Pigeon Forge City Commissioners gave the go-ahead to a nearly $45 million dollar special events center Wednesday afternoon that could drastically change an area of the city and Sevier County.
LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge will be a 230,000 square foot facility with multiple meeting rooms designed for trade shows and other events. The city expects to begin construction as soon as this summer with a possible opening date of 2013.
The deal is essentially a public-private partnership where local developer Darby Campbell will build the facility and Pigeon Forge will lease it back for a period of 27 years. After that lease, the city could purchase the facility for $1.
Commissioners hope to use Tourism Development Zone funding to pay for the lease. That money is essentially sales tax money that would otherwise go to the state.
Also, commissioners heard plans from Campbell to purchase the foreclosed Belle Island Village. The $70 million dollar development has been quiet for about two years but Campbell says he is currently in negotiations with the bank to purchase the property. His tentative plans are to operate it as an entertainment and retail center with a new name, Riverwalk Village at LeConte Center.
"The beauty of Pigeon Forge is it still has all this energy and people want to come here and they are able to expand. That's the logical place to go," Campbell said.
As part of Campbell's plan, Commissioners approved a deal to build a road through the current Belle Island property which would connect the new special events center to The Parkway.
Campbell said he could have the property under contract as soon as this week. If it happens as planned, he said the facility could at least partially open as soon as 2012.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the deals. Randal Robinson was the lone vote against agreements.
The commissioner said he felt the projects were not bid out like normal city purchases and the agreements were open ended, which could leave taxpayers on the hook to pay far more than commissioners expected. As part of the special events center, Pigeon Forge will pay for annual maintenance on the facility, which is expected to include major infrastructure components, such as heating and air conditioning units.
"This agreement is the worst deal I've ever read in my life. I think it's the most open (ended), I've never seen anything like this. I feel it's a scam to the residents and the businesses of Pigeon Forge," Robinson said.
Darby Campbell and his business partner Bob McManus own a number of Sevier County developments. They include Bullfish Grill, Blue Moose Burgers and Wings, and two Pigeon Forge hotels.