NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- An insider on Nashville's massive convention center project is speaking out in an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation. He claims one property forced to relocate because of the project got a sweetheart deal at taxpayer expense.
It's a deal that could put the convention center's land budget further in the red.
That property belongs to Rocketown, a non-profit, center for disadvantaged teenagers downtown. It has a skate park, and concert hall and a well connected board of directors.
Metro bought Rocketown's property last year in advance of the convention center project.
But our investigation reveals Metro gave the organization unusual deals that dramatically increased what taxpayers paid.
"I said you can't do this and they said, no, we can do what we want to do," recalled John Quinnan, a former real estate officer for Metro's Development and Housing Agency (MDHA).
Quinnan negotiated many of the deals associated with the Music City Center project
He claims MDHA inflated the cost of Rocketown's property.
"They went out of their way to redirect funds, in my opinion, that should not have been for that reason," Quinnan added.
The Tennessee Electronic Motor Company sat right beside Rocketown. The owner says the offer for his family business was in the neighborhood of $60 a square foot.
Rocketown got double that amount.
"I would suspect there was some pull or political influence there somewhere," Eddie Grant said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Quinnan, "Rocketown was treated differently?"
"Yes," he said.
Part of Quinnan's job was to review appraisals. Rocketown's $6.2 million appraisal was more than $2 million higher than MDHA's original appraisal. Quinnan claims he repeatedly told his bosses it was full of obvious flaws.
"I said I have no confidence whatsoever -- I don't think we can use it," he added.
MDHA's director of development Joe Cain said he doesn't remember anyone saying the appraisal had problems.
"I do not have any communication from him where he brought that to my attention," Cain insisted.
And he said that, to this day, he doesn't see any flaws that disqualify the appraisal.
In the end Metro paid $5.6 million -- that's more than even it's highest appraisal -- plus an additional $240,000 in moving expenses.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Cain, "How is it that a property that is so close to so many that are getting $60-$65 a square foot going for almost double that?"
"Well, the building is significant out there," he said.
Cain also said that Rocketown's building had upgrades that warranted more money.
But we found that Rocketown's own financial statements valued the land and buildings much closer to Metro's original appraisal at $4.3 million.
Was there political pressure to raise the price here?
"No," Cain said.
But Rocketown got even more money.
The Convention Center Authority voted to give Rocketown an additional $575,000 to move out of its building just 20 days earlier than its original deadline.
Then, in an unprecedented move, the board voted to give them matching funds of $400,000 if Rocketown could raise that amount which it did.
"It appears to me that's an excuse to give them more money," said former Metro Council member Michael Craddock.
Craddock has been in real estate 31 years and said he had never seen a deal like that.
"Do you feel like Rocketown was treated differently?" we asked.
"Absolutely," Craddock added. "If you look at this in writing anybody could tell that they were treated differently."
In an audio recording of the Convention Center Authority Meeting where the money was approved, one board member raised concerns about going over budget because of the deal.
But then someone says: "I don't want to talk for the administration [but] when the deal was originally done to buy their property it was an understanding that the city, MDHA, the Authority would look for ways to further assist them."
The Authority's chairman is Marty Dickens. His wife, Betty, sits on Rocketown's board and was about to become chair.
"That is pure conflict of interest someone should have recused themselves," Craddock said.
Dickens wouldn't talk to NewsChannel 5 Investigates, but he sent a statement saying the Authority was worried about the safety of teens visiting the center in the midst of construction and the project might be delayed if they didn't move out days early.
Add it all up, and Metro spent more than $6.8 million dollars for property Rocketown bought and developed for $3.6 million.
"I was pretty involved up until the end when it became more political and less factual," John Quinnan said.
MDHA admitted Quinnan was a good employee who was laid off this summer due to budget cuts. He said he's speaking out because he taxpayers need to know.
"I'm talking about things they're doing wrong and they are going to continue to do wrong until somebody says stop."
Marty Dickens gave NewsChannel 5 a second statement, saying the decision to help relocate Rocketown was "fully vetted by city officials" and he feels comfortable with his vote.
As for the money, Metro is already over budget for what it thought it would have to pay for land acquisition.
City officials admit the Rocketown purchase may make that problem even worse.