From Post staff reports
Development of the proposed Bible Park USA in Lebanon has been suspended pending resolution of “political differences” between City County and the Mayor.
That was the word Tuesday afternoon from Robert Wyatt, developer of Bible Park USA, in a statement released to local media.
"We regret we must suspend all further work on the development of the Bible Park USA project in Lebanon, Tennessee, pending the City Council and the Mayor resolving internal political differences over the project,” Wyatt said.
"We made the decision to locate in Lebanon after being presented with a formal development proposal and potential site by Mayors (Don) Fox and (Robert) Dedman that met our physical needs and that clearly recognized the sequential financial approval process all economic development projects of this size and magnitude must follow,” Wyatt said. “In our many meetings with City and County officials we made it crystal clear that the City and County government's willingness to preliminarily approve our capture of our own incremental property taxes and to provide us the ability to tax visitors to the Park must be granted before we could secure the final debt and equity commitments necessary to move forward. This sequence of events related to financing is customary and accepted throughout Tennessee, as it is the same sequence that every major economic development project requires. Preliminary legislative approvals are especially necessary in this economic climate where there are many more projects looking for dollars than there are dollars looking for projects."
Wyatt added, "It is a classic ‘which comes first, the chicken or the egg’ decision. As is always the case, the government entities are asked to say 'we will support this project' as a prerequisite to the investors and lenders placing hard commitments on the table. The Industrial Development Board is always the place where these financial commitments are vetted and reviewed. This is the practice whether you are taking about a car manufacturing plant, a company headquarters or a theme park. Then-Mayor Fox and Mayor Dedman understood, accepted and agreed to this process going into this project. Of course, as has been made abundantly clear from the beginning, the taxpayers of Wilson Country are always protected in the end because no taxpayer funds are ever at risk with these approvals; and the ID Board must scrutinize the final proposed financing package before any bonds are approved.”
Wyatt added, “We signed a detailed Memorandum of Understanding to demonstrate our commitment and set forth the many safeguards we would place on the proposed partnership with the City and County. We were asked by Mayors Fox and Dedman, and later by Mayor Craighead, the City Council and the County Commission to define the project, explain the sequence of events related to its ultimate development and financing, and to highlight the myriad of legal and financial protections that exist for the City, County and the taxpayer even after the requested approvals were given. We complied with each and every request as is evidenced by an unanimous favorable vote by the IDB, a nearly unanimous vote by the City Council and two separate two-thirds majority votes by the County Commission.
“I would be surprised if investors or lenders are likely to go forward in this location, given the current political environment where city officials change their mind in mid-course without notice to the development team or others supporting the project. Certainly, our pool of potential investors view this as a source of great concern. Our utter lack of opportunity to address new issues has led to speculation that local political in-fighting has taken over the ordinary process toward approval of a significant economic development project for Wilson County. Regardless of the explanation, our ability to attract business investment to Lebanon has been undermined.” Wyatt concluded, “This is a wonderful area, and community support for the Bible Park has always been very strong. The economic benefits have been obvious to most: $5.3 million in yearly tax revenues and thousands of new jobs, according to the economic impact study by Dr. Mark Burton of the University of Tennessee. We have had many, many emails, meetings and comments from people across Wilson County who wanted the family-friendly entertainment the Park would have established here. We appreciate very much all of those who supported this project.
“We appreciate the strong support from many elected officials, including Mayor Craighead and Dedman, Bernie Ash, Mike Justice, Jeff Joines, Eugene Murray and former Mayor Don Fox.”
County Commissioners Ash, Justice, Joines and Murray represent Districts 23, 14 and 21, respectively.
Dedman, reached at home late yesterday afternoon, said, “I was hoping to get things worked out, but I’m not so sure about that now. There had been talk about moving it out on (State Route) 840, but I’m not so sure about that because most of the other development would go to Murfreesboro and so would the taxes.”
Craighead, in a statement issued late yesterday, said “Lebanon has nearly lost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I say ‘nearly’ because I believe that we could still secure the Bible Park project, but only if the local leadership will recognize the reality of the present situation. We had within our grasp a multimillion dollar tourism development that would bring millions of dollars in sales tax and retail spending, and thousands of jobs.”
The Lebanon mayor said existing retail businesses and restaurants would have been helped during this recession as the Bible Park would have helped draw in new places to eat, hotels and other retail establishments throughout the county.
He called losing a project like this because of “unprecedented demands” for the developer’s private and person financial information by a few city councilors “is very troubling. To my knowledge, none of our City Council members are experienced bankers or licensed in the area of bond issuance.”
Craighead said that was why the IDB was created in 1970. It is an independent board of experienced financial professionals, who review financial packages, credit worthiness, and credentials of potential companies and their projects, without political bias or pressure. The IDB has approved financial packages for Dell, Nashville Superdpeedway, TACLE Seating, and Kenwal Steel in recent years.
“My concern is not only about losing the Bible Park, but the long-term effect this action will have on all of our future development efforts. To rescind prior support mid-stream in a major development in this manner, and circumvent an established project review process, sends a very negative message to developers that some of our leaders do not negotiate in good faith,” Craighead said. He added, “The ordinance to withdraw support for the project was abruptly dropped in during a City Council meeting already in session, by a member of the City Council who openly opposes the Bible Park. This was done without prior public notice of his intent to do so. This was unprofessional, and completely devoid of consideration for the many citizens who support the Bible Park project.”
Craighead said even though councilors voted unanimously to approve Ward 1 Councilor Alex Buhler’s ordinance, he believed that some of them “were caught off guard, and they were unsure of the timing and the implications of this action, not realizing that this would in effect, stop the project.
“Many months of work have taken place to move this important project to the point that financing could be obtained by the developers. I am asking for our City Council and the Wilson County Commissioners to issue a statement of reconsideration and support for this project.” Craighead said.