Amid a heightened interest in legislative ethics, state Sen. Doug Jackson has quietly enlisted state government to come to the aid of the private Renaissance Center, which has lost millions of dollars for his family foundation. The most glaring case came last year when the prominent Democratic lawmaker approached state officials about donating the arts and technological center to the state Board of Regents, an outwardly charitable gesture that nonetheless could have stemmed the tide of losses for the foundation. Jackson has also obtained more than $2 million in state contracts and grants for the facility.
Located in the heart of Dickson, just 30 minutes west of Nashville, the futuristic-looking Renaissance Center provides a high-tech venue for arts, cultural and educational programs for students and residents alike. It is funded by the Jackson Foundation, which was established after the state senator's family sold a community hospital to what was then Columbia/HCA. Jackson serves as president of the foundation and the center's executive director, earning a salary of nearly $255,000. According to its 2003 tax records, the foundation ran a deficit of $5.6 million, most of which came from funding the center.
In late 2003, Jackson invited Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Charles Manning to the center to discuss contributing the facility to the state. A few months later, Jackson also discussed his proposal with Richard Rhoda, the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), along with members of the state Department of Education. Board of Regents staff members visited the Dickson facility for follow-up meetings, and the governor's office examined Jackson's offer at Manning's request.
Ultimately, state officials passed on the offer to unload the facility, because it would have been forced to operate it at a deficit. The state considered different scenarios for The Renaissance Center, including offering courses there for Austin Peay and Nashville Tech students, but Rhoda says that wouldn't have generated enough tuition and fees to keep it out of the red.
"It was a generous offer, but unfortunately none of us could come up with the dollars to support it," Rhoda says.
Manning says that Jackson offered to donate the center with no strings attached. The longtime higher education administrator says that he felt no pressure from the state senator and that Jackson approached him just like any other prospective donor.
"I thought it was a nice offer," Manning says. "We looked at it very critically, and we ultimately didn't feel like we could afford the operation on it."
Jackson did not return numerous calls for comment, but in a faxed statement to the Scene, the state senator says that his proposal to attract a community college "would not have benefited me or my family." He states that he offered to donate 15 acres of land and $500,000 annually to help the proposed college's local programs. In addition, the statement says that The Renaissance Center would have continued to offer its ongoing educational programs.
But Rhoda says he recalls that the state would have picked up the tab for the programs The Renaissance Center funds now. "My sense was that he was hoping the center would continue offering those programs, but it would be somebody else's responsibility, whether it was the Department of Education or the Board of Regents," Rhoda recalls. "That's where the interest faded, because we just couldn't afford it."
In the fall of 2004, the board and Jackson ceased negotiations. A few months later, on Feb. 3, Jackson introduced legislation that would have allowed The Renaissance Center to be eligible for millions of dollars in state grants controlled by the Department of Education. Earlier this month, about the time The Tennessean began looking into Jackson's bill, the senator withdrew it. "I don't know if it's allowed or not," he told the paper. "With all the stuff going on with Sen. Ford, I don't know if it's worth it."
Of course, while the ethical spotlight on Ford might have prompted Jackson to pull his bill, The Renaissance Center has received lucrative grants from the state previously. In 2003, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency granted The Renaissance Center a $1.35 million grant contract to produce 26 half-hour television programs to inform "citizens of Tennessee about wildlife, fishing, boating and conservation-related issues." Jackson's signature is on the contract and the state senator, who has been an outspoken opponent of a state income tax, is listed by name as the grantee. Altogether, The Renaissance Center has received at least $2.2 million in state contracts, grants and other payments since 2000. In 2003, The Renaissance Center received approximately $500,000 in state contracts, which was close to 20 percent of its total revenue for that year, according to the Jackson Foundation's most recent tax records. The Renaissance Center provides high-tech services to a range of state agencies, including the Department of Education, the Tennessee Arts Commission and the Department of Environment and Conservation.
It's unclear whether the new ethics legislation signed by Gov. Bredesen earlier this month would have precluded Jackson's actions on behalf of The Renaissance Center. At the very least, though, it probably would have required him to disclose publicly his dealings with state officials.