Festival Tennessee Or Flop?

The town of Spring Hill, Tenn., used to be known for manufacturing Saturns but, with General Motors’ shutdown of the auto production plant there, it now hopes to become a destination for vacationers. A developer has proposed a $750 million amusement park for the area, but the plan has raised a field of red flags for locals.

Festival Tennessee, according to developer Dennis Peterson, would sit on 1,500 acres, sport two resort hotels with 4,000 rooms each, 80 restaurants and clubs, and one of the largest water parks in the U.S.

Long-range aspirations include a stadium, NBA franchise, television production studio and charter school.

It could create 15,000 to 20,000 jobs for the town, located about 45 minutes from Nashville. And it could be ready to open in less than two years, Peterson announced at a March press conference.

Spring Hill Mayor Michael Dinwiddie had been quietly working with Peterson on the project for two months prior to the announcement, according to the New York Times, and is “cautiously optimistic.” According to the paper, it appears there’s good reason for caution.

First, no one contacted state authorities about such a huge plan. Peterson’s company, Big International Group of Entertainment, has had its license revoked by the State of Nevada. A woman listed as the company’s treasurer, when contacted by the Times, said she never actually worked for the company and did not want her name associated with it.

A former company officer, Thomas Maierle, continues to advise Peterson and, according to the paper, has some issues of his own – namely, being on parole in Michigan for possession of “child sexually abusive material.” He told the Times his current role with BIG is “a subjective question.”

Whether a reported registered sex offender should be attached to an amusement park that attracts families with children is probably less subjective.

The paper also reports that Peterson has liens, judgments and eviction notices in California, Florida, Nevada and Utah totaling some $750,000. One investor, alleging fraud, reportedly won a $200,000 judgment in a suit against Peterson. BIG President Roger Kidneigh filed for Ch. 13 bankruptcy protection in Nevada, according to the Nashville Business Journal, and has yet to emerge from the reorganization of assets.

Peterson has reportedly also dreamed of a Las Vegas theme park that never materialized, nor did an animated film to be called “The Way of the Unicorn” and voiced by Michael Jackson.

Nashville attorney David Anthony told the Times he knew about Festival Tennessee before just about anyone. A local man facing foreclosure on several properties last year came to him with a promise that a Florida millionaire – Peterson – planned to buy three of them for an inflated price of $7 million. Peterson, as proof of his financial resources, sent a packet of material including plans for Festival Tennessee as well as the “Unicorn” movie.

Yet Dinwiddie has faith, even if it is of the “trust, but verify” sort. Peterson has not requested public financing. “It should be a very positive story,” he told the Times, noting that it would cost the town nothing if it fails, but create all those jobs if it succeeds.

At a recent planning commission meeting, Dinwiddie suggested the commission grant “conditional use” on a rezone of 725 acres, allowing Peterson to move forward with his plan, according to the Tennessean. If he doesn’t meet the conditions, the property returns to its current zoning. The commission later made the recommendation.

There are several official hoops to jump through before Peterson could even break ground, according the paper, starting with the submission of an actual site plan. And local officials, namely the Board of Mayor and Alderman, have started the clock by approving a resolution that would annex 200 acres of land related to Festival Tennessee.

The board stopped short, however, of approving a plan of service for the property, according to the Nashville Business Journal, and requested more information from Peterson before doing so.

With the project at least before a planning commission and city board, it’s hoped by some residents that proper scrutiny of Festival Tennessee and its backers will allow it to stand or fall on its own.

Michael Glass, chairman of the Spring Hill Planning Commission, wrote an editorial to the Tennessean that doesn’t inspire confidence for the developer and mayor, whom Glass likened to a cartoon character.

“Hopefully, in this episode, as Wile E. Coyote is chasing the Road Runner all by himself through the Nevada desert, an anvil will not fall on his head, as it did on everyone else that has chased this particular bird,” Glass wrote.

“Probably not. We all know how these cartoons end.”