|By Roger Croteau, San Antonio Express-News|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 19, 2004 - SAN MARCOS -- It has not escalated in volume or divisiveness to the level of San Antonio's debate over the PGA Village proposal, but many of the same issues are being hashed out over a plan to build a major hotel and conference center here.
Like the PGA Village, the site is environmentally sensitive and millions of dollars of public money would be at stake. And like the PGA Village, backers promise the Gateway to the Hill Country Resort development would be an economic boon for the area.
But unlike the PGA Village, no organized opposition has stepped forward.
Instead, environmentalists are taking a wait-and-see approach, and a community group is simply calling for a public referendum on whether the city should issue debt to help build the project. But it's not opposing the project itself.
The proposal calls for Missouri hotel developer John Q. Hammons to build a 275-room, $40 million Renaissance Hotel on a hill overlooking Spring Lake, the source of the San Marcos River and home to several endangered species.
In turn, the city would build a $15 million conference center that could accommodate 3,000 people and would be managed by Hammons. The city also would spend about $9 million on water, wastewater and reclaimed water lines to serve the site.
Plans also call for a championship golf course and about 300 high-end homes on about 450 adjacent acres, partly over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
The details are still being negotiated between Hammons and the city. The City Council has not decided how to finance its share.
Because certificates of obligation -- which the city could issue without calling an election -- are an option, a grass-roots group has started collecting petition signatures to force a referendum that would bar the city from issuing the debt without public approval.
About 1,300 signatures are needed, and the group, Vote San Marcos, already has collected about 200.
"The purpose of this is not to defeat the conference center," said group member Hillary Huddleston. "It is to send a message that we do want a say."
The San Marcos River Foundation also is holding back on taking a stand.
"We don't have any real plans to look at yet, so we can't calculate impervious cover or sediment loads," said River Foundation Executive Director Diane Wassenich. "The River Foundation does not go off half-cocked."
Wassenich added the group trusts the City Council to be a good steward of the river.
"We certainly don't always agree with them, but I think they listen to us," she said.
The city hired an engineering company last week to conduct a $43,000 study on how the development would affect water quality and endangered species.
Wassenich said the River Foundation may hire its own engineer to review the results.
Though the organized groups have held back from judging the Gateway to the Hill Country Resort project, many local residents have made up their minds.
"I don't want to pay taxes for something I won't use," said Forrest Fulkerson, who signed the petition.
Huddleston said some petition signers just want to see the public have a voice and that others have said they don't want to see the project built.
"The city leaders keep talking about how much support this project has in the community, but I have not seen evidence of that," she said.
Opponents argue the project would hurt the aquifer and the pristine San Marcos River, as well as the town's character. They also argue it would bring unwanted traffic and would burden taxpayers with the debt if the project fails.
Project backers make arguments similar to those who backed the PGA Village.
They note Hammons has a good reputation for quality developments and has the money to protect the fragile aquifer and springs.
Hundreds of homes could be built on the site, creating a larger threat to the springs if the hotel project is stopped, said Dan Rogers, director of the Greater San Marcos Economic Development Council.
Rogers also said the project could help revitalize the nearby downtown business district and would provide hundreds of jobs.
If the city does issue debt to build its portion of the project, city leaders have discussed using a combination of hotel room taxes, tax increment financing, contributions from Hammons, and sales taxes generated by the development to make the debt payments.
Construction could begin in March for a 2006 opening.
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