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Residents question Cumberland donation

Xavier Smith • Apr 10, 2018 at 7:56 PM

Residents raised questions aimed at the Lebanon City Council’s approval of a donation to Cumberland University on first reading during last week’s council meeting.
The group initially agreed to donate $850,000 to the university for a development that would feature about 70 units student housing and retail space, dubbed Cumberland Corner, despite hesitance from some city leaders. The council has a second vote planned for April 17 before it’s either approved or denied.

Lebanon City Council action

The council approved the donation, although Councilor Fred Burton, who abstained in voting, and Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash voiced concerns about different aspects of the move.

Burton voiced concerns about the city’s legal ability to donate the funds, while Ash raised concerns about the amount of the donation, which he said is about four times the city’s donation budget.

Since the vote, local residents voiced concerns about the donation and believe public funds should not be given to a private institute that doesn’t pay property taxes to the city.

The council originally intended to buy and donate nine pieces of property on South Greenwood Avenue, between Leeville Pike and Martin Avenue, to Cumberland University. However, Ash said the Municipal Technical Advisory Service opined the move was not legal.

Following that, Councilor Rob Cesternino sponsored the resolution to donate $850,000 to Cumberland University to buy the properties. If Cumberland fails to finish construction of Cumberland Corner within 48 months of the donation, it would be required to return the donation to the city.

Burton’s hesitation centered on the state’s comptroller’s office review of the measure, which was not available during the first reading. Lebanon Finance Director Stuart Lawson said the office should have an opinion prior to the second reading, which is expected to take place April 17.

Cesternino said he disagreed with the MTAS opinion on the donation and noted the city’s charter gives the group the authority to donate to nonprofits and educational institutions.

“Cumberland fits both. I know we’re waiting on an opinion from the comptroller, but again, I don’t think there’s going to be a problem, and if there is then there’s a lot of money we’re going to have to claw back, because we give money routinely. I don’t think that the amount is relevant,” Cesternino said.

The council previously donated more than $40,000 to Empower Me and $50,000 to Cedar Seniors Center, along with other organizations.

Lawson said the funds would come from the city’s general fund, which currently has about $17 million. The fund is used to run all city departments except water and sewer, gas, storm water and the Jimmy Floyd Family Center.

Residents oppose council donation

Several residents voiced their concerns and opposition to the plans, especially on social media, where a Facebook group called Lebanon Taxpayers United prompted residents to speak out against the move.

The confidential group’s main argument against the donation is the funds could be used in other areas throughout Lebanon.

“I feel that the city gifting $850,000 is not a wise thing to do,” Lebanon dentist Chad Williams, who also serves on the Lebanon Planning Commission, told The Democrat. “It is a gift that will benefit few at the expense of many. I would suggest that it be given as a low-interest loan to be paid back over 10-15 years. I would also suggest that Cumberland fundraise to get the money for the project they desire. It is not Joe Q. Taxpayer's responsibility to help any entity develop a parcel of land to the great benefit to that entity.”

“The development has been in discussion for years, and a private investor hasn’t made it happen because the numbers don’t work,” said local developer John Blackwell, who said he believed the city has enough apartments to accommodate Cumberland students.

“The biggest mistake some investors make is the idea of ‘build it, and they will come.’ It’s not always true. I don’t blame Cumberland for wanting to get land next to their campus, but I don’t think the traffic count is there for retail to work.”

Donation versus investment

Cesternino also said the $850,000 donation was more of an “investment” since the city would likely see a return on its investment with the donation. Cumberland University currently has 2,314 students who enrolled in the fall, with 955 of those students or 41 percent from Wilson County.

“It is an investment. We’re going to have over 200 students that bring their families,” Cesternino said. “We’re going to get gas. We’re going to get power. We’re going to get water. We’re going to get sewer. We’re going to the census numbers and dollars that go with those people, and these are never-ending dollars.”

A 2018 report from the Middle Tennessee State University’s Business and Economic Research Center focused on Cumberland University’s economic impact on Wilson County. The center used data and information given from the university from 2017, as well as formulas and information obtained to determine the economic impact of the university.

The study determined Cumberland University-related economic activities accounted for $83 million in business revenue, $25 million in personal income, 893 jobs and $2.6 million in state and local taxes.

Using average student expenditure data from the center, it estimated on-campus residents spend an average of $9,773 in the community, behind off-campus students, estimated at $17,394 and commuting students at $11,614.

The center also estimated family and friends visiting the university spent an average of $5,753 in 2017.

The center estimated total Cumberland University visitor expenditures were estimated at about $6.2 million, of which day-trippers account for $4.9 million and overnight visitors at $1.4 million in 2017.

The study also estimated Cumberland University alumni accounted for more than 10 percent of the population older than 25 with a bachelor’s degree and above in Wilson County.

The study determined local business, personal income and employment are greatly impacted by university-related spending and determined Cumberland “has been a crucial factor in the competitive and transformative development of both the city of Lebanon and Wilson County.”

Cumberland president Paul Stumb

“I think we should’ve spent more time educating the public about this project,” said Cumberland University president Paul Stumb.

Stumb and Cumberland officials made presentations to the Lebanon City Council during work sessions.

“We didn’t anticipate some of the feedback we’ve seen and received,” he said. “We’re completely convinced it will be good for Cumberland University and Lebanon. It’s a win-win.”

Stumb said the project would cost between $15 million-$20 million, the university would use local contractors, and he was confident the university could complete the project within the four-year constraint.

Stumb highlighted the university’s need to expand, noting increased enrollment has caused the need to upgrade campus facilities.

Stumb said renovations on Memorial Hall and Baird Chapel, which started in 2017, would total more than $1 million and include new boilers and entrance. He said other renovations would take place in campus dormitories, Labry Hall, Vise Library and other facilities.

Stumb said the university added 14 full-time professors and about 75 adjunct professors to keep up with a 50-percent enrollment jump in the last two years.

“The lion’s share of our students are coming from about a 40-mile radius,” said Stumb, who said campus housing is at capacity despite a large number of commuter students.

The university has acquired several houses near the campus to accommodate students, and Cumberland Corner could help alleviate some issues with housing.

“We wouldn’t ask, nor expect, the city to do anything if it was just beneficial for Cumberland and not equally beneficial for the city,” Stumb said.

 

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