Controversy Over How To Pay For Wilson County Expo Center
By Chris Cannon
LEBANON, Tenn. - Wilson County commissioners want to build a new exposition center at the country fairgrounds. But the way they plan to pay for the project has upset hotel and motel owners.
The 80,000 square foot expo center would be used to attract larger groups to the county, who would spend more time in local hotels and eat at local restaurants.
"When we started this process we said if we can do it without it being a burden on the taxpayers of Wilson County, without us having to go to them and ask them for money to do this, well then we'd try to do it," said county commissioner Jeff Joines.
One method to cover the cost of construction would be to raise the hotel/motel occupancy take as much as three percent.
"It doesn't mean it will go to three percent, it just means it has the ability to go that high," Joines said," Joines said.
The county would need approval from the state legislature to increase the tax. Joines said the increase would not be too much of a burden on travelers.
"Just to give you an example, if you stay in a $50 a night room, it'd be an extra dollar and a half charge," he explained.
But hotel/motel owners in Wilson County worry what a tax increase will do to their businesses.
"We feel we are unfairly targeted because it is the easiest tax to pass on," according to Bhavin Ghodasara, owner of the Mt. Juliet Hampton Inn.
According to the owners, occupancy taxes in the county are very high. Currently in Lebanon the rate is 16.25% and in Mt. Juliet the room tax is 19.25%. Another three percent increase would make those rates some of the highest in the nation.
"now you have a disadvantage as a county and a city that your tax rate could be $5 to $8 more than your surrounding counties," Ghodasara said.
He feels the increase will keep his average customer from staying in Mt. Juliet.
"The target of this market is lower income, to middle income people. So you targeting people who have the least amount of money and they have to pay out of pocket," Ghodasara said.
The owners also question why a feasibility study was never conducted on the project to see if the expo center is even needed in the county.
The plan to increase the occupancy tax has its first vote with the Wilson County Commission on February 25th. If it passes then, it will go onto the state legislature for approval, then back to the county for more votes.
If the funding mechanism is approved construction on the expo center would start in late August, soon after the Wilson Count Fair ends.