Originally created 01/18/01

County eyes program to bypass liquor laws



LINCOLNTON, Ga. - Lincoln County officials working to attract a $35 million golf resort hope to bypass local laws against liquor by the drink by using a state program designed to spur economic growth in rural areas.

County commissioners agreed 4-1 earlier this week to ask that the proposed 300-acre project on Thurmond Lake be designated as a "regional economic assistance project" eligible for state funding and oversight.

Toye Hill, the chairman of the county's Recreation Authority, said the designation would enable the county to seek assistance from Gov. Roy Barnes' Georgia One Authority, created to funnel surplus budget money and tobacco settlement dollars into economic programs for rural Georgia.

The Recreation Authority has worked for six years to bring a conference center to the county, which is plagued by high unemployment and a low tax base that is partly the result of a high volume of land being owned by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The planned golf and conference center would be near Elijah Clarke State Park but would be separated from it by a substantial buffer, Mr. Hill said. The complex would have 200 to 250 employees and an annual payroll of $5 million.

The designation of regional economic assistance project requires that the project meet at least three of five primary criteria: It must be 250 acres or larger and have a hotel with 200 or more rooms, an 18-hole golf course, a 250-seat conference area and a 75-seat restaurant.

The proposed complex in Lincoln County meets all the criteria, Mr. Hill said.

The county is working with a New York-based developer, Century Corp., to create and manage the conference center, Mr. Hill said. Century operates conference centers in Marietta and Birmingham, Ala.

Any developer willing to invest in a golf and conference resort would want to sell mixed drinks, Mr. Hill said.

Lincoln County has opted against trying to hold the usual voter referendum to secure liquor-by-the-drink privileges.

The designation adopted by commissioners this week would allow the state to issue liquor licenses to the golf resort as the state looks to promote growth in rural areas.

Most of the land earmarked for the conference center is owned by the Corps of Engineers, which would have to approve the project and agree to lease the land to the Recreation Authority or some entity connected to the project.

Corps spokesman Jim Parker said such a lease is certainly possible, but no formal agreements have been reached.

"The last time we met with them was about six months ago," he said. "The group decided to work all the official requests through the state, and we'll have another meeting sometime this year."

The Corps' concerns are mainly to ensure that any use of public property would remain public, he said.

"Our concerns are always to be sure that whatever development plan is proposed includes full public access," he said. "We're just as interested in improving the public recreation experience as anybody, but it has to remain open to the public."

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.