Free Christmas decorations from economic development

Friday, December 21, 2007

A small South Central Tennessee town acquired Christmas decorations for its courthouse square, its major boulevard and nearby avenues at virtually no cost because of an inspired use of a federally funded economic development program.

This 20-year-old story is worth re-telling now because it's the season, but also because here, there's the prospect of doing the same thing with the new business park on Mooresville Highway where a couple of on-going stories have revealed recurring efforts for more and better employment in Lewisburg.

So, with hope that Christmas spirits really are renewing hope this season, let me retell the old story and do what reporters do -- ask some questions.

During the mid to late 1980s, the Winchester City Council was reminded that a contract with a local factory was maturing. Pretty soon, the city would have to say, "Thanks for the payments," and transfer ownership of the Cowan Road land to the factory's owner.

Industrial development revenue bonds had been sold decades earlier.

To foster employment, the city hosted the sale of securities that were bought by investors who prefer income-tax free payments when they are, in effect, loaning money. Revenue bonds are paid from profits earned by the businesses that build factories with low-cost, government assisted financing.

The factory in question had been a hat factory that closed, supposedly because Jack Kennedy didn't wear a hat to his inauguration. However, the building was sold and soon carpets were being made there. During those years, the city retained ownership of the land under an agreement that when the bonds were repaid by the business, the city would release the property to the factory owners.

Before that time came, city leaders recognized they owned an asset that had grown over the decades. There were trees growing tall from an old fence row. Many were Poplar.

Buster Gunn was a member of the city's utility board at the time. His professional experience included grading lumber and he was able to put a value on the asset the city still held. Apparently, the city's obligation was only to transfer the land after the business revenue bonds were repaid. If there was a mention of anything else, it seems clear after all these years that the factory operators didn't object to the idea of the city having lumberjacks harvest the trees.

So, they did, and $20,000 was what the city obtained from the sale of trees that became lumber, or wood for other purposes.

Franklin County Mayor Richard Stewart remembers some of those facts about trees before Christmas time one winter nearly 20 years ago. He was a city councilman before he became mayor of the town and now the county.

Then-Mayor Howard Hall raised the question of whether the city should spend all the proceeds on Christmas decorations for utility poles, or whether some should be held in reserve for some other purpose. Somehow, the question became, "Shall we go whole-hog?"

Then-Councilman Stewart embraced the idea of buying as many Christmas decorations as possible with the money and was, as I remember, part of an uneven chorus of those advocating the "whole-hog" approach. He doesn't remember that phrase being used, but I do.

With the passage of two decades, the decorations have faced some of Tennessee's famous ice storms and one winter that included what folks called the "storm of the century," complete with high drifts of snow that closed schools. And surely, in 20 years there's been at least one white Christmas that dulled the bright red, green and other colors of the decorations around the square. "They're changing them," Stewart told me on Wednesday. "City Administrator Beth Rhoton has taken it upon herself to replace broken decorations."

It is that way here, too.

Lewisburg City Manager Eddie Fuller says that every summer the City Council has included about $1,000 in its budget for replacement decorations.

As for the availability of trees in a fencerow, Stewart says, "It just happened."

It doesn't have to be like that, and maybe it wasn't. How often has someone spoken a prayer and someone else overheard the request? How often have others recognized both a need and their ability to meet it, and then in response acted either through good stewardship or because they're a Good Samaritan?

In recent weeks, Lewisburg City Council has confronted a series of decisions regarding the development of its business park on the west side of town. Typically, and as part of the good stewardship required in government, there have been some bumps in the road.

However, as this local government travels through these times, what's to prevent it from planting in the business park several rows of trees so that they may be harvested decades from now? Is it not possible for the contracts being written now for buildings in the new business park to be shaded by trees? Wouldn't that help the businesses since here in the South we spend more money on power to cool our buildings instead of heating them? And wouldn't it be nice to provide shade for employees' cars parked while they work?

Now, as for what should be done when the trees are harvested, I'll ask for suggestions on what should be done with the proceeds. The Marshall County Tribune accepts letters to the editor. Would it be worthwhile to let the next generation of leaders to decide after they earn their positions of leadership?