Officials say proposed hall at governor’s residence needed
By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II
Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee officials say a $10 million project, including an underground hall at the governor’s mansion, is in line with what other states are doing and should be built despite criticism from neighbors.
First lady Andrea Conte met with reporters in upscale Oak Hill on Wednesday and gave them a brief overview of the 15,000-square-foot facility that could be under construction as early as this month.
Conte and Gov. Phil Bredesen have said the facility is needed so the mansion — which was a private residence before it became an official home for Tennessee’s governors in 1949 — will have sufficient space for meetings and entertainment.
Without the underground space, the governor would have to continue to entertain in temporary tents on the property, which don’t protect well against noise or weather, state officials said.
Tennessee architect Mike Fitts said neighboring states such as Arkansas and Kentucky are among those that have created additional dining or ballroom space at their mansions.
“All governors have expressed the need to be able to host properly, rather than in tents for larger events,” Fitts said.
Conte has argued that the underground facility at the refurbished governor’s mansion will be unobtrusive, quiet and environmentally friendly. But some neighbors worry about increased traffic and the blasting necessary to build the underground structure.
Some of them spoke forcefully against the project during a meeting Conte had with neighbors about two months ago. One neighbor is funding a taxpayer group called Tennesseans for Accountability in Government that has criticized spending for the project.
The Tennessee Building Commission is expected to hear neighbors’ concerns at its meeting today.
Conte said she’s not ignoring the concerns of her neighbors, but hopes they will realize that the underground project is a necessity that will benefit residents of the mansion for years to come.
“There’s a need for a meeting place,” she said. “I think it’s the right thing to do. I’m looking at the next 40 to 50 years this house is going to be here.”
Conte said she and the governor have two to three events a week and that the mansion’s current dining area only has room for a little over 20 people. The proposed hall would seat 160.
“It’s not going to be filled to capacity everytime. It might just be 30 to 40 people,” she said.
Regardless of how many people it will accommodate, Susan Kaestner, vice president of TAG, said the group’s concern is who will be stuck with the burden of keeping up the facility.
“This facility will have to be maintained with taxpayer money,” she said. “This is a continual financial burden to the taxpayer.”
The hall is part of the project, which will also include a support area and a new roundabout that will deposit guests at the entrance to the underground facility.
So far, Conte has raised $8 million from private donations to construct the hall, as well as help renovate the governor’s mansion. Those renovations include making the mansion and the underground facility wheelchair accessible.
Published in The Messenger 1.10.08