(Updated) Cullman Chamber officially closes door on lodging tax for CCBOE projects after superintendent withdraws request

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Cullman County Schools Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette announces Project X in March. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors on Tuesday voted to rescind its previous commitment of the lodging tax to the Cullman County Board of Education (CCBOE) for projects including the sports complex development known early on as “Project X.”  The move was, however, mostly a formality for Chamber record-keeping, as CCBOE Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette had already submitted a letter to the Board back in April, withdrawing his request for the money.

Barnette told The Tribune Wednesday, June 19 that highly-publicized conflicts between the City of Cullman and the Chamber over the lodging tax led him to remove CCBOE from the equation.

Said Barnette, “I knew there were issues between the City of Cullman and the Chamber of Commerce, and I know the City of Cullman did not agree with how the Chamber of Commerce were allocating that lodging tax, so I just sent them a letter and withdrew my request for their tax money.  And I guess just now they kind of acted on that letter, but that’s nothing new and it’s not like they’re taking anything from me, because I already told them two months ago that I didn’t want their money.”

On Wednesday, Chamber Chair Dr. T.J. Franey acknowledged that Barnette had withdrawn the CCBOE request in April, and told The Tribune that the Board of Directors is working on developing new allocation policies for future uses of the lodging tax.

On March 19, 2019 Barnette announced that Project X would be a $30 million sports complex to be built on the north side of the retail corridor along Alabama Highway 157 on Cullman’s north side.  At the same event, Barnette announced that the Chamber had committed 2% of the lodging tax to the project (to go along with the monies from the recently imposed half-cent sales tax approved by the Cullman County Commission). According to Chamber President Leah Bolin at the time, the decision to support the project was made by vote of the Chamber Board.

Project X began stirring controversy almost immediately.

In April, the Cullman Hospitality Association denounced the Chamber’s lodging tax reallocation, and asked the Cullman City Council to separate the lodging tax and Cullman Tourism Board from the Chamber.  Wallace State Community College and Cullman City Schools withdrew their membership from the Chamber over the issue.  Around the same time, the Cullman County Commission rescinded a half-cent sales tax it had approved in March to support the CCBOE’s projects.

Could development still happen at the “Project X” site?  Maybe later.

Barnette told The Tribune, “Roy Drinkard assured me the last time I talked to him- which was a few weeks ago- that if we decide to move forward or when we decide to move forward, that land is still there and it’s available for us to use.

“We have many local school projects to do before we ever look at doing a big sports or arts complex, and that’s the way it was to begin with until it was blown out of proportion.”

Announced plans for the lodging tax revenue and half-cent county sales tax included substantial improvements to campus security at all county schools, along with numerous facility upgrades.  

Barnette said at the time, “These needs will include, but are not limited to, asphalting, replacing some old buildings, fencing, updating and expanding some lunchrooms, updating HVAC, replacing and adding awnings where needed, and work toward providing more opportunities for our students through career tech and STEM.”

When the County Commission approved the sales tax, Commissioner Garry Marchman told The Tribune, “When we went into this, we knew the Project X was something they wanted to do with a portion of the tax, but that’s not necessarily what sold me on the half-cent tax. What sold me on the tax was the fact that it was going to help with the security.”

In his conversation with The Tribune Wednesday, Barnette concluded, “We’ve got many things to do on our local campuses before we ever do a big complex like that, and, right now, we can’t even do all those local projects because the half-cent sales tax has been rescinded.  So, right now, we don’t have the money to do the big project or all the other ones that we need to do on our local campuses right now, but we’re working on it.”

Statement sent to multiple media outlets Wednesday by Franey

The Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors at its monthly meeting Tuesday, June 18, 2019 passed a motion to rescind the Chamber’s action of March 19, 2019 concerning the lodgings tax. Further, any and all prior commitments associated with the lodgings tax, if any, are null and void, and the board is under no obligation to any projects beyond its current commitment to the 222 exchange.

(Cullman County Schools Superintendent) Dr. Shane Barnette had previously submitted a letter informing the Chamber board that Cullman County Schools was turning down the percentage of the lodgings tax previously pledged by the Chamber.

The Chamber board is in the process of establishing new procedures to determine future allocations of the lodgings tax.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com