Nearly 30 speakers addressed the council in both support and opposition of the $850,000 donation, which the council approved on a 5-0 vote with one abstention two weeks ago.
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, Lebanon Mayor Bernie 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 had failed to finish construction of Cumberland Corner, estimated to cost $15 million-$20 million, within 48 months of the donation, it would have been required to return the donation to the city.
Cumberland University president Paul Stumb and Lebanon realtor and former Cumberland Board of Trust member Greg Dugdale led the support and opposition, respectively, during the meeting.
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.
Dugdale also questioned the inability for Cumberland to fund the land purchase.
Stumb followed and said the measure would mutually benefit Cumberland and the city.
Stumb highlighted the university’s need to expand, noting increased enrollment has caused the need to upgrade campus facilities. He 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 university has acquired several houses near the campus to accommodate students, and Cumberland Corner could help alleviate some issues with housing.
“This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Let me be clear, the university is simply not currently in a position to do this project without the support of the city,” said Stumb, who said landowner Drew Boggs indicated he would renovate and add about 20 small duplexes on the land. “Our project proposes a much higher and better use for this property.”
Stumb called the donation an investment, and he said it would yield a greater return on investment for the city than other alternatives that were presented.
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.
Some speakers questioned the validity of the report, while others pointed to it as an indication of the benefit Cumberland has on the community.
Of the 28 speakers, 14 were against the donation, while 11 expressed support, and three were indifferent.
“What is good for our institution is equally good for the city,” said Cumberland University baseball head coach Woody Hunt. “When Cumberland is great, the city is great.”
“There’s nothing for the youth to do. When I was at Lebanon High School, there was nothing to do – go to Don Fox Park. That’s it. It’s 2018. We got to do something for the youth,” resident Brad Loftis said.
Other speakers voiced similar concerns, mainly about the project’s benefit to the city, or the belief that taxpayer funds should not go toward the private institution and used on other ventures and issues.
Ash said he believed the donation was not good stewardship of taxpayer money, while Cesternino said the facts of the project had not changed since the council’s first vote.
Ash said he also spoke out against the project due to the amount of the donation, which he said is about four times the city’s donation budget.
Cesternino also addressed concerns about his business interest in Cumberland University, highlighting his former insurance company had not dealt with Cumberland in nearly two years and he sold his stake in the company 18 months ago.
In a roll call vote, Councilor Tick Bryan joined Cesternino in support of the donation, while councilors Joey Carmack and Chris Crowell flipped from their original “yes” votes to oppose the measure. Councilor Rick Bell abstained his vote because of his position as a history professor at Cumberland, and Councilor Fred Burton was absent from the meeting due to illness.
“I voted no because of the outcry of the constituents of Ward 1,” Carmack said after the meeting. “I was elected by the people to represent them and be their voice on the council. After careful consideration and voices from people of Ward 1, I chose to vote no. I think Cumberland its a great asset to our community. But the people of my ward spoke, and I listened and voted how they felt I should to best represent the people of Ward 1.”