The News 4 I-Team has uncovered a plan for the Nashville Fairgrounds that's been kept under wraps for 10 months.
It earmarks fairgrounds land for a privately-owned car auction and museum.
Metro Council members had no idea that a plan had been created until contacted by the News4 I-Team.
“No one had any idea there were any other secret deals cooking on the Fairgrounds," Councilman John Cooper said.
The businessman who is facilitating the deal, Spencer Stolpen, has a federal conviction for felony bank fraud.
The News 4 I-Team obtained emails under the Open Records Act that spell out how the deal came together.
In October 2017, John Lowry, who heads up fundraising at Lipscomb University, approached Metro’s outgoing Chief Operating Officer Rich Riebeling with a proposal. John Lowry is the son of Randy Lowry, Lipscomb’s president.
John Lowry emailed Riebeling inviting him and others to the GAA Class Car Auction in Greensboro, NC, on Nov. 2-4.
“It would be great to get you and/or a couple of members of your team down to this event to see the facility and experience the auction,” John Lowry wrote.
John Lowry indicated that George Shinn would “host you all for dinner.”
Shinn collects classic cars at his home in Franklin, TN.
Shinn and his business manager, Stolpen, proposed that the fairgrounds build a 100,000-square-foot car auction facility similar to the one in Greensboro and that the Fairgrounds build an adjacent 50,000-square-foot building for the George Shinn Car Museum.
Prior to the Greensboro trip, John Lowry emailed Riebeling, saying, “I have pushed Spencer for details for you to incorporate into the site design.”
In addition to the buildings, John Lowry wanted tent-covered parking for 200-300 vehicles.
Riebeling took the trip to Greensboro with Laura Womack, executive director of The Fairgrounds Nashville, and Larry Atema, who had the contract to rehab the fairgrounds. Atema is a friend of Riebeling.
After the trip to Greensboro, Riebeling sent an email to Stolpen on Nov. 22 with the subject line, “Shinn Car Museum/Terms.”
1. Nashville Fairgrounds would agree to construct a facility of approximately 100,000 sq. ft., (quality comparable to Greensboro).
a. An auction operator would commit to hold an auction at least twice annually, (and hopefully quarterly).
b. The auction would pay the normal rental fees and donate a significant portion of the revenue generated to benefit Lipscomb University.
2. Nashville Fairgrounds would agree to construct a facility of approximately 50,000 sq. ft., which would be occupied by the Shinn Car Museum.
a. The Museum entity would be responsible for building out the interior of the facility and providing the contents (cars).
b. Nashville Fairgrounds would operate the museum and retain any revenue collected.
c. Museum entity would pay annual rental fee to the Nashville Fairgrounds for costs associated with constructing the museum building.
The I-Team asked Riebeling about the deal after a Council committee meeting on Monday, Aug. 6.
"There's no deal," Riebeling said.
When pressed, Riebeling said, "There's no deal. There's no proposal at this time"
"You offered them terms," Amons said.
“It's a half-a-page term sheet. It's not even a term sheet. It's ‘Here's an idea on how we might be able to work together,’” Riebeling said.
Remember carving up The Fairgrounds is already controversial. Some worry that the flea market and other uses will be squeezed out by the proposed MLS soccer stadium and by the 10 acres set aside for a private developer to build 900 apartments, a 200-room hotel, plus stores, restaurants and offices.
Is there room for a car auction and car museum?
Womack told Amons the car auction would likely share space in the new Expo center The Fairgrounds is expected to build. She said they already have a place in their plans for the car museum.
If you look at a map of the proposed fairgrounds redevelopment, there is a block next to the Expo Center marked “Fairgrounds Future Expansion.” That’s where Womack said the car museum would go.
Amons asked Womack why the plan isn’t labeled to show the museum site.
Womack told Amons it’s because the deal is “still in negotiation.”
So far all of this has been out of the public eye. The proposal has never come up at a Fair board meeting.
Womack said she had told fair board members about it in individual conversations.
Stolpen told Amons that he and Shinn were going to watch and wait until after the soccer stadium plan cleared its public hearings and Metro Council before making their plans public.
Shinn is the former owner of the NBA Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets franchise. In the late 1990's he was involved in a sex scandal. In a 2008 interview with The Charlotte Observer, Shinn admitted the drama over his personal life was why he moved the franchise to New Orleans.
Stolpen once worked for Shinn and the Hornets. After the two parted ways, Stolpen was federally charged in a bank fraud case. Federal documents indicate Stolpen was sentenced to serve 15 months in federal prison in 2004 in connection with knowingly writing a hot check for $100,000.
Stolpen told Amons that was “irrelevant.”
Amons asked Riebeling about Stolpen’s criminal history.
“Did you know he was a convicted felon?" Amons asked.
"Who is?" Riebeling asked.
"Spencer," Amons said.
"Not that I'm aware of," Riebeling said.
Amons shared Stolpen’s and Shinn’s history with Cooper.
"It boggles the mind that we could offer to be in business with these parties on this project on this land," Cooper said.
Cooper said this is not a good use for the public's land.
"It shouldn't go to private parties who are expecting to make a lot of money on it, and it shouldn't go to private parties who are guilty of bank fraud."
Acting Vice Mayor Sheri Wiener was unaware that Riebeling had offered Shinn and Stolpen terms on the section of fairgrounds land.
"I have to get more information about this," Weiner said.
Amons asked Mayor David Briley’s media spokesman if the deal was initiated at the request of former Mayor Megan Barry.
“No, it was not done at Mayor Barry’s direction or request, as far as I know,” spokesperson Michael Cass wrote in an email. “This was something the Fairgrounds wanted to explore, so the administration took a look at it.
“The Fairgrounds continues to have interest in a potential classic car museum and in holding auto auctions on the site, as those would be great ties to the speedway and would broaden their event offerings. The proposal is pending at this time.”
That contradicts internal emails and a statement sent by Lipscomb University spokesperson Kim Chaudoin.
“George Shinn, an avid classic car collector, had an idea for bringing a classic car museum to Nashville. John Lowry, who has a connection with Mr. Shinn through recent philanthropic work, facilitated an introduction to Rich Riebeling to learn more about Mr. Shinn's vision for a potential car museum in Nashville. After the initial introduction, Mr. Shinn suggested that a group of people from Nashville visit a facility in Greensboro, North Carolina, that is similar to the idea he has for Nashville. After the initial introduction and visit to the facility in Greensboro, Dr. Lowry has not been part of the conversation about the car museum.”
The chain of emails appear to indicate John Lowry did more than facilitate an introduction; he was the one who initially laid out the terms of Shinn’s deal.
John Lowry and Shinn have a common connection to Lipscomb. John Lowry heads its fundraising efforts. In April 2017, Shinn gave Lipscomb $15 million to fund construction of the Shinn College of Entertainment & the Arts. Less than six months later, Lowry introduced Shinn to Riebeling.
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