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MJ not buying Expo Center Deal

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Mt. Juliet city commissioners are opposed to helping finance Wilson County’s proposed Expo Center, although Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto expects that Mt. Juliet would gain about $80,000 a year in tax revenues from the project.

Mt. Juliet hotels and restaurants would be among the beneficiaries of the additional business produced by the proposed Expo Center, according to Hutto, and that new business would generate the additional tax revenues for the city, Hutto said.

However, Mt. Juliet officials are skeptical about how much benefit the city would actually receive from an Expo Center 15 miles from Mt. Juliet, since the center would be located at the James E. Ward Agricultural Center/Wilson County Fairgrounds in Lebanon.

“I don’t see people driving from the fairgrounds, bypassing restaurants and motels in Lebanon, to come to stay or eat in Mt. Juliet,” said Mt. Juliet Vice Mayor James Maness.

Unless all the motels and hotels in Lebanon were full, Maness said, he doesn’t see how Mt. Juliet would benefit.

“Sales go down in Mt. Juliet when the (Wilson County) fair is going on,” he added. “So the only possible benefit I see is if there is overflow from Lebanon.”

Hutto also pointed out, in a letter he recently sent to Mt. Juliet Mayor Ed Hagerty seeking the city’s financial assistance with building the Expo Center, that Mt. Juliet could benefit from the proposed center by obtaining rights for its direct use, in addition to the center’s economic ripple effect.

“The City of Mt. Juliet would get free billboard advertising and two free booths at every expo, as well as free meeting space when they wanted it,” Hutto proposed.

A study by the Business and Economic Research Center at MTSU supports Hutto’s view of the proposed center’s economic effect on Mt. Juliet. The study is the source of Hutto’s estimated $80,000 in additional tax revenues for the city, based on the populations and numbers of hotels and motels in Wilson County, in Mt. Juliet, and in Lebanon.

The study estimated that 36 percent of all jobs and revenues from the project would benefit Mt. Juliet.

During its construction phase, the Expo Center would generate 135 jobs, including about 49 jobs for Mt. Juliet residents, according to the study’s findings.

Three weeks ago, the Mt. Juliet city commissioners requested that District 17 State Sen. Mae Beavers and State Reps. Susan Lynn and Mark Pody, of District 57 and District 46, respectively, take no action on a request from the Wilson County Commission for the state to allow the county to increase the hotel occupancy privilege tax up to 3 percent. This additional tax was proposed to fund the Expo Center, an idea that was rejected by the Mt. Juliet City Commission at that time.

In a letter he sent to county commissioners this past weekend, Mt. Juliet City Manager Kenny Martin expressed his concerns about the proposed tax. “It will cause our hotel and motel taxes to become some of the highest, if not the highest in the country, much less the state,” Martin wrote.

Two hotel brand new to Mt. Juliet that “we have been working with for many, many months” to recruit to the city probably will go elsewhere if the taxes are raised, according to Martin. The hotel developers won’t make their final decisions to locate in Mt. Juliet until the tax issue is settled, he added.

“While we wait, I just hope neither of these two developers take their $15 million investments to a surrounding county,” Martin’s letter to the county commissioners warned. “We stand to lose nearly $30 million of investment and nearly 200 jobs, not to mention the increased sales and property tax revenues that would be generated as a result of two new hotels coming to our city, county, and state.”

Maness expressed similar concerns, noting that representatives of one major hotel chain have said, “Their business plan doesn’t work if they have to figure in that much extra in taxes.”

Maness added, “What we would lose would last forever.”

Martin said he isn’t against the Expo Center, but he does question the need for supplemental funding. “I am a fan of the fair and the fairgrounds,” he wrote to the county commissioners. “I would even be a fan of the Expo Center if it were located in a proper location and had a sound funding mechanism and sound funding proposal.”

Still, as it currently is proposed, Martin called the center “a very bad idea and proposal” and stated, “If it’s such a great idea, it should be able to fund itself.”

Jim Bradshaw, who serves on both the Mt. Juliet City Commission and the Wilson County Commission, said he has voted against raising the tax rate to fund the project on every occasion when it has been brought before the county commission. He also voted against raising the admission price for the county fair to fund the new center.

“If it can be built and it can fund itself, I would be for it,” Bradshaw said. “I would even reconsider a raise in the fair admission fee if that was the only funding source used for this project.”

He said County Mayor Hutto presented a 48-page document to the county commissioners to support the project, but “it’s just not sold me.”

Bradshaw noted that while Pody said he doesn’t think there are enough votes to pass the tax in the Tennessee House, Pody will continue to negotiate for some increase since that was what the county commission wants him to do.

Of course, for the bill to pass, it would also need approval from the Tennessee Senate.

Meanwhile, Lebanon Mayor Phillip Craighead said Lebanon hasn’t yet decided what it will do about the county’s project.

“It depends on the investment and the returns,” he said. “Our first priority is passing the entertainment zoning for the city.”

Craighead added that the Lebanon City Council would be willing to look at the county’s proposal, but would want to see an entire package. The city is already involved in planning the $40 million Cumberland Center, which would serve some of the same needs as the Expo Center.

“We will look at the plans and decide if we think there is room for both,” Craighead said. “I’m open to seeing the plans, but since Mt. Juliet is out, I would want to see what the county’s package to finance this looks like without Mt. Juliet.”

In his recent letter to Hagerty, Hutto requested that Mt. Juliet agree to pay the county $50,000 per year for the next 20 years as the city’s portion to finance a county Expo Center, since the city doesn’t want extra taxes.

In the letter, Hutto said he was requesting financing from both Mt. Juliet and Lebanon, with the sum requested from Lebanon set at $100,000 per year due to its greater number of motels and hotels.

After discussing the proposal at their regular meeting last week, the Mt. Juliet city commissioners agreed to draft a letter telling Hutto thanks for the offer, but that the city isn’t interested.

Correspondent Connie Esh may be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

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Expo Center, Mt. Juliet city commissioners
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