“It’s not about the project, it’s all about the politics,” states Patrick Fox, president of the Saint Consulting Group, a company that specializes in winning zoning and land use battles. In a November 2007 interview on E&ETV (an information source tracking environmental and energy issues), Fox explained how he advises clients such as developers of power plants, quarries, landfills, malls, casinos — “anything that’s large and controversial and requires local land use approval” — to craft a winning strategy.
“There’s going to be intractable opposition no matter what,” Fox said. “You must show the politicians it’s not political suicide to approve a project. They must see some support; it can’t be all opposition.”
May Town Center may not be as toxic as a landfill, but the $4 billion development proposed for the Bells Bend peninsula is definitely large and controversial. And May Town’s master developer, Tony Giarratana, acknowledges that the Saint Group “has helped us with the grassroots” in his drive to secure from the politicians what he calls the “zoning entitlement” from the Planning Commission and Metro Council.
Since the end of February, Giarratana also has cranked up a high-powered team of lobbyists to grease the political skids: Alphonso Bodie, Gov. Don Sundquist’s commissioner of labor; Joe Hall and Peter Heidenreich, who are also working Council approval for a new convention center; and former Council member Saletta Holloway.
Tom Jurkovich, former Mayor Purcell’s director of economic development and now with politically wired Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, joined the team last month. More recently, Phillip Pinion, the former chair of Tennessee's House transportation committee, came on board.
Pinion is expected to help gain approval from the Tennessee Department of Transportation for the bridge over the Cumberland that would provide primary access into the site, according to Giarratana.
All this advice and lobbying don’t come cheap. Giarratana said the May family’s cash investment to date is almost $28 million. The Mays paid about $24 million for their approximately 1,500 acres in Bells Bend, leaving $4 million for expenses. Allowing for staff salaries and design fees, what’s left over for marketing isn’t exactly chump change.
Last August, the Planning Commission deferred its decision on May Town, saying it wanted to review the economic and traffic impact studies contracted by the Planning Department and paid for by the May family. The traffic impact study was released Friday and disputed some of the findings of an earlier study, setting the stage for more contentious back and forth.
Giarratana has requested that the commission hold the public hearing on the zoning change necessary for May Town on May 28. The commissioners must vote on the zone change by June 25 for the Metro Council to hold its public hearing on July 7, Giarratana’s preferred date. If the Planning Commission doesn’t approve the zone change, the developers must get 27 votes, rather than a simple majority of 21, to pass through Council.
TSU’s role grows
The kickoff of the campaign for May Town leading to the Council vote was the Feb. 26 announcement that the May family will donate 250 acres of its property in Bells Bend to Tennessee State University. The school will use the 200 acres in the flood plain for a sustainable farming program. The other 50 acres in May Town proper will be devoted to a research park with a focus on biosecurity, biofuels, organic farming and alternative crops.
The Mays are also giving $400,000 toward the endowment of a chair in sustainable agriculture, bringing the total value of the gift to about $5 million, according to Giarratana.
The donation to TSU is shrewd as well as a philanthropic. The gift acts on the Saint strategy, described generally by Fox, to “find ways to leverage support for a project. What can you bring to the table to make you a good neighbor, enhance the community?”
In an April presentation to the Northwest Nashville Civic Association, TSU president Melvin Johnson explained the value to the community of the research park as “all about jobs. There are 2.57 jobs created for every job in a research park. So we have to have businesses to connect with.” While the land from the Mays is TSU’s to keep even if the development never happens, Johnson clearly hopes those businesses are right next door in May Town.
The choice of TSU as beneficiary responds to the history of the university, which was founded as the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School in 1912. The TSU connection can’t hurt politically: May Town is proposed for a Metro Council district whose residents are 53 percent African-American. The Council representative is Lonnell Matthews Jr., a TSU alumnus.
“I have speculated that my connection to TSU was a factor,” Matthews said. “But it’s just speculation.” The Councilman’s support will be crucial to getting the zoning change for May Town.
Matthews said he’s waiting to review the impact studies before determining his position on May Town. He acknowledges, however, that among his constituents there’s been “a significant growth in vocal support” for the project in recent months.
Direct mail and phone polls
Armed with the leverage of the gift to TSU, Giarratana and his lobbyists began a vigorous direct-mail campaign. Sharon Work, a fifth-generation Bend resident who’s against May Town, said the project’s backers have sent her something — postcards, letters, packets — “probably every week since early March.”
The latest postcard, according to Work, invites her to partake of “free barbecue and fellowship” at the Scottsboro community center. The confab is hosted by “Bells Bend Residents for May Town Center.”
More controversial have been the so-called push polls, surveys designed not so much to record opinion but to push it in a certain direction. These calls have gone out, not only to Scottsboro-Bells Bend residents, but all over the city.
The call received by David Felts, who lives in Harpeth Trace, is typical, based on interviews with numerous recipients. “The caller never identified herself or her client that I can recall,” Felt said. “Asked me my race and age — and maybe where I live. Then there were a series of questions.”
