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TN taxpayers may pay for two convention buildings only miles apart

By   /   November 27, 2013  /   No Comments

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE —  Does it make sense for Wilson County taxpayers to pay $9 million for an arena seating 2,500 people, while taxpayers in the county seat of Lebanon pay $40 million for a similar building seating 5,000?

Are two buildings really needed?

The county, while outside Nashville, has 118,000 residents, according to the most recent government census, and is not considered a major metropolitan area.  

County taxpayers, through a hotel-motel tax, might fund what officials are calling the Wilson County Ag Expo Center, at the county fairgrounds, described as a venue for trade shows and conventions.

Lebanon taxpayers, meanwhile, might pay for what officials are calling the Cumberland Center, which would hold concerts, trade shows, sports and religious events, said Mayor Phillip Craighead.

Lebanon Mayor Phillip Craighead

Lebanon Mayor Phillip Craighead

“There’s a concern of those two being roughly one and the same in terms of venues and what they are trying to attract,” Wilson County Commissioner Clint Thomas told Tennessee Watchdog.

“It may be different if we were in Atlanta, Boston or New York and had more traffic and needed this amount of expo space. They will be in competition for most of the same type of events.”

Wilson County Commissioner Jeff Joines, a strong advocate for the proposed Ag Expo Center, said the building would differ completely from the Cumberland Center, claiming both would serve different clientele. The Ag Expo Center, unlike the Cumberland Center, would serve rodeo and agricultural interests, according to county officials.

Joines also said county taxpayers need not worry. The burden for funding the Ag Expo Center falls entirely on tourists through a hotel-motel tax. If approved, the tax could climb to 20 percent.

Craighead, meanwhile, said the proposed Cumberland Center could generate 3,800 jobs in his city.

If both venues will have such great payoffs, then why, Tennessee Watchdog wanted to know, are taxpayers, and not private businesses, asked to carry the financial load?

“Private companies are only there to make a profit. But we’re a little bit different,” Joines said. “We’re able to generate funds through a sales tax, a hotel-motel tax, gas tax, all that stuff that the government can get that a private organization can’t.

“The more sales tax we can generate for the county the better we are. A government can make money in a whole lot of other ways than a private organization can,” Joines said.

Craighead would only say that the land for the Cumberland Center, valued at $16 million, came from a private developer’s donation.

Thomas, meanwhile, said he’s concerned about the proposed 3-percentage point increase in the hotel-motel tax, making it almost 20 percent.

“It would make the tax one of the highest in the nation, which, to me, makes no sense, and would quell growth,” Thomas said.

Thomas also said he’s concerned about how much taxpayers might have to pay to maintain the building.

“There are other areas like this that have similar venues. It’s not uncommon to find that some of these venues run a negative operation cost,” he said.

He’s also worried that people using the Ag Center will come from nearby localities and won’t use hotels or motels in the area.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org. or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.

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Chris Butler is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org based in Nashville. Contact him at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org and follow him on Facebook at "Chris-Butler-WriterJournalist" or on Twitter at cdbutler1204.

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