An opposition group to the planned underground hall at the governor’s mansion launched a public relations campaign Tuesday, shifting the conversation from a neighborhood dispute in upscale Oak Hill to the broader issue of appropriate use of taxpayer funds.
First Lady Andrea Conte, the Tennessee Residence Foundation and the state are planning on constructing a 14,024-square foot “Conservation Hall” underneath the front yard of the Executive Residence.
The hall is planned to host banquet-style events and to provide a large meeting space at the governor’s mansion.
In recent months, the plan for what critics call “Bredesen’s bunker” have riled neighbors in the tony neighborhood of Oak Hill. Residents have mainly complained about noise from the required blasting, additional traffic and general quality-of-life issues.
The scope was shifted in recent weeks, however, as one of Oak Hill’s wealthiest residents, car dealership owner Lee Beaman, invested $30,000 to $40,000 in seed money to start Tennesseans for Accountability in Government (TAG), a 501(c)4 nonprofit.
Tuesday, TAG hosted a mid-afternoon press conference, demanding to know additional information about the Conservation Hall and its finances and saying the project is an “irresponsible waste of money.”
“Anything less is unconscionable behavior by our public servants and is unacceptable,” said Susan Kaestner, TAG’s vice president. “TAG calls on the citizens of Tennessee who believe that we do not need to spend millions of dollars on an extravagant ballroom at the governor’s residence to act.”
State Architect Mike Fitts said the state would spend $3.86 million in connection with the Conservation Hall in order to widen the driveway, build a roundabout to drop off guests, make the complex ADA compliant and do landscaping.
If the state had decided to construct an above ground facility, as originally planned, Fitts said the state would have still had to spend a portion of that $3.86 million to do tasks like widen the driveway. He could not say how much the state would have spent if the alternative plan were chosen.
Besides the state’s portion, the remainder of the Conservation Hall will be funded through $4.8 million in private donations given to the Tennessee Residence Foundation.
“It’s justified in my mind,” Fitts said, adding an above-ground facility would have compromised the aesthetic appeal of the executive residence.
At this point, the overall cost of “Bredesen’s bunker” could be as high as $8.66 million.
Besides as much as $8.66 million for the Conservation Hall, state and private dollars spent at the governor’s mansion also includes funding renovations to the existing home. Those renovations included a new slate roof and new HVAC equipment, among others.
Overall, the state is set to spend $12.825 million and the Tennessee Residence Foundation contributing an additional $6.4 million to take the total cost to $19.2 million.
The only additional amount, Fitts said, would come from the state spending additional money on the existing carriage house to make it into a guesthouse facility.
Tuesday, TAG tried to compare the size of Conservation Hall and its 14,024 square feet to that of specific entertainment spaces, saying it was about four times the size of the East Room in the White House and larger than other existing facilities in Nashville.
The planned ballroom, however, for Conservation Hall will compose just about 3,000 square feet of the 14,000-square-foot facility, Fitts said.
The remainder of the space would be for the kitchen, bathrooms, cloakrooms, hallways, storage rooms, an HVAC unit and additional areas like the lobby and the staircase, Fitts said.
TAG’s Kaestner said she was unaware that the planned ballroom would be 3,000 square feet, but maintained that the Conservation Hall would have an environmental effect.
“There is a footprint question that is huge,” Kaestner said.