Developer pushes $1 billion resort, but some say talk is cheap

What better last name than Winters for a man who dreams of building a $1 billion indoor ski resort along I-75?

Stephen R. Winters has titillated state and county officials for more than three years with plans to bring year-round skiing to north Georgia. His latest would have visitors water skiing on Lake Allatoona's 12,010 acres in the morning, and schussing down indoor slopes overlooking the reservoir in the afternoon.

Some people who worked with Winters three years ago think it has a snowball's chance in a Georgia July of being built, but Winters is dogged. He continues attracting interest from those hoping to land the deal, including state legislators. He has said he is waiting for tourism legislation that would give the billion-dollar development tax breaks of up to $250 million. Then he will break  ground.

"The 2,000 jobs he is talking about would really help us right now," said Clarence Brown, the sole County Commissioner in Bartow County, where Winters wants to build.

But so far all Winters has produced are pictures and a proposal, Brown said.

The project will be like Ski Dubai in the Middle East, with a huge, climate controlled building with snow generated in ways similar to artificial snow on outdoor slopes. The hill Winters wants to build on already has an 800-foot drop in elevation from top to bottom.

After a brief phone interview in early June, Winters has declined to return calls or e-mails from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Winters gave Bartow leaders a slide show and talk this year, the same one he showed state legislators and local TV news crews. They were the same illustrations he showed Dawson County leaders and legislators three years ago when he proposed the project there.

"He arrived one day on the scene and made a splash like you wouldn't believe with pictures and DVDs," said Mike Berg, the chairman of the Dawson County Board of Commissioners. "At one point, I had the governor call me and ask me what I knew about this guy."

Answer: Not much.

"He had no business card. No formal address," Berg said. "He was very, very hard to get a hold of. But he was everywhere for a while."

Winters, whose last known address in Duluth is a pricey house now occupied by an elderly couple, lined up land owners willing to sell, but put no money down, according to Elora Stargel, one of the landowners. He said European and Mideastern investors were ready to finance him. When the county asked for a letter of credit to show them the money, he showed them a letter in Polish, which no one could translate.

Winters told them he was waiting for the General Assembly to pass the tax-break bill.

It passed, but Gov. Sonny Perdue vetoed it.

"[Winters] just disappeared," Berg said.

He resurfaced this year and met with state legislators to lobby again for the latest incarnation of the bill. It would have allowed tourism developments that cost at least $100 million to recoup up to 25 percent of their costs through state sales tax rebates.

State Sen. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah) guided the legislation. It was not crafted for the Winters project but for any mega project, he said.

Stephens met with Winters and a several investors, though he said he could not recall their names. But Perdue vetoed the bill gain in June, saying it set a bad precedent.

Winters said in the brief phone interview with the AJC in early June that the bill was Georgia's third and final swing.

"We have several other states that already have (similar legislation) in place and have contacted me," he said. "I would like for Georgia to be first, but it won't happen if the governor doesn't sign the bill. It's time to fish or cut bait."

Since then, he's apparently changed his mind.

Winters called Bartow Commissioner Brown after the veto to say he will wait for Georgia's new governor in 2011 and try again.

Winters did not respond to a newspaper request to provide a list of completed development projects. Those came through a secondary source.

Tom Harrold, a former state deputy revenue commissioner and attorney who specializes in international business, has lobbied for the bill with Winters. Harrold shared a list of 24 older shopping centers Winters was involved in, none in Georgia. The level of Winters' involvement in their construction could not be ascertained by the newspaper. The list includes strip centers built with a Super KMart or Food Lion as the anchor.

Harrold said he has no background on Winters, but the developer got him a private tour of Ski Dubai in the Mideast with a phone call more than three years ago.

Harrold has met architects and other vendors Winters' lined up for the Georgia resort.

The newspaper contacted the vendors listed on Winters' Web site through e-mail. One responded, Baker Leisure Group, run by a former Disney exeuctive.

"Steve Baker told me that Mr. Winters has advised us that we are not permitted to speak to the press regarding his project," read an e-mail from Baker's assistant.

And Winters himself is hard to track down.

Searches of databases of information showed Winters involved in the 1980s in Florida development firms that no longer exist.

The post office box that he lists as an address is the same one he listed when proposing the project in Dawson County, and it is the same one listed when Winters filed for personal bankruptcy 17 years ago in Georgia. A search of county databases in metro Atlanta showed no home address for Winters.

Georgia business records say he had interests in telecommunications in the last decade, including a collaborative effort with the Associated Press to send news and information by cellphone. The physical address in north Fulton County he lists for one company, no longer incorporated, is the same as SRW International, his corporation behind the resort. That building is empty.

Jeff Lewis, the former Bartow County legislator who sponsored the first tourism tax-break bill, met with Winters. He said he realizes the size of the project in these economic times would give anyone pause to consider how serious Winters is.

"I don't know how deep his pockets are. But this is his third year pushing this. Someone who is not serious would not keep pushing this," he said.

One way to find out, Bartow Commissioner Brown said, is to pass the tax break legislation. "This legislation would call his hand."