Renovation loan denied on 3-2 vote

Friday, August 14, 2009

A lawyer's request for a low-interest city loan to renovate a building just off Lewisburg's public square was denied by the City Council at its Tuesday night meeting.

After 45 minutes of heated discussion, Councilor Ronald McRady's motion to stick with the Community Development Board's recommendation to lend only $20,000 to David McKenzie was carried by a vote of 3-2.

McKenzie, who lives in Tullahoma, and currently practices law from a rented office on First Avenue, had asked for all of the $100,000 available as a low interest community development loan funded by an Urban Development Action Grant.

"I'm here tonight to get the point across that the $20,000 cap is going to kill that program," McKenzie said. "Without substantial funds you will not get folks to invest. If I walked away you'd just have another dilapidated building."

"This $100,000 is not for renovation," McRady asserted. "It's for fixing up the outside of a building and what you can see of the inside. You seem to be asking for the whole pie.

"I resent people coming in and taking over and saying they're going to save Lewisburg," McRady added. "This money is for the merchants to spruce up - not to do what you want to do. Bob Binkley told you the same thing."

"There's only been one other person (to take advantage of the loan program)," McKenzie pointed out. "You may wait another 14 years to get another applicant. I'm trying to improve the square -I want it all to look great so people will take pride in their town."

Council members questioned the wisdom of buying a structure that is, according to McKenzie, in such poor repair. McKenzie said he started in November 2008, and took seven months to purchase the building. Finally, he told the council, he said to himself, "I'm going to set down roots," and made the commitment, even though he knew the place needed work on the roof and foundation, as well as plumbing and electrical systems.

"This will be paid back," argued council member Quinn Brandon on McKenzie's behalf. "It's not taxpayer money. We do need an incentive to get these buildings going. We've got problems on the square."

"I don't want to tie up $100,000 in one lump," Councilor Robin Minor said. "How long is this going to take?"

"I'll be done in January 2010," McKenzie replied. "If I don't get the $100,000 it will take longer."

McKenzie plans to work on the building himself every weekend, and he intended to hire only local labor, the lawyer said.

"I'm going to benefit, but the whole county will benefit," McKenzie said. "I'm not trying to do anything to hurt this county."

"You still can't change the intent of this grant," McRady said. "It's for facades, not renovations. That's what we have banks for."

Brandon interjected, "I'd be willing to change it to include renovations. We have this money."

McKenzie told the council he had three other people in Bedford County interested in investing in Lewisburg, but waiting to see how his project turned out.

"If my investors follow and buy the corner building, the whole stretch will look good," he said. "You're not giving it to me, you're loaning it. I'll be making it something nice; something we can be proud of."

His arguments failed to sway the Council, and councilors decided to agree with the Community Development Board's cap of $20,000 on a loan to McKenzie. Those voting "yes" were McRady, who made the motion, with Minor and Odie Whitehead Jr. Brandon and Councilor Hershel Davis voted "no."

"I do wish we could work something out," Minor said wistfully after the vote.

In other Council business:

* A resolution on soliciting on the square was unanimously adopted after the third reading, incorporating McRady's amendment to add military groups like the American Legion Auxiliary that are not 501(c)(3) organizations, so they could solicit donations on the square.

* An amendment regarding "bottle clubs" was also unanimously approved on the second reading of the change to the city's zoning ordinance. A public hearing before the meeting started on the subject of bottle clubs drew no comments from those in attendance.

* Mike Wiles, executive director of the Joint Economic and Community Development Board, announced that Marshall County had achieved Three-Star status again for 2008-2009. He thanked everyone involved, especially Greg Lowe and Terry Wallace, for helping to make it happen.