"We couldn't have a more beautiful day for such an exciting announcement like we are about to make here."
Approximately 10 years ago on March 2, 2011, then-mayor of Spring Hill Michael Dinwiddie stood in an empty field just south of Duplex Road and east of I-65 to make an earth-shattering announcement: Spring Hill would soon be getting its own theme park called Festival Tennessee.
Standing beside him was a man named Dennis Peterson, the developer behind the project.
In addition to the theme park, there were also plans for 80 restaurants and clubs, a charter school focusing on the arts, a television production studio, a water park, as well as two resort hotels with 4,000 rooms each. Plus a massive sports stadium and an official NBA team.
Obviously, none of those plans ever came to fruition. Following his first term as mayor, Dinwiddie lost his next race for alderman in 2013 to now-Vice Mayor Amy Wurth, receiving just 564 votes to Wurth's 1,833.
Some have placed the blame for the fiasco solely on Dinwiddie, arguing that the excitement of such a monumental investment into Spring Hill under his watch clouded his judgement. Others laid praise onto Dinwiddie for taking a leap of faith for the betterment of the city, even if it didn't turn out as planned.
In their own words, here is how the Festival Tennessee debacle unfolded in real time, according to a number of community leaders at the time.
"It was 10 minutes after meeting them that I knew everything would unravel"
Jonathan Duda, who served as an alderman in Spring Hill from 2005-2017, said that he had first caught wind of the project shortly after Feb. 4, 2011. According to Duda, Dinwiddie had traveled to Florida to discuss Festival Tennessee without notifying a number of sitting alderman, including Duda and then-Alderman Rick Graham.
Later that month, Duda was first approached by members of the team behind Festival Tennessee.
Describing the scene, Duda said that several individuals behind the project came to his office and pitched their idea for the massive development. They had also asked Duda to sign a non-disclosure agreement, a legal document that would prohibit him from publicly sharing information regarding their discussions. Duda refused.
Nevertheless, Duda's guests continued their pitch, explaining that the project could create anywhere from 5,000-7,000 jobs. Intrigued, Duda asked them if they had an interchange planned for the project given its enormous scale. Duda said that the team said an interchange hadn't been planned yet, but asked if he could put them in touch with the governor to start discussions.
It was then that Duda said he knew something wasn't right.
"Less than 10 minutes into the meeting I said 'guys, I wish you well but I think you're a little bit out of your league on this,'" Duda said. "They [also] had a concept plan and put it in front of me and the interstate was going east to west. It immediately did not pass the smell test."
Following the peculiar meeting, Duda said he immediately began researching the names of those who had just pitched him Festival Tennessee. Duda said that things popped up that suggested "they really had some other problems."
It was at this point that Duda said he began warning other members of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen that the project had some obvious red flags. Duda was not the only person to recognize this, with news outlets from the Nashville Business Journal to The New York Times uncovering a number of red flags about Peterson, the man behind the project.
As reported in The New York Times, Peterson had allegedly procured a $450,000 loan using a deed sent to him mistakenly by a title insurance company in 2007. Businesses owned by Peterson had also faced a number of liens, bankruptcies and eviction notices over the years, further throwing doubt onto his ambitious $750 million project.
But despite the red flags, Duda said that Dinwiddie maintained that Peterson was acting in good faith, and as an added measure of trust for the project, Dinwiddie approved multiple special-called meetings to help Peterson and his team expedite the project.
"They were saying that they were going to be open within  months, that was [why] they said they needed the city to approve everything very quickly so that they could be open by Thanksgiving," Duda said. "They had asked the city to condense about three months of open meetings into a process of about three to four weeks."
As part of the expedited process, Dinwiddie had called on the city's Planning Commission to quickly approve the developer's request to rezone the site to B-4 zoning, which would essentially grant the developer extreme flexibility.
It would be around two weeks after the initial March 2 announcement that tempers would come to a head.
"At a Planning Commission meeting on March 14, 2011 where the commission voted on this slate of zoning recommendations, the chairman at the time — Michael Glass — made a public statement," Duda said.
"Essentially [he] said the city is bending its own rules and this is not how the public expects the city to operate. He made some very public strong statements against it. The next day the mayor removed him from the Planning Commission."
Despite the passionate disagreements, the developer's request to have the site rezoned passed for a recommendation with a vote of 3-2, with Duda and Glass voting against the rezoning.
"The whole premise was off, it was not right"
Spring Hill Mayor Rick Graham, who in 2011 was a sitting alderman, said he also shared in Duda's skepticism regarding Festival Tennessee.
"Quickly, everybody was figuring out that this didn't seem to be a legit project," Graham said. "Why wasn't the state involved? There were so many questions. The whole premise was off, it was not right."
