CROSSVILLE – It didn’t take long for the first shoe to drop following this week’s suspension of Crossville City Manager David Rutherford – and the fallout could deal a blow to the community’s recently initiated Horizon Initiative.
MMA Creative, the marketing agency that’s worked on the collaborative community plan since its recent inception, is withdrawing its services in light of recent events. The decision, while another headline in the latest political storm, magnifies questions about the future of the project, one that’s helped Cumberland County tout its recent string of economic development successes and more.
Agencies were to submit requests for proposals, or RFP’s, by Friday afternoon for further marketing services related to the Horizon Initiative. But MMA Creative, which has offices in Cookeville and Nashville, has since reconsidered, despite being encouraged to continue by numerous city leaders, elected officials and partners to do so, the company said.
“The obvious issue is politics. And it’s been our experience that no amount of marketing, public relations or advertising can fix that.” – Mike McCloud, MMA Creative
“It’s our opinion that your council ran off a competent and successful city manager…an admirable visionary who led the city through months of community meetings that showed what people thought your issues are…from drugs to wages to opportunity to otherwise,” Mike McCloud, MMA president, wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Mayor James Mayberry and obtained by the UCBJ. “The other obvious issue is politics. And it’s been our experience that no amount of marketing, public relations or advertising can fix that.”
The UCBJ was started in 2009 by MMA Creative as a voice for businesses in the Upper Cumberland.
The letter continues to describe Monday’s special called meeting – in which Rutherford was suspended, just weeks after a similar vote to have him terminated failed – as a “three-ring circus.”
Rutherford will likely be officially fired in a meeting next week; a resolution to that effect is one of the last agenda items to be considered Thursday. After floating several names, the council ultimately voted for Steve Hill, a former parks and recreation supervisor, to serve as his interim replacement.
“Names floated as Mr. Rutherford’s replacement were of individuals not present, not qualified, some not even asked,” McCloud said. “It’s clear your council has lost the confidence of the people. It has lost our confidence, as well.”
To date, MMA has done roughly $4,635 worth of work on the Horizon Initiative; that includes a $1,635 invoice still outstanding. Mark Thien with MMA said they worked on naming the initiative, designed its logo and created the branding around it. The company recently submitted a proposal for continued services. Rutherford opted to issue a request for RFP’s. The deadline for those submissions was 2 p.m. Friday.
“We were fine with that,” Thien said. “We submit for RFP’s all the time. But given last three weeks, we’re not interested anymore.”
Rutherford, who has served as city manager since September 2013, dodged an attempt to have him removed from office in February. He wasn’t as lucky Monday. While not citing specific causes, some city council members have questioned the Horizon Initiative’s cost – saying the expenditures thus far were unbudgeted and should be shared between related partners. Rutherford presented a cooperative agreement to the council in March – which included entities like the city county, chamber, board of education, Roane State, Tennessee College of Applied Technology, the cities of Crab Orchard and Pleasant Hill, and the county’s Joint Economic and Community Development Board and the Industrial Development Board – but it did not include a shared funding commitment, Rutherford said, because “we don’t know what a commitment for funding would look like.”
Last week, councilman Jesse Kerley called for Rutherford’s resignation, accusing him of violating the city’s spending policy. Rutherford did not comment on that issue publically, but in emails exchanged between him, Mayor Pro Term Pamala Harris and other council members – and obtained by the UCBJ – he defended his actions. The city manager, per city rules, can make purchases of up to $5,000 without seeking council approval.
“I explained earlier, the basic expense for the initiative is now, with last invoice, at $4,635 with MMA. This is under the $5,000 limit,” Rutherford wrote. “My purchasing authority is not tied to a project, but to a vendor. If I purchase a computer from XYZ in September for $2,800 and need another computer from same vendor in March for $2,800, that is permissible under our purchasing procedures without having to bid or get council approval…It appears that you (Harris) have an agenda to get rid of me,” he continued. “You certainly can have your agenda but you will do it within my contract and follow the applicable laws.”
19 meetings held
The Horizon Initiative was born after nearly a year’s worth of stakeholder meetings – 19 in all – with community leaders and residents. The plan explores challenges facing Cumberland County, presents solutions and guides growth for the future.
MMA, Mayberry said, was brought in because of its work on the Highlands Initiative, a multi-county economic and community development plan born out of the Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber. Thien said the agency was invited to promote and “explore this Horizon Initiative and what would be the best way for the county to move forward in collaborative way,” he said. “The county had gotten a really excellent download on what obstacles were in the way, everything from wages and education to drugs. That there were a lot of struggles that were limiting the realization of success.”
Since its rollout, the community has had two major announcements at least indirectly attributed – in January, automotive packager, warehouser and distributer SKF said it was moving all its North American operations to Crossville’s CoLinx, investing at least $3.9 million and adding 145 jobs. And Apex Clean Energy, an independent renewable energy company, said it would build a new wind turbine farm there that’s expected to measure as the largest in Tennessee. The project represents an investment upward of $100 million, and when at capacity, will generate power for roughly 20,000 homes each year.
It’s unclear what this means for the Horizon Initiative going forward. While MMA is the first to publically step back following Rutherford’s suspension, officials there expect fallout may have only begun.
“There are a lot of people who have done an awful lot of good work for this Horizon Initiative, and David (Rutherford) was the glue for that,” Thien said. “He spearheaded that, and I have no idea what that will look like now.”
Opinions from other city and county leaders are mixed. But a next step could hinge on upcoming city and county budgets. Mayberry said the city’s current rough draft for fiscal year 2016-2017 includes a $20,000 line item for the Horizon Initiative. Discussions on that topic will continue over the next several weeks.
“It’s hard to tell exactly where the project is at this juncture,” he said. “Of course we’re all positive as to moving forward, but the concern with all the government entities is what’s it going to cost and who’s going to pay for it? There is a line item for the Horizon Initiative, and we’ll just have to see how that goes through.”
County Mayor Kenneth Carey did not return a call by press time. Brad Allamong, president/CEO of the Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce, said their group is working on a separate fundraising piece related to the Horizon Initiative – working to garner funds for a targeted marketing analysis and workforce development strategy. Its goal is $120,000 – combined with $40,000 from the city and county – and the chamber has $31,000 left to go.
“You really have to know, what companies are we a good match for? And then the next obvious question is, where do they get their information? Is it best to (advertise) in the trade journals they take, or go to international trade shows, is it best to do direct mail, what’s the strategy?” Allamong said. “You’ve got to pin that part down, so we’re not just only dealing with the same sets of prospects that are available throughout the state of Tennessee. Which we’re thankful for, but we share those with everybody. We’re in the same pool with who knows how many communities. Until we know those target markets, it’s speculation at best.”
As for the future of the initiative?
“The Horizon Initiative is bigger than any one individual,” he added. “It’s regrettable when somebody who was very involved with it from the beginning is no longer there, but the project and the process moves forward. It’s too important to not keep that ball rolling.”