Wilson County officials back an ambitious plan to build a new, state-of-the-art Expo Center on the grounds of the Ward Agricultural Center.
"What we're trying to do at the Ag Center is increase the ability to get more folks to use it," said Commissioner Jeff Joines, an advocate of the project. "Now there is not enough climate-controlled space for conventions there."
Joines said the proposed center would be around 80,000 square feed and 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. He said the center would make Wilson County a viable choice for business, civic and athletic events the county cannot accommodate now.
"Now there is no place in Wilson County for conventions or for large businesses to hold events," Joines said.
He said local big businesses, such as Cracker Barrel and Wilson Bank & Trust, have to look outside the county for a space large enough to meet. The goal is to lure locals and businesses and events from much farther afield, which would result in more business for everyone.
"The center would generate a lot more revenue because people coming to it would have to sleep, eat and buy gas while they are here," Joines said.
He has just returned from Texas where he attempted to lure the National High School Rodeo Finals to Wilson County. He said the event was held in recent years in Gallatin, N.M., where it had a $6 million impact on that community. He said the competition for the rodeo event was stiff.
"Eight cities were competing, and we're in the final two," Joines said. "This event has never been held east of the Mississippi. If we could get something like this here, every hotel room in Wilson County would be full with the 100,000 folks who would attend. The center would offer the event 4,000 square feet of climate-controlled space for the accompanying trade shows."
He also said being close to Nashville but removed from its sprawl and traffic would make a convention center here a big draw. Visitors could take time from their event to make a quick trip to Music City to see its renowned sites without staying there. Joines even hopes to get a railway stop near the fairgrounds to make that easier for Expo Center visitors.
"Yesterday in Texas, us being near Nashville was a big draw," he said.
Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto backs the plan.
"I think anything we can do to create a better standard of living for our citizens is a plus," he said. "It would also increase sales tax revenue, which would allow us to lighten the tax burden on property owners."
Hutto agreed Wilson County's location, convenient to Nashville, surrounding counties and Interstate-40, makes it ideal for groups in and out of the county to plan and attend events. He also agrees the Wilson County location is perfect for people who want to play host to events close, but not in, Nashville.
"We do have a very central location," he said. "We want to have 12 signature events, one for each month, that we can advertise in surrounding counties, and our Ag Center is a diamond that is located not only in the middle of the county, but also inside the city of Lebanon."
As with any project of this scope and size, the first question is who is going to pay for it. Joines said the answer is not Wilson County taxpayers. He said the Wilson County Commission passed an addition to the county's hotel/motel tax that would be used solely to design, build and maintain the center and for nothing else. Joines also said the increase in the hotel/motel tax should be palatable to innkeepers because the center has the potential to increase their business by a great deal.
With the commission's approval of the measure, the next step is to send it to the state legislature for approval. Pending that approval, the project would be fast tracked for construction. The next question is how the project could impact the event for which the fairgrounds are famous, the Wilson County Fair.
"Construction would begin right after the fair ends and be completed right before the fair begins the next year," Joines said. "It will only benefit the fair, and the fair could use the building instead of all the tents they erect every year."
Joines doesn't see the proposed Expo Center as competing with a similar facility planned for the city of Lebanon.
"I think they will complement one another," Joines said. "The city's project is tied to the hotel that will be right beside it and will be used to hold concerts and even a minor league hockey team."
Now it just remains to be seen if the state legislature will approve the plan. Joines said that now it depends on the efforts of Wilson County's representatives in Nashville - Rep. Mark Pody, Rep. Susan Lynn and State Sen. Mae Beavers.
"If we get it, it's because of them; if we don't get it, it's because of them," he said.
If the project gains state approval, it could mean big changes in not only the Ag Center, but for the entire physical and business landscape of the county.
"This would take the Ag Center to the next level," Joines said.