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City event center pitch to make return

Jared Felkins jfelkins@lebanondemocrat.com • Dec 15, 2015 at 1:47 PM

Persistence is said to pay off, or so Mayor Phillip Craighead is hoping. After two attempts already, the mayor went back to the drawing board for what he believes could be one of the biggest investments and amenities in Lebanon's long history.

Craighead said Thursday in an interview with The Democrat, the third time will be the charm.

Craighead said he would unveil his latest plans to build the development at the Lebanon City Council meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Town Meeting Hall. He said the new plans are much more simple and do not require approval from the state General Assembly.

“I didn't feel like we had the time to wait another year,” Craighead said. “What I've been doing is trying to figure out a way to rework it. The interesting thing is that it was right under my nose.”

The proposed site for the Cumberland Center is off Cumberland Street at Interstate 40 exit 238. The development attracted Logan’s Roadhouse and the Boot Barn, respectively, within the past year.

When the plan was first pitched in 2011, it was to be a more than 700-acre entertainment district, featuring office space, retail stores and restaurants, as well as a $40 million, 150,000-square-foot event center with two ice rinks, one of which would be the home ice for a Central Hockey League franchise.

Though the planned amenities haven’t changed much, except to add potentially a higher-end motel, the area itself has decreased to 257 acres in the latest plans. Plans also call for a road that connects Legends Drive with Briskine Lane to be built that would dissect the property.  

“Last year it was 300 acres and now it's 257 acres. We've kind of simplified everything,” Craighead said. “All we are looking at is capturing the new increased value to go into the fund. We haven't spent a dime out there. Everything that's been done out there for the Boot Barn and Logan's has been private money.”

Developers J.D. Eatherley and Bobby Capers’ Vastland Realty Group of Nashville owns the property. Craighead said Vastland has committed to donate a minimum of 20 acres in the center of the district for the event center and parking. Craighead said that donation is worth between $6 million-$8 million based on property value when Logan’s and the Boot Barn were developed. 

During the last go-around, Craighead’s former plans included changes in state law to create the funding mechanism and government board to oversee the event center plans and construction. He said the new plan “right under his nose” includes a multi-agency board that would serve as overseer of the project, and it’s already in place.

“When the Lebanon Outlet Mall was established, there was an inter-local agreement to develop it,” Craighead said. “It's now one of the biggest revenue generators in our county. Created through legislation to help economic investment. Later, it did the Maddox-Simpson Parkway. This board that we are going to be using is something that has already been very productive to the city and county. It's using something that's already being used.”

Called the Lebanon-Wilson County Development Board, it consists currently of Craighead, Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto, Commissioner Paul Abercrombie, Commissioner Bernie Ash, Councilor Rob Cesternino and Councilor Joe Hayes.

“It's all inter-local agreements, and we don't have to go to Nashville to get it approved,” Craighead said. “It generates local tourism dollars that we wouldn't otherwise have.” 

The plan to fund the event center itself, however, hasn’t changed much. Craighead said any money collected from sales and property taxes within the 257-acre area would go to a community development fund to finance a bond to build it.

Craighead said conservative projections would allow event center construction to begin in early 2017 and last about a year.

“All I'm looking for basically is the savings account to be set up to make it happen,” Craighead said.

He said a portion of the tax money collected within the area, as well as anywhere in the city or county is earmarked for local schools. But he said he’s pitching plans to allow Wilson County schools to forego that money in exchange for two board members to join the development board, along with preferential access to use of the event center when it’s built.

“For that, I am looking at this being an extension of our schools,” Craighead.

Craighead said Lebanon Special School District would get the same offer, otherwise the tax money designated to go to the schools would be funneled there as normal and per state law.

But Craighead said the schools, if they agree, would get free access to the center for graduation ceremonies, proms, ice times for hockey, in-service training, etc. For five nights out of the year, the arena would be available to schools, and school organizations, like band or sports boosters, would get priority to use concession stands for fundraising.

“My main goal is that it's an extension of our school system,” Craighead said. “What other place do you have four high schools less than 10 years old? This will attract new businesses and create revenue, jobs and tourism in our city.”

Craighead said $10 million would be the most allowed in the development fund, and any leftover money would be split accordingly among the city, county and schools.

“This board would basically be the ones who decide what happens at what levels,” Craighead said. “Once the event center is paid off, the board has the authority to release all or part of the committed revenues. 

Craighead said he’s hoping to get the ordinance passed Tuesday, and have it up for final reading at the council’s first meeting in December. If that happens, he said it would be on the Wilson County Commission’s agenda for vote at its December meeting.

Craighead said Hutto has pledged his support for the plan, and it even bears his name.

If both the council and commission approve it, the Wilson County Board of Education would get a chance to review and vote on it.

“Whether the school board joins in or not, I want to at least get most of the foundation in place,” Craighead said.

And Craighead said a two-thirds majority vote isn’t necessary to pass since it doesn’t have to be sent to the legislature for approval.

“I've been talking to the council individually for quite a while on this,” Craighead said. “The only one I haven't talked to is [Councilor] Kathy [Warmath], but I've been trying to get with her.

“I'm 110 percent behind this. This will give Lebanon and Wilson County a whole new identity.”

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