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Kalahari hearing draws a crowd

 Kevin Gullette, the city's director of Economic Development and Tourism (foreground), listens to speakers.
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Date published: 1/16/2008


For more than three hours last night, more than 50 people told Fredericksburg's City Council what they thought about plans to offer incentives to Kalahari Resorts for its plan to build a $200 million water park hotel in Celebrate Virginia.

As of 10:15 last night, speakers had come out nearly 3-to-1 in favor of the project, but several voiced strong opposition.

Several speakers referred to past events that paved the way for the Kalahari project.

Former Mayor Bill Greenup and former Councilman Harold Bannister said they thought past councils showed great foresight in annexing the city land to the west of Interstate 95 and rezoning the land for Celebrate Virginia.

But Kitty Farley, who spent hours sitting in the public hearing back in 1998 that preceded the council's controversial vote for the rezoning for Celebrate Virginia, said she feels the Kalahari decision could be as detrimental to the city as she thinks that decision was.

Like several other speakers, she asked council members to slow down, and to wait until they receive and analyze the results of an outside consultant's study of the project's impact before they approve anything.

"It feels like dejà vu all over again," Farley said, referring back to the 1998 vote on Celebrate Virginia. "Please don't repeat the past mistakes of City Councils by rushing this decision."

Many speakers brought up concerns that have been voiced throughout this debate--whether there's enough water for a giant water park and how much traffic the project will bring.

City officials have said they have the capacity to meet Kalahari's water needs, and that the traffic impact won't hit at rush hour.

Other speakers questioned the sustainability of the water park business. As the city is watching revenues from Central Park, once its prized cash cow, dwindle, several residents wondered what happens if water parks fall out of favor with tourists?

City resident Anne Gray Fuller asked whether the city could believe the promises that have been made that Kalahari will be the catalyst that gets Celebrate Virginia going.

"It has been called an anchor that would spur development," she said.

"I thought the conference center was supposed to do that."

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700 hotel rooms in the first phase. The second phase of the project would include an additional 200 rooms.

a 125,000-square-foot indoor water park

a 170,000-square-foot outdoor water park

100,000 square feet of conference space

hotel will also include a spa, mini golf, bowling and other family activities.

The city will waive more than $3 million in up-front fees that Kalahari would have to pay to build its project. Fees to be waived include:

water and sewer availability and connection fees

various zoning and planning fees

building permit and inspection fees

fire permit and inspection fees

The city will return 47.5 percent of the local tax revenues that Kalahari generates to the resort for 20 years. Kalahari has projected that it will generate about $6 million a year in local taxes.

Those local taxes include:

business license tax

real estate and personal property taxes

the one percent of the sales tax that is local, and not designated for education

meals tax

lodging tax

admissions tax

The city is going to sell water and sewer services to Kalahari at cost. Kalahari's rate will rise and fall as the city's cost rises and falls.

In addition to its more than $225 million initial investment, Kalahari must invest an additional $25 million in the property within the first 10 years of this 20-year agreement. That additional $25 million would translate to another 200 hotel rooms, and more water-park space. If Kalahari doesn't make this additional investment, all the incentives end after 10 years.

Steve Pine, development director for Kalahar: "We understand that people have questions. The group you have in front of you here has studied harder and done more due diligence than anybody ever has. I think, for sure, you will find us to be a good neighbor."

Conrad Warlick, chairman of the Economic Development Authority: "It will help make Fredericksburg a destination, not just an area for people going up and down 95 to drive by."

Anne Gray Fuller, Fredericksburg resident: "All the taxes in the world do not matter if there is no water available. ... Please do not sell us down the river, or what's left of it, for the almighty dollar."

Jeff Small, city business owner: "I think the golden goose has dropped the golden egg in the lap of this city. ..."

"Don't lose these guys, these guys will provide jobs. ... I'd like the council to have the money to not raise our taxes anymore."

Ed Sandtner, city resident: "If the water park and hotel complex are going to be such a great success why does the city need to subsidize it and provide a financial buffer?"

Sallie Dayger, city resident: "Kalahari is another hideous addition that Mr. Silver is imposing on this historical city."