The idea of using the 1930’s-era Comer Barn as the centerpiece for a 39-acre Agricultural/STEM center for Sumner County Schools garnered approval from both the Sumner County Commission and the Sumner County Board of Education earlier this week following back-to-back votes.
County officials have debated for years whether or not to renovate the deteriorating structure believed by local historians to be one of the earliest sites in the area for breeding and selling Tennessee walking horses.
In March of 2016, Rogers Group, who operates a quarry on the adjacent land between Hendersonville and Gallatin, deeded the 8,500 square-feet structure and easements to the county contingent on several conditions. The county also leases the Comer House next to the barn on Nashville Pike from Rogers Group for office space for the Sumner County tourism and visitor’s bureau.
County Commission members voted in August 2020 to appropriate $500,000 toward preserving the barn with half the money coming from a state grant and the other half coming from the county’s hospital fund earmarked for economic development.
Since then, efforts have been underway to preserve the structure with District 6 Commissioner Deanne DeWitt leading the charge.
On Monday, members of the Sumner County Commission voted 16 to 8 to approve a resolution that would allow for the transfer of the Comer Barn to the school district. The resolution also states that Rogers Group will donate approximately 42 acres to the county. The county will keep the three to four acres that the Comer House sits on for the tourism office and transfer the remaining property, including the barn, to the school system.
The resolution is contingent on the approval of the Sumner County Board of Education as well as Rogers Group’s donation of the land. The Board of Education voted to unanimously to approve the resolution on Tuesday. It’s unclear what the timeline is for the transfer of the property. No one from Rogers Group attended either meeting.
A draft design for an Ag/STEM Learning Center that includes an orchard, an education/restroom pavilion, a greenhouse and a large parking lot in Phase 1 of the project was unveiled to the county’s historic committee and the Sumner County Board of Education on Sept. 7.
Director of Schools Del Phillips said at the BOE meeting that he’s had discussions with DeWitt, Rogers Group leaders and others over the last six to eight months about the project.
He also said then that he estimated Phase 1 of the project to cost around $3 million to $3.5 million and that the school district could use federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds to pay for it.
In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, the school district has received three rounds of ESSER funding totaling around $49 million.
At both the county commission meeting on Monday and the BOE meeting on Tuesday, several citizens spoke in opposition to using federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief)
funds to pay for the project.
During the meeting on Tuesday, School Board member Andy Daniels proposed instead to use money from the school district’s general purpose fund to pay for the project. The school district’s annual budget is around $300 million.
Several school board members hailed the project as a visionary one with no one voicing opposition to it.
“There’s a lot of vision that’s been used in this,” said School Board member Jeff Duncan. “There’s a huge array of agricultural abilities to teach our children… 42 prime acres in Sumner County that we can use to educate our agricultural sector in Sumner County.”
“I don’t see an old barn,” said School Board member Betsy Hawkins. “I have a vision of what this can be… something that can benefit all students. We need to have this vision of what this could be.”
DeWitt addressed school board members noting that there would be a new deed associated with the property, that eliminated past restrictions that have been placed on the property by Rogers Group. She also said the company plans to begin blasting underground, making reverberations felt throughout the area less impactful.
While school board members were unanimous in their approval of the project, some county commission members weren’t as enthusiastic.
“If it could be used for anything else, it would’ve already been used,” said Commissioner Terry Wright. “Whether we use federal funds, et., it’s still taxpayer money.”
Commissioners Moe Taylor, Steve Graves, Jeremy Mansfield, Jerry Becker, Terry Wright, Michael Guthrie, Merrol Hyde and Brian Stewart voted against the resolution.
Still, a majority of the commissioners approved it.
“This is a way for historic preservation for Sumner County,” said Commissioner Larry Hinton. “If you want to lose this property, then vote this down.”
According to the resolution, the school system could use the Ag/STEM Learning Center for elementary field trips, middle school camps, high school projects, agriculture technology, gardening, horticulture, irrigation, storm water management, and other projects.
The center would be available for community functions following the same protocols in place for existing school property. It would also support stronger partnerships with FFA, 4-H and the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension office for competition and exhibition space.
The county has spent approximately $8,700 of the $500,000 on repairs and consulting fees, and will give the transfer the remaining funds to the school system for use to repair the structure, according to the resolution.
Two studies have been conducted to determine the barns needs and possible uses. A 2015 study conducted by Centric Architecture determined the space could be used as a seasonal or year-round facility, and needed roof repairs, a sprinkler system and security system, electrical and HVAC upgrades, new windows and doors and the removal of some stalls. Cost estimates ranged from $1.3 million for a seasonal facility to $1.7 million for a year-round facility.
A 2017 economic feasibility study paid for by the county’s tourism board concluded the barn would be best suited as a destination restaurant and entertainment venue or a multi-use event center.
County leaders failed to pursue that idea, however, after concern that the center would compete with local business owners.