Graham said that he had also been asked to sign an NDA, something he refused to do as did Duda. After doing his own research on the team behind the project, Graham also became wary of their legitimacy.
During the March 2 press conference that unveiled the plans for Festival Tennessee to the world, both Graham and Duda were noticeably absent. Graham said this was due to his skepticism of the project and the team behind it.
"By [the March 2 press conference] we had already been doing our homework on [if] this is really legit, I was skeptical like everybody else was," Graham said. "This was typical Mayor Dinwiddie behavior because he didn't seek council, he basically ran on tangents of his own mindset. I think his heart was right, he was thinking [about the] jobs for Spring Hill, but it didn't add up."
"A once in a lifetime shot"
Perhaps the individual with the most knowledge of the Festival Tennessee story, Dinwiddie told the Home Page that if he had the chance to take a shot at helping the city again, he would do it in an instant — albeit with a different approach given the advantages of hindsight.
"We were in a pretty bad recession, if not a depression... I mean it was bad," Dinwiddie said, describing the economic conditions in 2011.
"We can tell a story of the four years I was in office just in the headlines that were written; more businesses were closing than opening, foreclosures were at record-level [highs] in the city, the unemployment rate was climbing, so it was bad news everywhere."
Couple the economic devastation from the Great Recession with the news that the General Motors Saturn Plant was about to close its doors, and things were looking dire for the city of Spring Hill.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, two realtors requested a meeting with Dinwiddie for the purpose of discussing a new project.
"So I'm still a new mayor, and two guys come in — I didn't meet Dennis Peterson until a long time later," Dinwiddie said.
"[City Administrator] Victor Lay had just gotten hired; we worked well as a team — he's smart, he's savvy. So two people had come in — they were realtors — and they met with [Lay] first. He pulled me in, and they put the thing out there, they said here's what we got."
Dinwiddie said that the two realtors pitched the idea for Festival Tennessee to both him and Lay, with only one question: If they were to pursue this project, would they see strong opposition from the city?
Intrigued, Dinwiddie and Lay asked the realtors routine questions for a project of that scale, things like road access, water and sewer capacities, security.
Dinwiddie said their answers "were great," that the project would be based off of Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and that the project would not cost the city a dime.
"So they came in, gave this idea to us," Dinwiddie said. "And I said 'you know what? If this is everything that you're saying it is, I'm all for it — it's not going to cost [us] anything, I don't have to add a fire department, police, build roads, no problem.'"
Given the abnormally large number of young families in Spring Hill, the fact that the city had no major sources of entertainment, as well as the economic conditions at the time, Dinwiddie said it was a no-brainer to support the project.
According to Dinwiddie, the realtors had also asked him and Lay to keep news of the project under wraps. Similar to how the Walt Disney company secretly purchased land in Orlando for the purpose of constructing Disney World, as were the true intent of the purchases known, land prices would have skyrocketed, Dinwiddie and Lay agreed.
It would be a few weeks later that Dinwiddie finally had the opportunity to meet the man behind the project.
"So [Peterson] comes in with the two realtors, and he's got no bottom teeth; he said he lost them eating chicken wings or something, and he volunteered that during the meeting with us," Dinwiddie said.
"So this guy sits down, he's wearing a suit, and he goes through pretty much the whole spiel that the realtors had said. It was basically the same meeting but we heard it from the horse's mouth."
It was during that meeting that Peterson invited Dinwiddie and Lay to visit ITECH in Orlando, an entertainment company that has helped design and construct theme parks all over the world, including portions of Disney World.
Dinwiddie and Lay decided to take the trip, with Dinwiddie particularly impressed with what they saw.
"I got to the hotel, the next morning we all had breakfast and that's when I met the investors; don't remember their names, one had a jewelry company and one had a telemarketing company," Dinwiddie said.
"[Then] we toured the ITECH facility and I met with [ITECH President] Bill Coan. [Peterson] was there, the investors were there, Coan was there. We had a big meeting and they had all the storyboards up around [for] various projects, and on the table they had a big flip book with [Peterson's] project."
Shortly after the trip, Peterson told Dinwiddie that there was pressure from the investors of the project to move quickly. With nothing to lose, having made no promises or commitments to Peterson from a city standpoint, Dinwiddie agreed to fast-track the project under what was legally permitted.
A month or so later, Dinwiddie says he received a phone call from Peterson, a call that would mark the first red flag for Festival Tennessee.
"This is where it took a small turn," Dinwiddie said.
"[Peterson] says 'hey, our investors don't believe that you're going to help.' I said why? He said 'well, they were kind of expecting this to get leaked. They haven't seen or heard anything and so they think I'm [hogwashing] them that you're on board."
Given that Peterson had asked for news of the project to be kept under wraps, Dinwiddie voiced his confusion.
"I said 'wait a minute [Peterson], you just told me you want this to be super secret and now you want to go full-blown public with it?'" Dinwiddie said.
