Tennessee State official applauds Pantheon Park innovation aims,|
but rejects proposal to sell Old TN State Prison as site
By Milt Capps
FAILURE to develop an idea like the proposed Pantheon Park campus for software and performing arts education, production and business in Nashville would be "a great loss for our community," says state Corrections Commissioner Derrick Schofield in a letter to Pantheon advocates.
However, Schofield rejects the notion of Pantheon developers buying the Old Tennessee State Prison in Davidson County.
In a letter dated 17 October and provided at VNC request by Pantheon organizers, Schofield also says his agency intends to stick with its plans to redevelop the site of The Castle, as the delapidated prison is often known, for its central operations, and has requested new state capital expenditures for that purpose.
Rehab of the long-decommissioned edifice of captivity has been approved as a project, but not acted upon by the Haslam Administration and the prior administration of former Gov. Phil Bredesen. The state has several times paid to study the redevelopment, over the decades.
Schofield's letter is here (pdf). Schofield seemed to make clear he was not speaking for state General Services and referred the would-be developers, including Dortsch Oldham Jr. and Tom Baldridge, to GS Commissioner Bob Oglesby. Oldham is also an owner-agent with Keller Williams Realty and Baldridge is a principal in McIntyre Ventures, a development company.
Several sources told VNC during preparation of this story that failure to get all the parties in one room simultaneously has been an impediment for their effort.
The arguably innovative nature of the project and the fact that the organizers have doggedly pressed their case, against great odds, for years drew VNC attention. The recent advance of the OneC1ty medical and life-sciences campus in Nashville, among other signs, seems to signal that the commercial real-estate climate might have improved. Our initial story on OneC1ty is here.
Baldridge said this morning his group would approach Oglesby and take further steps. He added, "People need to know this is not just an idea for idle developers looking for something to do. We are ready to go with this project."
Oldham and Baldridge have long contended that if the State will allow them to purchase the property through a transparent process, at a premium to the property's appraised value, they will be able in short order deploy $150 Million or more to redevelop the property and create the facilities that the corrections department needs, at a savings to taxpayers.
Baldridge stressed that the sound stages needed for world-class video and audio production, which would be an anchoring element of the campus, require the solitude the prison campus affords. Redevelopment of the site would be a boon for Davidson County, he added.
In addition to facilities and services to support the growing ranks of Nashville entrepreneurs, the Pantheon Park concept includes grades 7-12 public innovation schools and private academies that would, the organizers say, eventually serve more than 2,500 students.
Asked what other tactics he had in mind, Baldridge said only that the six-year-old Pantheon idea has fresh impetus in a period of economic recovery, and he believes the Haslam Administration and key state and Nashville-area officials will eventually accept his group's proposal to buy the prison property at market rates and build the corrections department the new facilities it seeks, elsewhere.
Baldridge said that he and other project advocates have discussed the matter in recent months with a long list of state and local elected and appointed officials, whom he declined to identify for publication. The economic-development, educational and other benefits of the project have evoked positive comments from virtually all those officials who have been contacted, he said, noting that not all key touchpoints have yet been approached, pending an update from Corrections.
Baldridge acknowledged in an interview that K-12 education innovation in Metro/Nashville might one day flourish without a multipurpose campus such as that proposed by Pantheon Park, but he stressed that the critical mass afforded by Pantheon would heighten the odds in favor of progress.
Nashville's odds of success in education innovation could be increased significantly, if Pantheon Park or a similar project provided a focal point or "a powerful tool to help a community vision what's possible" in advancing education and workforce readiness, according to Ted Fujimoto, president of Landmark Consulting Group, based in Burbank, Calif. Fujimoto was interviewed several times by VNC in the past year.
Apart from its nonprofit K-12 elements, the Pantheon Project would be a roughly 140-acre project. The for-profit undertaking would include music and entertainment production facilities, startup incubator or accelerator resources, possible technical or career training, special-event venues, and more.
Fujimoto's organization aims to support community groups that seek to cultivate higher-performance schools, and his website describes a "model-neutral" charter-schools management organizational concept that could be adapted to a given market. In each market, Fujimoto works with indigenous local sponsors, or creates a new organization to serve as the sponsor for a new schools initiative, according to his website.
Months ago, Fujimoto said in a letter to Pantheon backers, “This letter serves as our Letter Of Intent to support the Pantheon Park project in Nashville, Tennessee. We are excited about the mission of Pantheon Park: to instruct, encourage and enable student/entrepreneur/accelerator graduates to commercialize next generation games, entertainment applications and a variety of other content. From our initial conversation through today, you have emphasized a key component in the project is education. We believe the right education programs, integrated into the Pantheon Park model, will help Nashville build a workforce with the skills needed to attract, grow, and retain talent and companies.”
Fujimoto, who has visited Nashville several times on this and other business, told VNC that he is actively exploring how his group would mobilize community resources to support the educational component of Pantheon Park, should the project proceed. He is in contact with operators of both charter and private schools, he confirmed when asked, emphasizing at another point that he believes the Pantheon concept has "immense potential to impact the IT and entertainment communities" in Nashville, as well.
Fujimoto told VNC, "We have a few operators both on the charter and private school fronts that could maneuver into position once the development timeframe is solidified. I keep assessing where these groups are at and I'm keeping them warm."
Baldridge said this weekend that despite little recent forward movement, he maintains a network of individuals who are prepared to have it known that they support earnest consideration of the project, now.
The extent of the network members' commitments has not been determined by VNC, but according to Baldridge individuals who have pledged to support the project in some manner include Mark Montgomery of FloThinkery and other initiatives; entrepreneur and Moontoast co-founder Marcus Whitney; Steve Cropper (entertainer, producer, actor); New Orleans-based intellectual property attorney Brandon Frank; Rob Lowe of Cassidy-Turley; and, entrepreneur Dennis Lyftogt, among others.
Baldridge told VNC this past weekend that his group, which has explored several sites over the past few years, has in mind no alternatives to the state prison site. VNC