the grandson of the founders, said the land has been reduced from 13,000 acres to 6,000, and there are no plans to sell any more.

He said total debt for the foundation and the resort is down to $7.5 million, which he called a sustainable level.

Callaway Gardens has seen annual visitation drop from a peak of one million to less than 400,000 last year, but Callaway said the resort should finish the year up 5 percent to 10 percent.

“Here’s my analogy: We were 35 feet below water and drowning, and now we’re 10 feet above water, our heads well above water,” he said.

Fixing the finances allows Callaway Gardens to think long term about how to fulfill its mission of connecting families with nature and the outdoors, he said.

“Well probably catch our breath this fall and think through what we want to do next year and the year after to start adding things for people to do,” he said.