Beneath a rusted old water tower in North Nashville are heaps of trash among the remains of a once-prominent publishing headquarters. Old beds, tires and garbage sit in plain sight behind overgrown vegetation. The “No Dumping” signs are almost comical, if not depressingly ironic.
Neighbors in Buena Vista Heights have been complaining about the property for years. Will Stewart, who lives and works in the area, said the property exudes a foul odor and presents obvious dangers to the community.
“The building isn’t secure,” Stewart said. “Kids could go in there and get hurt.”
The building caught fire and sustained heavy damage in 2010. A Nashville Fire Department investigation found that the flames started while individuals were lifting scrap metal from the remains of the property.
So, how and why did the property get so bad? The responsibility lies with an accused real estate fraudster whose multiple court proceedings have held Metro back from moving forward with a demolition.
Keith Churn, 42, was indicted by a federal grand jury after securing construction loans from a bank to improve two vacant or dilapidated lots. He never did the work but still pocketed the money, according to the indictment.
The 24th Avenue North property wasn’t mentioned in the indictment, but Churn’s pseudo-company, C&M Construction Management, has owned the lot in recent years.
And while the shady details surrounding the property’s ownership have delayed a proper resolution, neighbors continue to suffer.
James Edson White, the son of a founder of the Seventh Day Adventist movement, moved to Nashville in 1901 to start a publishing company geared at spreading the gospel to African-Americans in the South. As recounted by the Seventh Day Adventist publishing house Review and Herald, White set up shop in a former barn chicken house in Nashville and began printing two successful magazines, including Message, which is still published today.
White’s Southern Publishing Association operated in North Nashville for more than 70 years before deeding the building to a bible publishing company, Memorial Bibles International Inc. The extent to which the new owners used the building is unclear, but the property retained its value until 1984.
During a property assessment in 1984, 2119 24th Ave. N. was worth nearly $600,000. By the next decade, its value dropped by more than half. In the early 1990s, a building permit was issued to renovate the property into “Music City Antique and Flea Market.” The plans never materialized. Churn purchased the 2.88-acre property in 2003 from a Florida investor for $158,000.
Seven years later, Churn landed behind bars when multiple federal and local agencies uncovered a real estate scam as part of a nationwide law-enforcement sweep called “Operation Stolen Dreams.” According to the federal indictment, Churn used a Clarksville Pike property bordering the publishing building and a property in Franklin to defraud BancorpSouth Bank.
He took out loans and entered into agreements with individuals under the impression that he would buy vacant property, build homes, then flip the houses for a profit. Instead, the indictment claims, he never did the work and presented fraudulent documents to the bank in order to withdraw loan funds.
Overall, Churn allegedly used the scheme to pocket more than $400,000.
But that wasn’t the end of his court troubles. Two months later, Churn’s “shell” company, C&M Construction, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The initial filings show that C&M claimed the dilapidated publishing building and lot was worth $446,000. It also referenced an agreement to sell the property to National Public Services for $892,000, but the trustee eventually determined its actual value as only $45,000.
C&M owned a half-interest in the trashed lot, and the bankruptcy trustee’s attorney, Robert Waldschmidt, asked the other owners, Kelez Property Investments, to quiet the title and allow the land to be sold.
Kelez never responded, and Waldschmidt started the process of selling the property. However, he wrote that the auctioneer had “comfort issues” with the property due to “environmental issues” regarding the disrepair of the land and buildings.
The bankruptcy case was dismissed on the grounds of abuse, and Churn retained the property. Unfortunately for nearby neighbors, the bankruptcy proceedings created a roadblock for Metro before a demolition could take place.
It wasn’t until Feb. 22 that Metro Legal received the final go-ahead from Churn’s creditors to take over the property.
Metro Codes issued a warrant against Churn in Davidson County General Sessions Court in September 2011, but Churn wasn’t located. The City Paper tried to contact Churn, but attempts were unsuccessful.
Churn was expected in court on Jan. 31 to face the federal bank fraud charges, but the trial was pushed back and a new date hasn’t been selected. A call to Barry Tidwell, Churn’s attorney in the federal case, wasn’t returned by press time.
Pastor Herbert Brown leads Greater St. John Missionary Baptist Church, which is only a block from the abandoned property. He said some of his congregation, including residents of the nearby Cumberland View Heights project, have complained about the building.
“It’s an eyesore that needs to be cleaned up, demolished, whatever they need to do,” Brown said.
Currently, Metro Codes has moved ahead with the demolition process and is accepting bids on the cleanup job. The request for proposal already has four amendments, most of which address difficulties of clearing the property. Court documents from 2011 show an initial estimate of $200,000 for the cleanup process.
Codes received only $250,000 in last year’s demolition budget, $100,000 of which was earmarked for flood-damaged properties. According to Metro Codes assistant director Bill Penn, it will likely take a special budget allocation by the Metro Council to finally get the property cleared.
The Codes department will share the bids with the Mayor’s Office, who told The City Paper they will likely present the project to the Council in May. Based on how long that process takes, the project might be on hold until the next fiscal year.
If and when the extra money gets approved, Codes said the project will take 45 to 60 days to complete. Originally, the invitation to bid included instructions to keep the old Southern Publishing Association water tower standing. But on March 12, an amendment required that it, too, be torn down.
At this point, though, the neighborhood is just looking for relief — and a more responsible owner for the once-historic plot of land.