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January 3, 2013

Tourism study finds Dalton not likely to attract water park

Says trade center would benefit from attached hotel

Don’t count on developers building a large water park in Dalton.

A study prepared by Key Advisors of Atlanta found that “mega water parks” are located either in established tourism destinations or large metropolitan areas.

“It is very unlikely a mega water park ($60 million-plus) will locate in Dalton given the small population density within a 20-mile radius and limited visitor base,” the report found.

The report noted that though many vehicles pass through Dalton on I-75, vacationers aren’t likely to break off from their trip for “a substantial side excursion” in the city.

“That was a little surprising and a little disappointing,” said Dalton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) Director of Tourism Brett Huske.

The CVB, the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority and the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce jointly funded the $25,000 study.

Local officials met several times in 2011 with a private group interested in operating a water park, and Dalton officials even tentatively offered a site at Heritage Point Park for the attraction. But negotiations foundered over funding. The developers wanted the city to build the park and lease it back to them. City officials were adamant that they would not spend money on the project.

“The analysis that we talked about then seemed to indicate a better possibility of a developer bringing a water park here,” Huske said. “But I understand what the (new) findings are. That makes sense, too.”

The report also found that Chattanooga-area residents would be more likely to visit the water park planned to open at Lake Winnepesaukah later this year than any water park in the Dalton area.

Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb said the study probably spells an end for any plans for a water park in the area.

“We weren’t going to spend any money on a water park, and it looks like it would be difficult to get any private developer to spend that money,” he said.

The study did find that the area might attract developers interested in building and operating smaller attractions, such as an “adventure park” with zip lines and rock climbing, that could serve both local residents and tourists.

“They came up with that idea. They felt that starting something smaller that didn’t have as large a financial commitment and could be incorporated into the meetings and sporting events that we already have could be a possibility,” Huske said.

The study found that hotel and motel occupancy rates have rebounded from their 2009 lows and that hotel/motel tax collections continue to rise. In particular, the study found that attendance at sports events such as softball and tennis tournaments continues to climb, generating more business at local hotels.

Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce President Brian Anderson said the study gives local officials a wealth of data they can present to developers to show them how attractive the Dalton area can be.

“It validates that we have been successful, even in a down economy, in growing our travel and tourism business. It validates the work of the CVB team and its partners,” he said. “And I think it shows we can be even more successful.”

The study also took a look at the operations of the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center. It found that consumer shows, such as gun shows and coin shows, generate the highest gross revenue for the trade center but conventions have a much higher economic impact on the community.

“Conventions have the largest average attendance and last the longest,” the study noted.

Conventions accounted for around 3 percent of all events at the trade center in 2012 and consumer shows represented another 3 percent of events. Local meetings and banquets represented approximately 77 percent of all events at the trade center in 2012, even though such events generate the least gross and net revenue per day.

Huske, who assumed responsibility for the trade center in November, said CVB and trade center officials are working closely to attract more conventions to Dalton.

“That’s a very large market, so there’s a lot for us to go out and mine and find business. The beauty of it is that we are typically looking at dates that the trade center already has available. We wouldn’t be displacing other types of events, which characteristically meet on the weekend,” he said.

But the study warns that the trade center “will likely remain underutilized” without an attached hotel and an update to its “dated” decor.

The trade center was built 21 years ago, and officials say it hasn’t had a comprehensive overhaul since it was completed. The trade center was designed to have a hotel attached to it, and local officials have tried several times to attract a developer to build a hotel there. Five years ago, the trade center authority signed a letter of intent with developer John Q. Hammons to build a full service hotel next to the trade center. But that deal fell through.

The report recommends a hotel with 150 guest rooms at the trade center but warns it will likely “require some form of public subsidies.”

A hotel could potentially qualify for state tax breaks for tourism, but Babb says local governments aren’t likely to provide any operating subsidies.

“It’s one thing to offer someone an incentive to locate here. It’s another to guarantee they’ll be a success,” he said.

Gary Crews, a member of the Dalton City Council and the trade center authority board, said the study will give local officials guidance as they make long-range plans for the trade center.

“We’ve already been planning some renovations up there. We’ll be looking at this and comparing our plans to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle fall together,” he said.

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