By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN – Budget and Finance Committee meetings are not usually like watching a Predator’s hockey game. But there was hardly a dull moment at City Hall last Monday afternoon.
The meeting went long. At one point Vice-Mayor David Briley interrupted the crowded council chambers to tell everyone to get on with it because they were holding things up.
What they were holding up was a presentation by a group headed by Bert Mathews about their plan to tear down Greer Stadium and develop the 21 acres of Fort Negley Park into residential, commercial, and retail properties.
Mathews is a private developer who was key to Mayor Megan Barry’s runoff election victory in 2015 against Republican David Fox. Mathews helped Barry raise $300,000 in the last three weeks of the race.
The Finance Department invited the Mathews group to give a presentation to a 7-judge panel on May 15. Of the five finalists, only two gave presentations, and the Mathews group was awarded the project on May 19. But it has been put on hold pending an appeal to the Procurement Appeals Board by Nashville Adventure Park, one of five finalists who bid on the park project.
Since then, the Mathews group incorporated as Cloud Hill Partners and they pitched their plan to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War in July. They followed that with a presentation to the Park Board on August 1 and at the OneNashville Community Breakfast at the Tabernacle of Glory Baptist Church Saturday, August 19.
T Bone Burnett, one of Cloud Hill’s three main partners, wrote an opinion piece in the Tennessean last month defending the project, and their web site posts support letters and urges people to contact the City Council and Mayor Barry in favor of the project.
“Bert Matthews is going all out lobbying the community’s support,” William Kantz told the Tribune.
Kantz is a friend of Devinder Sandhu, who filed the protest and later appealed the dismissal of his protest by former Purchasing Officer Jeff Gossage. Sandhu has appealed Gossage’s dismissal of his complaint to the Procurement Appeals Board. That hearing is scheduled for August 30th at Lindsley Hall, 730 2nd Avenue South at 1 pm. (See Tribune July 6)
Procurement code rules prohibit the city from engaging any party in a disputed contract award until it is resolved. That has not stopped Cloud Hill from an intensive public relations blitz aimed at securing the contract.
Not to be outdone, Sandhu will present the Adventure Park plan to the Parks Board September 12 and he plans to present it to the minority caucus of the city council soon.
Meanwhile, some cracks are beginning to appear in the story both Cloud Hill and the Mayor’s office have been telling about Fort Negley. Officially, the RFP was above board and handled properly. Cloud Hill Partners won fair and square. Unofficially, critics say the fix has been in from the beginning. They say favoritism marred the judging and politics blurred the boundaries between the Mayor’s office, Parks Department, and the Finance Department and the result has put Fort Negley’s future at risk.
In his Notice of Appeal to the Procurement Appeals Board, Sandhu claims the Procurement Office (Finance Department) does not have the authority under Metro codes to sell or lease real property owned by the city. This legal objection is separate from the charge that the judging was prejudicial, but it is sufficient to call the entire solicitation process into question.
At Large Councilman John Cooper has the same opinion. “Procurement deals with buying things for the city, not selling or leasing them,” he said. Cooper chairs the Budget and Finance Committee.
“The land was appraised at $32 million,” Cooper told the Tribune. Once developed some estimates say the project could generate around $200 million. The Mathews proposal guarantees the city $1 million over ten years. Cooper says that amounts to 3 cents on the dollar for 21 acres of the most valuable land Metro owns. He thinks practically giving it away to a private developer for 99 years is a really bad idea.
“As specifically stated in the RFQ, Metro has the right to cancel and terminate the RFQ, and accordingly, we request that RFQ 9696636 be repealed, suspended, rescinded and/or cancelled in its entirety,” wrote Sandhu. He wants it to be cancelled and the whole process redone.
Sandhu also wrote that three judges, Sara Case of the Wedgewood Houston neighborhood (WeHo), Pastor John Faison of the Watson Grove Missionary Baptist Church, and Clay Bailey of Friends of Fort Negley, do not support the full development of Fort Negley. All seven judges signed nondisclosure agreements and none have voiced their opinions publicly.
Clay Bailey was a judge who regretted his participation because there was no “parks only”option in the RFQ.
“I and the Friends of Fort Negley (FOFN) disagreed then (and continue to disagree) with the parameters and implications of the RFQ,” he wrote the mayor.
“The Greer parcel affords an excellent opportunity to finally honor that past rather than continuing to cover it up with development,” he wrote.
On August 11, NAACP Nashville Branch President Ludye Wallace sent a letter to Mayor Barry, the Metro Council, and the Parks Board and he told them that developing Fort Negley is not in the city’s best interest.
“The land under Greer Stadium should be returned to Fort Negley Park and not given up for private development. Nashville and the whole world will benefit from a true public park dedicated to and honoring the special sacrifice of African-Americans in the struggle for freedom and the role they played in fortifying the city,” Wallace wrote.