This is a torrid tale about how the city of Manchester, Tennessee hired us for our marketing services, then never paid for the work done. It’s long, but it’s important to call out our government when they go rogue on small businesses, and we hope some of you will read through it all anyway. It’s also a story we hoped we’d never have to tell, but after nearly 18 months of not getting paid a dime and the city of Manchester continuing to legally fight our request for payment for our bill of services, it’s time we came clean in hopes that other writers, photographers and government consultants don’t get similarly screwed by the Tennessee town we called home for seven years.
But first, the story of Manchester itself
Prior to Bonnaroo arriving in 2002, Manchester was not much more than an interstate stop with 8,500 residents and a state park that was often overlooked because of its location. Kristin grew up in the bigger town next door, and only passed through Manchester to get on the interstate to head to Nashville or stop and get gas; in fact, she didn’t even know there was a downtown square until we bought the Victorian in 2012. When we moved in, nobody else knew that either. The downtown Main Street was dead as a doornail other than a few stalwarts like Mid-TN Vapor, which had bought the old People’s Bank & Trust.
Bonnaroo arriving—and Live Nation’s community grant investments and revenue share with the city—opened some interesting doors and massive economic infusions, creating an opportunity to build a better quality of life for the citizens of Manchester and turn it into a tourism destination instead of a strip-mall-and-gas-station stop off of I-24. We hoped to build upon the brand awareness 18 years of the festival had brought the city—only, we quickly realized that two people can only do so much in a community driven by a “good ol’ boy” system that rewards bullies and fights anything that doesn’t directly benefit themselves or their system of friends. There are still vestiges of the pre-Constitutional method of governance in play in rural America, which is rulership by force and will, and confronting that face-to-face in this country is jarring, to say the least. We don’t live in Sicily! This is the United States of America, yet we still have small towns run by a handful of property owners to the detriment of the rest of us. Who knew?
The beginnings of a new marketing project
Our formal relationship with the city of Manchester began in 2016, four years after we first moved there, when then Vice Mayor Ryan P. French started pursuing our services in photography, writing and destination branding for the Manchester Tourism and Community Development Commission (MTCDC). The vast majority of our work is with much larger city governments and CVBs. Our clients usually have a strong knowledge of tourism and at least a basic understanding of marketing and, while we loved our little town, we didn’t think it would be a good fit: both from a financial standpoint but also because, to be honest, there just wasn’t a lot to talk about. But, the vice mayor was insistent and kept pushing us, so Kristin and I put together a regionalist approach to the project that would allow us to branch out beyond the confines of the city limits to capture all of the glory that this little slice of Middle Tennessee has to offer a potential tourist, business or resident: waterfalls, fishing, distilleries, water sports, recreation, small-town shopping, locally-owned restaurants, affordable living and a damn good quality of life compared to other places in the country. We drew a radius of 50 miles around the center of Manchester and got to work.
For one full year, we worked as the tourism commission’s de facto agency, attending the monthly meetings, advising on marketing opportunities, placing the city in national outlets like National Geographic, putting together branded content for the local newspaper, consulting on marketing practices, building out an inventory of digital assets for the city, then applying for—and receiving—a state marketing grant to build a website.
For that first 12 months, things went as smoothly—or as smoothly as one could expect working for a commission full of volunteers with zero tourism experience—and other than the non-communicative nature of the six board members, in particular Joni McReynolds, the treasurer, the experience wasn’t unpleasant. We started to feel like we were making a difference, that we could help build the face of year-round tourism in a town that really only sees tourism traffic for the days around Bonnaroo, but one perfectly positioned on a heavily traveled interstate with five exits. We got excited about Manchester. We got our families excited about investing in Manchester. We bought property there. Friends came from all over the world to visit us in our historic Queen Anne Victorian. We put on free events for the community. We installed public art. We sang Manchester’s praises in many publications: Marriott Traveler, Nashville Lifestyles, AAA Living, Tennessee Home & Farm and the aforementioned Nat Geo piece, just to name a few.
And then, it was time to renew our contract for another year
Our initial consulting contract with Manchester was at a bare-bones rate, much lower than we’d ever accept from any city we weren’t living in, and set to expire in February of last year, at which point the commission had stated in multiple meetings they would be renewing it. Their suggestion to us was that rather than pay us a lump sum for the work, it would be easier for their audit to pay that out over a period of 12 months; as such, we’d simply raise our monthly fee to cover the cost of the additional labor of building out a high-quality website and elevating their photography and branding. We agreed this was an acceptable route to take.
Several times, we brought up the formal signing of the new contract terms in board meetings, and they said, “oh, we don’t have a quorum today, but we’ll get to it next month.” We were told the same in email correspondence and in-person conversations. So, we didn’t worry about it; because this is the South, we assumed they were good for it. Multiple meetings occurred with various members of the commission about the contract renewal while sketching out nuances like video work, immediate problems like the Christmas tree debacle and future plans for branding, and we continued working on the time-intensive website redesign.