Two-thirds of the questions linked a general civic good directly with May Town. For example, “she’d say something like the preservation of open space is good for Nashville and May Town Center will preserve open space. Agree or disagree?” Felts explained. “Another one was about job creation being good for Nashville and May Town Center will create jobs. Agree or disagree? You either had to be against green space and jobs or in favor of May Town.” Felts said the final questions “were more objective, left May Town out of the equation, so they were easier to answer.”
Two videos posted on YouTube a month ago by “Checkmate 1013” have further inflamed May Town opponents. One is an attack on Metro Councilwoman Emily Evans, who’s publicly questioned the financial viability of May Town. The other assaults the environmental credibility of Bill Coble, a Bells Bend resident and active antagonist of the development.
Giarratana vehemently denies that he or anyone on the May Town team has had anything to do with push polls or videos, calling the suggestion “outrageous. I’m doing community-wide polling, at considerable expense, but it’s scientific, done by a reputable out-of-state pollster. We would never pay anyone to ask people if they were black or white. We are not doing what you’re describing.”
“I know where this stuff is coming from,” Giarratana claimed. “From Sumter Camp and Barry Sulkin, Jane Coble and Minda Lazarov” — leading May Town adversaries. He said he’s heard the “opponents are doing push polls.” Asked why people opposed to May Town would do push polls that are apparently pushing for the development, Giarratana said he doesn’t know, “but that’s what I’ve heard on the rumor mill.”
David Briley, the former Metro Councilman and mayoral candidate who’s working in opposition to the development responds, “We’ve never paid anybody to do any polling. Don’t have the money.”
In addition to the proactive campaign to generate support, the May Town team has pounced on missteps by its opponents. In late February, State Sen. Douglas Henry and House Rep. Gary Moore filed a bill that would have created a Rural and Natural Resources Area from Beaman Park to the bottom of Bells Bend. Within that area, development would have been limited to one dwelling or primary structure per 10 acres if two-thirds of area residents elected to have the RANRA designation.
Because the May Town plan is of much greater density, the bill would have blocked the development. The legislators said they were prompted by constituents who want to keep Bells Bend rural.
May Town proponents kicked into high gear, attacking the bill as an assault on individual property rights and property values by limiting what could be built. Pro-development media columnists chimed in. All through March, Scottsboro-Bells Bend residents fielded a flood of push polls, polls with which Giarratana also denies any involvement. Work said her caller asked her opinion about “radicals who want to take away your property rights.” An April letter from Moore to Bells Bend residents asking them to record their position on RANRA — and not mentioning May Town — yielded ballot results overwhelmingly opposed to the legislation. The bill died.
Giarratana interprets the ballot as indicating not only widespread disapproval of RANRA, but equally widespread support for May Town. As he stated in an e-mail: “While the so-called opposition has repeatedly claimed that Bells Bend residents wanted Bells Bend to remain rural, 77 percent of Bells Bend residents vote NO! on the legislation, with only 23 percent voting for the rural legislation. This vote certainly seems to debunk the opposition’s claim of holding a majority position!”
Giarratana has, however, made missteps of his own. A recent invitation to planning commissioners to pay $250 to accompany a TSU contingent on a one-day visit via private plane to North Carolina and Virginia was decried as an affront to open government by May Town haters. Tennessean columnist Gail Kerr advised the commissioners: “Don’t get on board” — and none did.
The specific targets of the trip were the Piedmont Triad Research Park in Winston-Salem, N.C. — which TSU’s Johnson helped establish when he was provost at Winston-Salem State — and Reston Town Center in Virginia, a planned community Giarratana claims as a model for May Town.
Scouting these sites, Giarratana wrote in the invitation letter, would help participants “better visualize the May Town Center proposal.” Most of the travelers were members of the advisory council that’s working with Johnson on the development of TSU’s research park.
The actual trip was hardly the luxury junket some May Town opponents suspected. The noisy prop plane was more like going Greyhound, but with less legroom. What we learned on the 12-hour marathon is that the folks at Piedmont Triad are doing amazing feats, spitting living cells out of laser printers and growing organs in vials. And Reston Town Center, designed by the same firm responsible for the May Town plan, features a pedestrian-friendly format for a dense mixture of office, retail and residential, with finely detailed storefronts and landscaping.
But in terms of land use, the key bone of contention regarding May Town, Piedmont Triad and Reston don’t make good comparables. Piedmont Triad has been developed as a tool for downtown revitalization, utilizing rehabbed warehouses as well as new construction along existing infrastructure. May Town would be greenfield development in an infrastructure-challenged area. And Reston Town Center may be admirable urban design, but it’s surrounded by huge tracts of suburban sprawl — not exactly the downtown in the leafy dell of the May Town plan.
What the trip and all the other marketing tactics really help to visualize is the strategic advice the Saint Group’s Fox gives all his clients: “Identify your supporters and get them in the room.” And if you can’t find them right away, create them.
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