City not funding convention center
Posted: Friday, October 3, 2008 10:12 pm
By GLENDA H. CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
Some “Discoveries” are not as exciting as others.
Consider the one made this week by Robert and Jenny Kirkland and the board of directors of Discovery Park of America.
The Kirklands, who originally envisioned the multi-million dollar educational complex known as Discovery Park of America and whose Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland Foundation will have made possible the land purchase, facility design and construction and the obtaining of many of the artifacts for the project, discovered — along with the Discovery Park of America board — that the City of Union City has decided to withdraw from its commitment to the Grand Hall Conference and Convention Center portion of the design.
That commitment was made in a city council meeting Oct. 16, 2007, when members of the council voted to fully fund the proposed convention center, along with a full-time employee to run and promote it. The story of the vote was reported in The Messenger at the time. A dollar amount was not affixed to the vote, but the monetary commitment that was proposed — and reported in subsequent reporting about and discussion concerning the building portion of the project — was $3 million.
At the first November council meeting in 2007, the council agreed to place Mayor Terry Hailey, city manager Don Thornton and councilman Johnny Bacon on the Convention Center Committee, one of the Discovery Park of America committees whose responsibility was to design and manage the conference and convention center.
Hailey and Bacon were asked to serve on the Discovery Park of America board of directors, as well, by that board.
At that early November council meeting, it was also determined that additional members of the committee would be appointed at a subsequent business session. That was done at the next council meeting and Mike Erwin, Michelle Harris, Richard Chesteen and Billy Kaler were named to the body. Jennifer Bagwell, appointed by the Obion County Joint Economic Development Council, rounded out the membership.
World-famous Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal was then given the go-ahead to incorporate the innovative glass-lined Grand Hall Conference and Convention Center into the overall project as part and parcel of the privately-funded museum area.
Local citizens who viewed his colorful drawings in those early days after the announcement of the amazing gift the Kirklands were giving to Obion County were already making exciting plans for use of the city-sponsored portion of the building for a variety of purposes. These ranged from banquets to business and industry conventions to flexible-sized meeting rooms to adaptable staging areas for theater and music performances to private receptions and celebrations of all types.
The city also signed on to providing the necessary infrastructure for the project.
Throughout the winter and spring, committees of local volunteers involved in all facets of the DPA project met repeatedly to finalize their plans and create their budgets and discuss their options with the architects.
Earthwork at the DPA site has moved the overall innovative project a step closer to reality since groundbreaking in July and area residents have been studying the shifting landscape with anticipation as they travel Everett Boulevard near the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant on Union City’s west side. The enormous facility is taking shape on a 50-acre former wheat field that will be bordered by the boulevard on the east and the new highway connecting Canada and Mexico — Interstate 69 — that is crossing the U.S. through Obion County on the west. In addition to the treasure-filled, family-friendly and educationally-rich museum and Grand Hall Convention Center, the complex will include themed exhibit buildings focusing on transportation, military history and farm equipment adjacent to the museum and connected by tunnels to that centerpiece of the project; a working Pioneer Village and farm area; botanical gardens and green areas; and a welcome center for those traveling the cross-country super highway that will be under construction soon.
Area residents who were discovering the project was an exciting reality in their midst began to hear rumblings only recently, as the project neared the anniversary of its announcement, that the city — facing financial belt-tightening to avoid a property tax increase — might have to reconsider its commitment to the Grand Hall convention center. Those rumblings became a reality Tuesday when Hailey phoned DPA board of directors president Jim Rippy and said the city could no longer be a partner in the project.
Hailey announced the city’s decision publicly on his radio station Thursday.
The council apparently discussed their commitment to the project at an announced budget work session Monday. No vote was taken, but Thornton said the consensus appeared to be that the city could not afford the project and he said it was felt that the DPA board of directors needed to be appraised of the situation as soon as possible.
Bacon agreed that the council did not take a vote at the budget session and said there is no extra money at this time and all city department heads had been asked to cut their budgets by at least 7 percent.
“It’s not that we’re not going to do this (be involved in the convention center), but we can’t do it right now,” Bacon said. He added that he had asked Thornton to look at consolidating all the city’s notes to see what actually could be done. “If there is any way for the city to go forward in a financially responsible way, I would be in favor of that,” he said.
No official vote on the matter has been taken. The matter is on the agenda for Tuesday night’s city council meeting, Thornton said.
“From the beginning, the City of Union City had wanted to be a part of the Discovery Park of America project. We looked forward to locating a new convention center in the Discovery Park facility,” Hailey said. “The reality is that at the present time, we really can’t borrow $3 million to put into the project and, if we could, it would be very difficult to pay back.
“Our first priority has to be providing services to the people of Union City like water, sewer, fire, police and public works. We have a lot of streets that need attention and that’s expensive. We’re installing a new water well in this year’s budget and the wastewater treatment plant needs extensive work as well. I’m also hearing talk that the school system is going to want new buildings and renovation soon.
“Although we would love to participate as planned in the Discovery Park of America project, we have other things that we just have to do. There will be plenty of involvement from the city and lots of dollars spent on the infrastructure that the new park will need. I know it will be a great thing for the city, the county, the state and the region and we are extremely fortunate to have Robert Kirkland and his family making this kind of commitment to the area.
“I think the thing that made me realize where we are is when we’re closing the swimming pool on one hand and borrowing $3 million for the Discovery Park on the other. That didn’t seem like the right thing to do,” he said.
Rippy said he and Kirkland had met with Hailey, Thornton and attorney John Warner two or three weeks ago and discussed the convention center. At that point, Rippy said there was no indication of a problem, although it was general knowledge that the city was engaged in belt-tightening measures. He said Kirkland was asked when money would be required from the city for the project and he said it needed to be received by the first of the year.
According to Rippy, the next contact he received from the city about the project was the Tuesday afternoon phone call from Hailey saying that, because of its financial condition, the city did not appear to be in a position to fund the $3 million convention center. Hailey did say the city could still be counted on for its infrastructure commitments, however.
Rippy said he immediately contacted Kirkland to report the conversation and discuss what should be done.
Kirkland’s response was entirely positive.
“He said we would continue. He asked me to notify the board of directors so I sent out e-mails Wednesday and told the board we had been notified by Mayor Hailey that the council could not do it (fund the convention center) but that Mr. Kirkland’s decision was to continue anyway and the foundation would pick up the expense and the board would operate the convention center. I wish the city was a part of this, but if they can’t be, we will continue. We will build the center,” he stressed.
The disappointing discovery has not shaken Kirkland’s obvious enthusiasm for the DPA project — in part or in whole.
“I am disappointed, and I know the board is; however, the city is in financial straits and they had to make a decision to cut expenditures or to raise taxes. I think they made the fiscally responsible decision. I compliment the city council on their conservative stance of cutting expenditures instead of raising taxes and the board looks forward to working with them in any way we can to benefit the area in the future,” said the man who discovered a way to benefit the community he loves and is committed to seeing it through successfully.