Saturday September 23rd, 2017 12:20PM

Helen City Commission weighs benefits, challenges of SoWo

By Rob Moore Reporter
  Contact Editor
HELEN - At a heated Helen City Commission meeting Tuesday morning, one question took center state: Do the benefits of Southern Worthersee (SoWo) outweigh the challenges for Helen?

Styled after the Worthersee Tour in Reifnitz, Austria (the largest gathering of Volkswagen and Audi enthusiasts in the world), SoWo brought in a reported 13,000-plus people to the city May 17-19.

Held annually in Helen, "Southern Worthersee" is the largest Volkswagen and Audi three-day car show on the east coast. SoWo's inspiration for the show is to bring together cars and fans of these beloved makes in an authentic European atmosphere.

Chris Cooley addressed the commission about the event, and discussed was SoWo's future in the city.

Commissioner Dona K. Burke told Cooley the city wants SoWo to return.

"We want you back, but we've just got some things we've got to talk about," Burke said.

Commissioner Jeff Ash said he believes SoWo and the city can work together to find common ground, but that safety of those in town is paramount.

"We want SoWo," Ash said. "We've just got to figure out how to dice up the dollars."

"SoWo is good for this town, it's good for the county," Ash said. "That's never been a question."

During the discussion, Helen Police Chief Jim Couch pointed out he only has nine full-time and two part-time officers, and that they all can't work 24 hours a day throughout the event.

Ash told Cooley it would cost about $250 per officer to bring the police force to 20 for the event, a number city officials say they think would make things safer.

Ash suggested SoWo add $5 to their participation charge for show cars, with that money given to the city to help provide additional police protection for the crowd.

Ash compared SoWo to a University of Georgia home football game, saying there are 100,000 ticketholders on gameday, with 150,000 non-ticketholders who "have the big time drinking and raising hell. That's what we don't want to see."

Cooley took issue with SoWo ponying up any more money to the city to hold the event, pointing to the benefits of the 13,000 people on the city's economy.

"As far as our bringing in people and dollars, we have more than met that - and we have met it to a high standard," Cooley said.

"We are not participating in any more cost - at all!," Cooley said. "We have yet to generate any revenue for ourselves after seven years. Now we have to raise $10,000 to pay rent for property we have used for the past four years. Our revenue, whatever it is, is soaked up."

Cooley stressed that stance is not going to change.

"We have no more money to give, and we're not going to raise any more money," Cooley said.

Following lengthy discussion, Mayor Lynn Whitener said the commission was going to have to bring the discussion to a close. Before doing so, however, he asked to hear from those in the audience - both positives and negatives associated with the SoWo event.

One restaurant/bar owner said he had to hire 20 extra staff members for the Friday night of SoWo and 10 more for Saturday.

"Somewhere we've lost the meaning of 'the cost of doing business,'" the restauranteur said.

Helen Chamber of Commerce officials took issue with Cooley and his partner saying SoWo pays its way, noting the chamber still hasn't been paid for use of the Festhalle during the event.

Cooley said that was not SoWo's obligation, but chamber President Tim Bramlett disputed that claim.

After some heated back-and-forth discussion, Cooley's partner said, "We'll write you a check today."

City officials agreed to discuss the issue further, recommending again that Cooley work with Couch and City Manager Jerry Elkins.

Ash said he would be prepared act upon a recommendation by the two, once they reach one.

When Whitner told those who were there just for the SoWo issue they could leave, at least 20 people exited the commission chambers.

The SoWo organizers are planning a smaller BMW event in Helen on Sept. 7-8, and were asked to get their paperwork turned in to city officials by Friday morning.
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