"He said 'my investors are about to pull the plug because they think the city's going to shut it down.'"
It was then that he says Peterson suggested a press conference. Dinwiddie obliged, under one condition.
"I told him I'll have a press conference and I'll set up everything; I'll set up all the TVs, I'll get all the politicians, I'll get everyone there, but you don't be there, that's the deal," Dinwiddie said.
And with that, Dinwiddie set in motion what would become the infamous press conference on March 2, 2011. Press releases were sent out to all major news publications, intentionally kept very vague.
When the day finally came, Dinwiddie got an unexpected surprise.
"It was a big thing, everybody was excited because to us, it was a legit deal," Dinwiddie said.
"We're going to say it's a theme park, and that's it. So we all show up, and then [Peterson] shows up. I look at the realtors and I said 'what's [Peterson] doing here, you told me he wasn't going to be here.' [They told me] 'he insisted, he said he wasn't going to be here but then he insisted at the last minute.'"
Despite the unexpected appearance of Peterson, Dinwiddie went on with the press conference as planned.
"So I was speaking generically enough; 'we're very excited, it's going to be an economic development driver, it's going to be something for our families,'" Dinwiddie said.
"And then [Peterson] speaks."
Peterson went on to go into very detailed specifics of the project, specifics that were previously unknown to him; things like what was once one hotel now being two hotels with 4,000 rooms each.
Nevertheless, Dinwiddie ran with the punches, finding solace in the fact that the city still had nothing to lose were the project to be a flop.
Weeks went by, and the project continued to see approvals in the city's Planning Commission and Board of Mayor and Aldermen, with one caveat: were nothing substantial on the project to ever materialize, Dinwiddie vowed to vote against the project on its final reading.
"The first vote got passed, and then we're getting into the tail end of it and I'm like, 'where is anything, give me a contract on a piece of land that you've paid money for, show me that you've got skin in the game somewhere,'" Dinwiddie said.
"Nothing. So on the second reading, I said I had not gotten anything; I've given them every benefit of the doubt, but I don't have what they told me they were going to provide, so I'm recommending we vote against this."
And just like that, the project was dead. Peterson had disappeared, never to be seen again by Dinwiddie or any other Spring Hill leaders.
"Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan"
One person who was present during the now infamous press conference was Mike Herron, former chair of the Spring Hill chapter of the United Auto Workers.
Herron said that he received a phone call from Dinwiddie about a week before the press conference with an invitation to come. Save for saying that the reveal would be a big deal for the city, Dinwiddie didn't share with Herron any details.
Optimistic, Herron agreed to attend.
"The backdrop was we were going through a huge recession at that time," Herron said of the time period leading up to the reveal. "General Motors was going through a bankruptcy re-organization; there was some concern about whether the plant was going to remain open. We went from 3,400 jobs to 600 jobs overnight so it was kind of a dark period in time."
Upon witnessing the reveal first-hand, Herron said he was cautiously optimistic.
"I thought this was going to be fantastic for Spring Hill if it ever materializes," Herron said of his first impressions. "I heard the delivery from [Peterson], and I asked [Dinwiddie] 'do you believe him, is he legit?' It was one of those deals where I said this almost sounds too good to be true, but if it happens it will be fantastic for Spring Hill."
Of course, the rug was eventually pulled out from under the project.
"My biggest mistake"
In the end, the city never forfeited any money, land, or anything of material value. While the fiasco didn't bode well in the eyes of the public, it was a gamble, Dinwiddie said, that would have paid off tremendously had anything ever materialized.
"As long as it's not costing [us] anything, as long as [we're] not doing anything illegal, unethical or anything like that, at the end of the day, I [could have] always stopped it with nothing lost," Dinwiddie said. "What if [was] true?"
If given the chance to help launch a once-in-a-lifetime project again, Dinwiddie said he would do it without hesitation. With hindsight, however, Dinwiddie said there were a few things he would have done differently.
"That was probably my biggest mistake, being the face of this thing," Dinwiddie said.
"I was young at the time, but if I had to go back and redo it, that press conference would have never happened with me. I would have just told them from a city standpoint, I'll make sure this runs along as quickly as possible, but I'm behind the scenes."
So while Festival Tennessee is nothing more than a historical curiosity at this point, the strange story continues to captivate Spring Hill residents. Dinwiddie said he was surprised at that fact, that 10 years later people still discussed the entire ordeal.
"The people living in this city would have benefitted exponentially, so if I had the chance to take the shot, I'm going to take the shot," Dinwiddie said.
"The economy was in horrible shape, and I've got this once in a lifetime shot for a city to keep it out of excessive taxation? I'm going to take it. Nothing was ever demanded from us, it was always 'we'll do it all.' If I see a shot like that, I'm going to take it."