By PATRICK HALL
The Wilson Post
Citizens spoke at length during Tuesday nights Lebanon City Council meeting regarding the proposed Cumberland Center and events center, showing both opposition and support for the project, but in the end, the council chose to err on the side of caution with many questions unanswered.
In October, Lebanon Mayor Philip Craighead announced plans to establish an entertainment district, dubbed the Cumberland Center, along Highway 231 South and Interstate 40 with 1 million square feet of retail space, in addition to office space and hotels. The center would later include a 4,500 seat events center and 15,000 square foot convention center.
A resolution to ask the Tennessee General Assembly for certain amendments to state law allowing for the creation of an entertainment district and the events center was put on hold and deferred until after a work session could be scheduled.
Derek Dodson voiced his opposition during the citizens comments time and said he felt Craighead was misinforming and misleading the public and the council about the facts of the entertainment district and companies involved in its development.
Dodson called the whole endeavor a complete charade and said the taxpayers will wind up on the hook because he felt the planned events center would not turn a profit and pointed to many other cities where that has been the case.
He criticized what he called Craigheads lack of due diligence on the issue and said the mayor had not brought an independent bond expert or bank president to speak to the council about the financing plan. He also said the only revenue projections given were done by Global Entertainment Corporation, the company Craighead is partnering with to build the arena.
"Youve had no independent feasibility study for this, Dodson said.
He also criticized the lack of public meetings on the matter to allow for citizens to voice their opinions and have questions answered. Dodson said the project is a continuation of the Bible Park endeavor that he opposed in 2008-09 and said the same group of people is trying to push this new idea on the citizens of Lebanon.
I could stand up here all night and rip this to shreds, its not hard to do, Dodson said.
Dave Kirkey also said he would like to see more public meetings held about the entertainment district project and also wondered if the mayor had spoken with the right people and obtained proper information about the projects feasibility.
I dont know if theres been a lot of due diligence done with the right people, Kirkey said.
He called the idea of a seven-member Authority Board dangerous and said the council and Wilson County Commission would lose their oversight ability. The board would secure bonds to fund the events center after the larger retail project brings in sales and property tax revenue. They would also make decisions on how the entertainment district development moves forward and would be responsible for hiring a managing company for the events center.
If the city is responsible, the taxpayers are responsible and portraying this as the city not being responsible is just wrong, Kirkey said.
Craighead pointed out the resolution on the councils agenda asked the state legislature to amend the definition of a qualified public use facility to include the proposed events center, as well as capturing state and local sales tax generated within the district to further fund the projects development.
Right now were looking at the idea of establishing the board, Craighead said. What were doing here is putting the building blocks in place instead of waiting 15 to 20 years.
Country music singer and Mt. Juliet resident Tracy Lawrence also spoke at the meeting, but offered his support for the district and said it gives Lebanon a chance to grow and prosper.
You cant tell me people wont come here to a venue like this, Lawrence said.
He pointed out Mt. Juliet was a small town when he moved there in the 1990s but once Providence was developed, the city has grown exponentially. He said Lebanon has the opportunity to grow in the same way with the entertainment district.
Lawrence also said people will come to Lebanon to shop and attend events at the center and pointed to the Wilson County Fair, which is one of the largest in the country, and said attendance there shows people will come from all around to the center.
Joselyn Conrad also spoke and said she hopes everyone, citizens, council and county commission can work together to get the district established and the events center built. Also, Beulah Garrett said she hopes the entertainment district will come to fruition, pointing out it will benefit Lebanons future.
When the council addressed the topic several councilors said they liked the idea, but cautioned about moving ahead too quickly. Ward 1 Councilor Alex Buhler said he would like to hold a work session and listen to a bond expert about the financing mechanism.
I think everybody would like to see (the entertainment district), but I want more information, Buhler said. He asked what the city will do if the center does not make money as is planned and said there are too many unknowns to move ahead at this point in time.
Ward 3 Councilor Rob Cesternino said he is in favor of the city growing and continuing to improve developments but also pointed out he cannot support anything that leaves the city with open-ended risk.
We need to go as slow as the slowest member of the council is comfortable with, Cesternino said. We cant do enough due diligence.
Cesternino also said hes noticed one thing the council and city continues to fall short on is getting information out to the citizens of Lebanon. He said the citys website needs to be improved and information about the district and other projects needs to be available for people to see at their convenience.
Other members of the council said they will only be able to move forward with the project if the county commission is committed. Ward 6 Councilor Kathy Warmath said the two governments as well as the citizens have to all work together if the entertainment district is to be a success.
If the county cant lock arms with us and do this, the city cant go it alone, she said.
Ward 5 Councilor Haywood Barry said the council is the only body that can decide what risk the City of Lebanon will take in developing the Cumberland Center. He and Warmath still had questions about the way the project is to move forward.
The way it is framed now, it leaves quite a many questions, Warmath said.
The council unanimously deferred the resolution and is planning to set a work session to discuss the district and have third party information gathered to be presented at that time.
Staff Writer Patrick Hall may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.