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Expo Center plan back before commission

Mary Hinds maryhinds@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated Jul 26, 2013 at 9:59 PM

The Wilson County Commission's proposed Expo Center on the grounds of the Ward Agricultural Center is expected to see a vote on its future at the commission's Feb. 25 meeting.

Commissioner Jeff Joines said one big difference the Expo Center would make is the Fairgrounds could offer climate-controlled space for conventions. The center would be around 80,000 square feet and be large enough to handle trade shows and conventions. The building, which would be placed front and center near the main entrance to the Ag Center, would include office space, a stage and a commercial grade kitchen.

The idea of an Expo Center on the Fairgrounds seems to have widespread community support.

Wilson Bank & Trust Chief Executive Randall Clemmons thinks the center would enhance business in Lebanon and Wilson County.

"I think there is a great need for something like this in Wilson County, and the Ag Center is a great spot," Clemmons said. "The county needs a larger meeting space, and I think it will be amazing what business it will bring in as well. This is just what we need in Lebanon."

Hale Moss, president of the Wilson County Fair Board, is well known for his track record of keeping the fair the biggest and best. He said the Expo Center was just what the fair needs to take it to another level.

"It would only enhance the fair," Moss said. "It would allow us to have more commercial exhibits and move the exhibits from tents into the building out of the weather, where it would be climate controlled."

Moss an indoor space would be ideal for photo and art exhibits and the commercial grade kitchen would greatly improve culinary arts contests.

While the commission approved the idea once, the proposed Expo Center is back on the agenda.

Joines, an advocate of the project, said two thirds of the commission voted in favor of the plan late last year and sent it on to Nashville to be approved by the state legislature as a public law. But members of Wilson County's legislative delegation told the commission they prefer a private act, so the commission will again have to pass the measure by a two-thirds vote and send it back to Nashville.

With the change from public law to private act, the commission will also consider a change to the increase to the county's hotel/motel tax. Also last year, the commission passed a flat $3 tax increase for the hotel/motel tax. With the Expo Center plan becoming a private act, the county must change the rate increase to a 3-percent  increase in lieu of the flat rate.

Joines said the increase in visitors to the county should make the hotel/motel tax increase palatable.

"That's one of the the things that is a selling point," Joines said. "People who come here for a convention would be staying two or three days or up to a week. They have to have some place to stay."

The plan is for the center to make Wilson County a destination for business, civic and athletic events that the county now loses to bigger cities with bigger venues. With the Expo Center, local businesses would no longer have to look outside the county for a space large enough to hold their conventions. The goal is to lure local business events as well as others from farther away who might be considering Nashville as a convention site, according to Joines.

Joines said he expects a new center will bring a lot of people to town - people who have  to sleep, eat and buy gas while they are here.

Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto supports the plan, which would allow Wilson County to take advantage of its location - convenient to Nashville, surrounding counties and Interstate 40, making it ideal for groups in and out of the county to plan and attend events there. He also agrees the Wilson County location is perfect for people who want to host events close, but not in, Nashville.

If the commission again approves the measure, the next step is to send it back to the state legislature for approval. Pending that approval, the project would be fast tracked for construction.

Joines said as a private act, the plan will have an easier go than it would have as a public law.

If the Expo Center plan is approved in Nashville, it will once again come before the commission, where it must again pass by a two-thirds vote.

Joines said if the project is given the go-ahead, construction timing will be planned carefully so that no work is being done during the fair in August.  

The Expo Center project is separate and not related to a proposed civic center by Lebanon Mayor Philip Craighead at the Cumberland Center on the east side of the city. That plan, too, must be approved by two-thirds vote of the commission to move on to the state legislature. It's uncertain whether the Cumberland Center arena will be up for vote when the commission next meets Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. at the Wilson County Courthouse.

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