It turns out that Lee Beaman, the zillionaire businessman who’s leading neighbors fighting “Bredesen’s Bunker” partly to prevent blasting for the gigantic underground banquet hall at the governor’s mansion, isn’t opposed to dynamiting at his own house. Beaman blasted away last year for the home he’s building in ritzy Forest Hills, but denies any hypocrisy.
“My concern with the governor’s project is not the blasting,” Beaman tells the Scene by cell phone from the ski slopes of Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he’s vacationing. “That doesn’t bother me at all. It’s the inappropriate use of taxpayer money. I’ve never taken issue with the blasting.”
Maybe not, but other of the governor’s Oak Hill neighbors, including Beaman’s wife Kelley, have made blasting one of their major complaints during raucous public meetings on the bunker—at times verging on the hysterical on that topic, in fact. Blasting is supposed to last two months in the otherwise quiet neighborhood, and contractors haven’t reassured anyone by promising to blow a horn whenever the dynamite’s fuse is about to be lighted, presumably so residents can cover their ears.
“I find it arrogant for you to come in one month before you are going to start blasting and say this is what we are going to do,” Kelley Beaman scolded state officials at one meeting.
One resident, Lorelee Gawaluck, fretted aloud that dynamiting might damage the tender young minds of neighborhood kids. “Are they going to send in a psychologist to tell us how to prepare our children?” she demanded to know.
The Beamans live down the street from the governor’s mansion now but will move soon to Forest Hills. They didn’t dispatch child psychologists when they dynamited the foundation for their home under construction in that Nashville satellite city. But Beaman says, “we talked to the neighbors before we did any blasting” and there were no complaints, certainly none from Gov. Phil Bredesen or first lady Andrea Conte, who are living in their own Forest Hills home during the renovation of the Executive Residence.
“Where’d you get the idea to try to draw a parallel between what I’m doing in building a foundation for my house and what the governor is doing with that ballroom?” Beaman asks. “How is that parallel? My project was using my own money, not taxpayer money. The governor doesn’t need to be spending money on some project that’s not needed and not wanted by the taxpayers of this state.”
Be that as it may, the whole controversy could end this week when the Democrat-dominated Tennessee Building Commission votes again about whether to give the project the go-ahead. Bredesen, who chairs the commission, isn’t expected to attend. Aides say his vote won’t even be needed.
The governor’s anticipated victory hasn’t come without some embarrassment to both himself and the first lady, who has defiantly embraced the bunker as a pet project.
Beaman has bankrolled a group, Tennesseans for Accountability in Government (TAG), that was created to battle the project, and it has held press conferences and blitzed the media with releases castigating the Bredesens, who insist the 13,000-square-foot entertainment annex, called Conservation Hall, is needed to host parties and other large gatherings. Republicans across the state have jumped on the bandwagon to criticize the escalating cost of remodeling the state’s brick Georgian Revival mansion. It began as a $9.5 million enterprise in 2003, and that was supposed to have been almost entirely funded by private donations. Now, the project, complete with the $5 million banquet hall, carries a $19 million price tag, and $11 million is coming from public funds.
All the hubbub inspired an article in The New York Times, which suggested a quid pro quo exists between the governor’s office and at least one donor to the mansion remodeling—Nissan North America, which has received state benefits. In the article, the first lady, unused to media criticism, called that intimation “an insult.”
The bunker’s opponents say the governor could host parties elsewhere in Nashville—at the new Schermerhorn Symphony Center or the Country Music Hall of Fame—and they say the renovation hasn’t been subject to the state’s competitive bidding process.
“The entertainment complex might provide the governor the convenience of hosting a large gathering on the mansion grounds rather than taking a 15-minute ride to one of Nashville’s premiere facilities,” TAG says in its latest media missive. “However, that convenience is not a need.…”
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