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Council supports step toward Cumberland Center arena

Mary Hinds maryhinds@lebanondemocrat.com • Dec 15, 2015 at 1:52 PM

The plan to create an entertainment district in the city, the so-called Cumberland Center complete with arena, took a step forward Tuesday when the Lebanon City Council voted in favor of a resolution to request certain state law changes, despite word from local legislators saying the proposed changes to state law would not fly.  

The issue got off to a rousing start with several speakers expressing opposition to the plan, one of whom forcibly was escorted out of the meeting by police Chief Scott Bowen at the request of Mayor Philip Craighead.

Craighead's opponent in the last mayoral election, Bob O'Brien, was the first speaker to oppose the plan. He said the state legislature should not be deciding what is best for the city and county.

"These decisions should be made locally first," he said, adding there was a lot of potential embarrassment if the measure doesn't pass in Nashville.

Dave Kirkey said Craighead had indicated during last year's election campaign the project would not cost taxpayers any money.

"That is completely false," Kirkey said. "There would be at least $30 million in public funds in the project."

Kirkey said usually tax dollars raised from a project go into the general funds for all city and county residents' needs, but the tax revenues generated within the proposed Cumberland Center entertainment district would only be put back into the arena.

"This is not a free arena," he said, adding comparing it to Providence Marketplace in Mt. Juliet was a non-starter.

"The tax revenues from Providence go to Mt. Juliet, Wilson County and to the state for the good of all," Kirkey said, adding any center should be set up the same way. "Let them be like Providence. Why does the city have to be involved in private business?"

Craighead said he realized the project would not be free for taxpayers, but the money would "not be going to a developer."

Then the mayor's longtime opponent Derek Dodson took the microphone. Dodson has criticized Craighead during council meetings and in letters to local papers. Tuesday was no exception.

He began by accusing Craighead of having a "conflict of interest" in the Cumberland Center, adding there were no public meetings on the subject.

"It gives the impression you have something to hide," Dodson said. "Basically, you've made these plans with no scrutiny from professionals."

At that point, Dodson began a rambling speech that included references to several past office holders, the defunct plan for a "Bible Land" theme park and a Penthouse photographer. When he began to question Craighead's business dealings over refinancing his own property, Craighead evidently found his comments abusive and called for Bowen to remove Dodson from the room.

"You're in trouble now," Craighead told Dodson. "Scottie, escort him from the room."

Dodson attempted to defy Bowen as the chief tried to pull him from the room, shouts were heard all around.

"Derek, you're not going to start shouting," Bowen said, adding as the struggle escalated with Dodson digging in his heels, "You're done! Out! Out!"

With Dodson successfully ousted from the proceedings, Craighead then apologized to the audience for the disturbance.

"I pride myself on what I believe and how I do my business," he said.

All of this before the the council even entertained the motion to send a resolution to the legislature to request the state law changes needed for the arena to proceed.

Eventually, the council did take up the matter. Councilor Kathy Warmath warned the council she spoke with state Rep. Mark Pody, and she didn't think the proposal to request changes at the state level were going to work.

"Pody said the bill has to be a private act," Warmath said. "All the stakeholders have to come to the table. He said it's not in its proper form for the people who will actually have to carry it up to the Capitol."

Craighead said it was time to move forward with the project.

"It's time we try to do something to move it forward," he said. "It could be five, or eight or 10 years out, but if we don't move, we'll never get there."

Undaunted, the council moved to vote on the request to state lawmakers.

Warmath voted "no" while two other councilors expressed reservations.

"I read in the paper that our representatives said there was no way to get it through," said Councilor Fred Burton. "I think we should ask our representatives to come and tell us what they need in it."

Despite his misgivings, Burton voted "yes" as did the rest of the council, with the exception of Lanny Jewell, who opted to pass. With a final vote of 4-1, the measure passed to a hearty eye roll from Warmath.

State Sen. Mae Beavers indicated after the meeting the entire procedure may have been an exercise in futility since the measure also have to be passed by the Wilson County Commission by Feb. 14, the deadline for introduction of new bills in the state legislature - the commission doesn't meet until Feb. 18. Beavers said another potential issue is with a recent rule change that only allows lawmakers nine bills sponsored per session. She said she already has nine bills on her agenda.

The commission must also approve the resolution by 2/3-majority vote before it can be sent to local lawmakers.

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