Was Parking Lot for Governor's Friend? - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Friends in High Places

Was Parking Lot for Governor's Friend?

(Story created: 7/24/02)

Townsend, Tennessee calls itself "the peaceful side of the Smokies."

It's so peaceful that Gov. Don Sundquist decided to build his retirement home in an exclusive golf community in the mountains.

But these days that tranquility has been shattered by a controversy over a parking lot.

"Everybody in the community knows why this parking lot was gone in," says one resident.

"It's politics all the way," adds another.

"They can't fool the people of Townsend," says a third.

At the center of the controversy is local developer Gil Heinsohn.

Heinsohn built Sundquist's house and became friends with the governor.

"Heinsohn's a big buddy of the governor's, and they are doing everything they can up here together," resident Jerry Grant tells NewsChannel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams.

But when the Townsend developer decided to open up a rafting business in an old house, neighbors say he had one problem.

"He had no parking, had no parking at all," say Sue and Frank White.

One day, city officials spotted Heinsohn's crews building a parking lot on the state right-of-way next door to his business. They ordered him to immediately halt construction.

"In our view, it's a very, very serious traffic hazard," says Townsend city commissioner Ray LaBounty.

That's when Sundquist's transportation commissioner, Bruce Saltsman, came to town. He told city officials that the state would build the parking lot, whether they liked it or not.

"He said, I only have 200 and something odd more days in office. I was appointed to this office. I may never come up here again, but the parking lot is going in," recalls Sue White.

But Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesperson Luanne Grandinetti says "there was a need really for parking in the area."

She says when the state four-laned the main road through Townsend, it included plans for bike trails and parking spaces across the road from Heinsohn's property.

But the discovery of an Indian burial ground meant those plans had to be scaled back.

"We provided parking on the opposite side where we had planned to provide parking," Grandinetti says.

"So this was not a political favor?" Phil Williams asks.

"Phil, I can't answer that."

Sundquist's office says the governor was aware of the controversy, but left the decision to the Department of Transportation.

Grandinetti says the decision was made by the local TDOT regional official.

But the Whites say that man told them one day that he would not approve the parking lot, then abruptly called back the next morning to say there had been a "change in plans."

Even though Saltsman has claimed the parking lot wasn't built as a political favor, his own phone records show he was personally in touch with Heinsohn about the matter.

TDOT officials say the parking lot cost about $22,000.

These days, the parking lot sees a steady stream of traffic for Heinsohn's business. We even spotted inner tubes stacked on the edge of the lot -- that is, until they saw our cameras.

"It's just for advertising," a worker tells Williams.

"Advertising on a state parking lot?"

The worker has no response.

"The people of Townsend know why this parking lot was put there," Frank White adds.

Local residents say there's only one explanation why the state suddenly decided it needed more parking.

"There was no request or demand or encouragement of any of the city administration or anyone we know who would ask for that parking lot," LaBounty notes.

"Only one person wanted this parking lot and that was Mr. Heinsohn," Frank White adds.

They say it's brought home a bitter lesson about the value of having friends in high places.

Says Frank White, "I'm disappointed that one individual has such connections, that he can have something like this done over the objections of the city and the community."

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