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Walker County will open bidding, to lease Mountain Cove Farms, through end of February

December 21, 2016 GMT

The Walker County Development Authority on Wednesday decided to take bids, through the end of February, for leasing the Mountain Cove Farms property.

The county-owned property has been a financial drain, losing more than $1 million from 2012-14.

Development Authority Chairman Robert Wardlaw, during a room-packed meeting Wednesday morning at the county Civic Center, announced that See Rock City Inc. is interested in leasing the property.

The county bought Mountain Cove Farms in 2008 to serve as a resort and wedding business. But it has been a political lightning rod, with many arguing that the government should leave such ventures to private business. The property became a hot-button issue during the 2016 commissioner’s race. Long-term Commissioner Bebe Heiskell lost the election by a landslide to Shannon Whitfield, owner of Whitfield Oil Co. in Chickamauga. The property was taken over by the Development Authority in 2015.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Wardlaw revealed that See Rock City Inc. owner Bill Chapin is interested in leasing the property. Chapin told Wardlaw in an email that See Rock City could make a "great partner" with Walker County in managing the facilities at Mountain Cove Farms. Chapin called the property an "outstanding asset of the region." Susan Harris, president and chief operating officer for See Rock City, attended Wednesday’s meeting. Chapin was not present.

Another business owner is also interested in leasing the property: Lea Kapherr of Cove Resorts LLC.

Kapherr approached the Development Authority in November with a proposal for leasing the property for $2,000 per month for an initial five-year term, as well as making repairs to the facility. At the November meeting, Wardlaw said he estimated the value of the property to be much more.

Kapherr, who did not attend Wednesday’s meeting, sent a revised proposal for leasing the property at $10,000 per month.

In Kapherr’s proposal, she said the November meeting was "unsettling" and charged that it seemed intended to scare her company away from leasing the property.

At Wednesday’s meeting, outgoing Commissioner Heiskell said, "Back in 2012, I heard from Bill Chapin, who said that Rock City might be interested in purchasing the Cove and I was thrilled because I could not see anybody that could do better than Rock City. But their (Rock City’s) board voted against it and so I didn’t even know it was on the table. But, this Ms. Lea Kapherr , I don’t know her, but I understand she has increased the amount that she offered. I would like to recommend that we don’t take a vote on this today. I really want the new (county government) administration (under Shannon Whitfield) to do well and I want them to work well with the Development Authority and this belongs to the Development Authority."

Heiskell said she would like to see the Development Authority set a deadline and take all proposals into consideration.

Heiskell added that she would "love" to see Rock City lease the property.

The motion unanimously passed, allowing the Development Authority to put together a "request for purchase" and accept proposals for 60 days, through the end of February.

Commissioner-elect Shannon Whitfield responds

After the meeting, Commissioner-elect Whitfield said he was excited to learn that Bill Chapin of See Rock City was interested in the property. He said Chapin contacted him earlier this month. From there, Whitfield sent word of Rock City’s interest to Wardlaw.

"I was very glad to see that the board recognize that opportunity of a company, with the status and reputation, and professionalism that Rock City would bring to the table, to be able to give time to let them submit a proposal as well," Whitfield said.

This opens the lease proposal up to anyone else wanting to submit one, Whitfield said.

"I thought the board (Development Authority) made the right decision," he said.

Whitfield said he was glad to see a good turnout for the meeting.

"I think this is a part of the public due process and I think that there’s a high level of interest from the citizens of Walker County of what the future holds for Mountain Cove Farms," Whitfield said. "This is a very important decision for our county. We have got a large bond leverage against that operation. That operation has been losing money every year, so we need to do something with it and leasing it out to a private company to be able to develop it and use it for tourists or other types of opportunities to bring people into the community. I think it is a great, great option."