With one additional vote to spare, both resolutions regarding funding mechanisms for the proposed Expo Center at the Ward Agricultural Center passed Monday night and are headed to the General Assembly.
The first resolution, which would allow via a Private Act approved by the General Assembly, for a $1 ticket surcharge on every paid event held at the Ag Center, passed with no discussion at all by a vote of 18 yeas, 5 nays, zero abstaining and 2 absent.
The second resolution asks for the approval of a separate Private Act that would allow the county to increase its motel/hotel tax by up to 3 percent. The county commission will determine exact amount of the increase – provided the private act is approved.
Voting no on both resolutions were District 4 Commissioner Chad Barnard, District 8’s Frank Bush, District 10’s Nathan Clariday, District 11’s Jim Bradshaw and District 16’s Jason Brockman. Commissioners Fred Weston of District 3 and Clint Thomas of District 13 were absent.
Initially, District 12 Commissioner Billy Rowland voted against the second resolution, making the vote count 17-5-0-2, which provided the minimum number of votes for approval.
However, Rowland spoke up right after the vote on the next agenda item and said he made a mistake in casting his vote; he had meant to vote in favor of it.
In order for Rowland to re-cast his vote, procedurally, a vote was taken to suspend the rules of the county commission, placing them under Robert’s Rules of Order for Parliamentary Procedure, which did allow them to take another vote on the resolution.
Commission shares hotel/motel owners points of view
While the first resolution passed without a word of discussion, the second resolution generated a great deal of discussion before the votes were cast.
District 21 Commissioner Eugene Murray told the body that while he planned on supporting the resolution, he told his colleagues, “do not think that’s a carte blanche for the next time when it comes back from the legislature, because I may vote no at that time.”
Later during the discussion, Murray said he has 11 hotels or motels in his district, and “I’m obligated to them to say the least.”
He said he had talked to Mr. Roshen Patel, president of the Wilson County Hotel/Motel Association.
Murray said he had received a letter from Patel asking him not to support the original proposal, which did not include the $1 ticket surcharge. However, he said he has since “received a call back from Mr. Patel, who told me that it would be OK to send this to the legislature, so it does come back.
“They are hoping that it will come back and that we will place a 1 percent on the hotel/motel tax, and then also 1 percent from the county and 1 percent from the cities. That's the reason I voted to send it down and that's also the reason when it comes back I may vote against it.”
County Mayor Randall Hutto said he met “with the hotel folks last Thursday at O’Charley’s. They would like us to consider a 1 percent increase instead of the 3 percent increase. They’d like it to be 1 percent, if possible.”
He said they also discussed the opportunity to maybe get the cities involved or the county with another percentage point to make up the 3 percent.
“I did explain to them there’s not enough time at this particular time to get the cities on board. They’d have to go to their city councils.”
Bush argues against the resolution
Bush said the feasibility of undertaking building an expo was really what was being discussed.
“This really isn't just about a tax rate. This is about potentially moving ahead with a $9 million project,” Bush said.
He said after studying the $15,000 feasibility study conducted by the Business and Economic Research Center (BERC) at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), a few things jumped out at him “dramatically.”
One was the scenarios the study presented that both demonstrated “significant negative cash flows forever.
“Under the best scenario, it's $256,000 a year that this body would have to fund,” Bush said. “Under the worst scenarios it's $1.1 million forever. On the face of that, it would seem to me that it does not make much financial sense to go ahead with it.”
The second part that jumped out at Bush was that even with the negative financial impact, the study stated “there is a trend of meetings and incentives moving from tier one cities to tier two cities. It was also mentioned by Mr. (Rusty) Thompson in the joint committee meeting as an argument for proceeding with this.”
However, Bush said that in the meetings and incentives industries, “the definitions of tier one and tier two cities are very specific.” He added there are only 10 tier one cities in the United States and that they ranged from Orlando to Las Vegas to Chicago to Phoenix and New Orleans.
“Nashville is not a tier one city. Nashville is barely a tier two city based on population and convention resources,” Bush said. “So what the study shows is that meetings are moving from New York and Chicago to Nashville. It doesn’t suggest that they are moving from Nashville to Mt. Juliet or Lebanon. That’s important because that defends the negative cash flow that the study demonstrates.”
Last, Bush praised District 14 Commissioner Jeff Joines for his “hard and productive work” in bringing the National Junior High Rodeo Championships to Lebanon and Wilson County in 2016 and 2017.
However, he wanted to make it clear that having the Expo Center built by then does not tie into the championship at all. “I need to make sure that everybody understands that the rodeo is coming regardless. We got it without this structure. We don't need this structure.”
Joines argues for the resolutions
“When I drink a bad glass of tea, it's all bad. When I drink a good glass of tea, it's all good,” Joines said. “I can't understand how some people can pick and choose some of the things they like in a feasibility study and they don't like. It's either good or bad.”
He referenced the decision to buy the 50 acres that make up the Ag Center 30 years ago as a decision made by forward thinkers.
“Thirty years ago in this room, somebody stood up and said, 'We need to spend $250,000 to go buy 50 acres over here on Baddour Parkway.' And that very same night, somebody stood up and said, 'Why would you want to do that? That's crazy thinking.' And that man said, 'I believe we can get 5,000 to come to our county fair if we do that,'” Joines said.
“They had the forward thinking and they did it. And I think last year, we had 580,000 come through there. That's a little over 5,000. Sometimes, stuff comes up in front of you, that's a big decision. And when those do, you've go think about what's good for Wilson County and what's good for the future.”
He also noted that while Wilson County has “some of the lowest” taxes in the region and good infrastructure, “we’re lacking in quality of life.
“Some of the things that companies, big corporations come in here, they look at when they come here is quality of life; it’s high on the issue list,” Joines said.
Joines said it takes “big thinkers and it takes thinkers that think what's going to happen 20 years down the road. Somebody is going to build it. Is it going to be us or is it going to be somebody else?”
He said the county has a good plan to pay for it, which will cost “somewhere in the neighborhood of $550,000 a year to pay for it, and if we get what we want, we're going to be bringing in the neighborhood of a $1 million.
“Everybody's worried about the operational cost. We're going to have over $400,000 going toward the operational cost where we don't have to go to the taxpayers and ask them for money to support this thing.
“It's sound. It's good, and it's good for Wilson County.”
For more on Monday’s night meeting and for the views of the state legislators on the Expo Center, pick up a copy of Friday’s Wilson Post.
Amelia Morrison Hipps may be contacted email@example.com.