Henry Sender has big plans for his Union Station train shed. This month, at a plush, private party undernearth the shed, the developer who turned Cummins Station from a dusty warehouse to a trendy office space talked about his new commercial enterprisethe Gateway to Nashville.
Inside the vast shed, he would build a multi-level parking garage. On top would go a galleria, which may include such amenities as an ice-skating rink, a glass elevator, and ornate landscaping to boot. If all goes well, Sender hopes to start construction within 60 days.
And so far, all has gone very well for Mr. Sender. Across the street from his shed is the publicly owned Clement Landport, which has big plans of its own with an $8 million expansion.
By Sender’s own admission, the expansion of the landport will increase the value of his property. After all, the landport will include one level of parking, which would be added to Sender’s garage, and possibly even a nice-looking city park on the west side of the shed. The site of the park is on land owned by CSX, but Chamber of Commerce officials have their eye on it and have even included a sketch of what that park might look likereplete with a man-made lakein their profile of the landport.
City officials call this deal a public/private partnership. For the city, the Metro Transit Authority gets to build on Sender’s property in order to expand their landport, which according to the Chamber of Commerce, will eventually serve as a transportation hub linking commuter rail passengers to light rail trains, buses, and shuttles. And for Sender, his dusty shed could soon become a mini-Grand Central Station swallowing tired commuters looking to spend some of their disposable income in his mall.
“We think this is a win/win,” says Bob Babbitt, MTA’s executive director. “It’s a new kind of public/private partnership.”
That may be true, but to some, it’s an old kind of politics. Henry Sender and Congressman Bob Clement, who secured the funding for the landport, are longtime friends. They go back at least 30 years and Sender talks about visiting Clement’s late father, Frank, when he was governor. Sender gave $2,000 to Clement during his last congressional campaign, the maximum allowed under federal law. To some, Sender’s close ties to Clement merit concern.
“Clearly you have a case where one of the congressman’s financial supporters who maxed out to him in the last election is getting a nice deal involving federal grant funds that will enhance the value of his property. Eyebrows ought to be raised,” says Larry Makinson, the executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics.
Aides to Clement say that expanding the landport near the shed was done for practical, not political reasons. “He doesn’t feel like there’s any conflict of interest,” press secretary Christi Ray says of her boss.” He’s a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and he’s always looking out for Nashville’s best interests.” She adds, “It’s not uncommon to form private/public partnerships.”
Sender also dismisses any suggestion that his relationship with the congressman paved the way for the planned expansion of the landport.
“For a $2,000 donation he would stick his neck out for me?” asks Sender rhetorically. “He has so many friends, probably a lot of them better than me.” Sender does add, however, that he kept the congressman informed of his own plans about the Gateway and that Clement has been “fully supportive from day one.”
Asked whether the landport will make his Gateway to Nashville project all the more valuable, he says, “Why certainly, but there are a lot of things that enhance one’s property besides federal grants. A lot of ingredients go into a pie.” Or for that matter, a public/private partnership.
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