Council hears Cumberland Corner arguments

Xavier Smith • Apr 16, 2018 at 10:14 PM

If the issue of the Lebanon City Council’s potential $850,000 donation to Cumberland University to help fund the Cumberland Corner project was on trial, Monday served as closing arguments for both sides of the issue before Tuesday’s council vote.

Cumberland University president Paul Stumb and Lebanon realtor and former Cumberland Board of Trust member Greg Dugdale discussed their support and opposition, respectively, of the potential donation during a council work session.

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.

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, estimated to cost $15 million-$20 million, within 48 months of the donation, it would be required to return the donation to the city.

Dugdale spoke to the council first, and said although he and other opponents were not in opposition of the project, they opposed taxpayer funds going toward the private university for the project. He also said he believed the process in which the issue was brought to light was “flawed.”

“Taxes are a form of speech. When taxes are spent, people want to be heard. They want it to be a part of a normal budget process. When it’s extraordinary, they want a voice,” Dugdale said. “There’re a couple of internet polls going on right now. Those are good entertainment, but this is something that should probably go on a referendum.”

Dugdale also questioned potential conflicts of interest with councilors relative to Cumberland University, primarily Rick Bell, who is also a professor at Cumberland University.

Stumb addressed the council and responded to some of Dugdale’s comments, including conflicts of interest of councilors.

“I want everybody in this room to know, that as president of Cumberland University, Rick Bell, who already – I guess I’m a little embarrassed to say this – doesn’t make a lot of money, his compensation and nothing about his employment at Cumberland University is going to be affected one way or the other whether we do this deal. It’s just simply not,” he said. “We can’t elect a city council in this town that doesn’t have connections to Cumberland University.”

Dugdale held a luncheon Friday and invited councilors, as well as Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash, to discuss their thoughts on the donation with residents.

Ash spoke out against the project due to the amount of the donation, which he said is about four times the city’s donation budget.

“I’ve been involved in local politics for 20 years,” said Ashe. “This is the biggest issue I’ve seen come along in that 20 years. The most phone calls, emails that I have ever received.”

Councilor Fred Burton, who missed Monday’s work session due to illness, said during the luncheon he supported the project, but questioned the city’s legal right to make the donation.

“I don’t have a problem with Cumberland University. I’ve had two granddaughters who have graduated from Cumberland,” said Burton. “The only thing is, we’ve got two legal opinions on this transaction, and they were very explicit. The one thing I do; I try to follow the law, to serve the law. 

“This deal is legal. We’re prepared to demonstrate that,” Stumb said during Monday’s work session.

Stumb called the donation an investment, and said it would yield a greater return on investment for the city than other alternatives that were presented.

“We are not in a position to do this deal, today, which is when it needs to be done, without the support of the city. We’re not in a position to do this without the help of our city. This is not a gift to the university ladies and gentlemen. This is an investment in the future of our city,” Stumb said.

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.

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.

Residents raised concerns about the donation since the council’s approval on first reading two weeks ago, 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.”

Blackwell also discussed the possibility of Cumberland Board of Trust member Roderick Heller III, who offered Monday to lead the development of Cumberland Corner for free. Heller is the chairman and CEO of Franklin-based Carnton Associates and Harpeth Associates.

“A general contractor would normally charge 10-20 percent to handle the project. But an open-bid process insures the right efficiencies. A bad general can cause delays and pick the wrong subs, which can cost way more than the general’s fee,” Blackwell said in a Facebook post. “Weird twist that this guy is popping up. But look, in the end, if Cumberland wants to hire a developer from Japan, it won’t change the financial folly of this overreach. And for the city to enable them with taxpayers money is more folly.”

Residents will have the opportunity to discuss the issue during the public comment portion of the council meeting, which starts at 6 p.m., with a public hearing scheduled to precede the meeting at 5:55 p.m.

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