So you’ll understand then why we were confused upon invoicing the city at the completion of the project last summer, never getting a paycheck, then months later, learning from the city finance director that MTCDC treasurer/secretary Joni McReynolds told her not to pay us because “the contract wasn’t renewed.” Huh?
If we were no longer working for the commission, what had they planned to do with the $10,000 grant they had received from the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development specifically allotted to build a tourism website, a task for which they had consulted our services and one that had to be completed by a deadline of April 30? They had no problem taking the money from the state—were they planning to pay it back when the project wasn’t executed?
Edited for clarity, because a lot of you have asked about this point: We facilitated the genesis, execution and final fulfillment of the terms of the grant with the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development. As an agency of the city, we couldn’t be paid out of this pot of money, but the agreement with Mr. French and MTCDC was that we would be compensated out of their general budget. That didn’t happen, and is the nut of this story.
The project was billed and handled correctly according to the terms outlined in the issuing of the grant money by this department of the state and the city of Manchester. The state doesn’t monitor things beyond that point. In a strangely circular, Inception moment, the only reason Manchester followed the letter of the law of the grant is because I literally did it, and forced our tourism commission to turn in the correct documents.
If we were no longer working for the commission, then why was the commission chairman, Alderman Ryan French, texting us in April (two months after the supposed expiration of the contract) asking us to photograph his side business, girls’ AAU basketball sports tournaments, and an outdoor area of the ever-controversial conference center where his wife works for the new website? Alderman Ryan P. French is the lead contact for Tide Basketball in our area. No offense to the girls and families involved in this program, but you should know that you’re funneling money to this politician. Amazing what 618 votes gets you, eh? He’s the guy pressing T-shirts and hustling sponsorships and parent money from hopeful children while trying to play a bit-part in a scheme to run our government. Which, being a capitalist myself, I can’t blame him for trying to turn a buck with youth sports tournaments. It’s big money.
But, there were strange whispers in my ear about using his public office for financial gain by various individuals, so I started to pay attention.
Influence over a hotel/motel tax slush fund of more than $100,000 annually in Manchester, Tenn. is what 618 votes buys you. How about them apples? Yes, the MTCDC has a budget of $108,000 per year, and they’ve made a request for an expansion of that fund, led by Alderman French. I wonder how that money is being spent? It sure isn’t on their sub-contractors and I’ve yet to see a line-item break down in the public arena of their budget.
If we were no longer working for the commission, then why was Mr. French texting us in May—more than three months after our contract expired—to get an update on the website status to take to the monthly commission meeting?
You can see how we were ever so confused when we completed the work they asked us to do, then were met with bewildered responses from commission members who couldn’t believe we actually expected to get paid for their signature marketing project, a website promoting tourism to Manchester. Which, by the way, took us the better part of six months to complete.
Let’s put this in terms commissioners can understand: Would a boutique, for example, or an office supply company, to cite another example, or a photography studio, to cite yet another example, be willing to just give away tens of thousands of dollars in product or services and not expect to be reimbursed?
After eight months of going nowhere with the commission and never getting a solid response from any of the board members, we figured before going the legal route, we’d give Manchester leaders one more chance to make this right. So I met individually with three of the city’s six aldermen to explain what had happened and asked them to mediate. Each one was appalled at the way the commission had treated us and promised to look into it. Mr. French had told them in a public meeting that the tourism commission would be spending no more money on a website, so they couldn’t believe he had this outstanding bill to pay us.
When this tactic went stale, I sent a letter to the entire board, mayor included, that laid out the issue. Instead of attempting a fair settlement, it was ignored.
In December, six months from the time our work was completed, we sent a formal letter to the MTCDC saying that if we weren’t paid, we would demand the return of our lawfully protected intellectual property and the removal of the website from the Internet. It took the threat of legal recourse to finally elicit a response from the tourism commission, which was hand-delivered to our front door via a “settlement offer” from city attorney Gerald L. Ewell, Jr. offering us one-quarter of the payment MTCDC owed us—so long as we also signed a four-page NDA (non-disclosure agreement) promising we’d never speak of this to anyone. I suppose Mr. Ewell didn’t realize the quickest way to rile up a pair of journalists is with a non-disclosure agreement; we declined the offer. I’m still not sure when the city thought our fees became negotiable or that they could buy our silence with a pittance, but this seems to be the official position of this city attorney and whoever in the government is telling him what to do (paid out of your tax money, I might add).
full NDA and correspondence between attorneys linked via the PDFs above
We were hopeful that one of the three methods of communicating with our government would resolve things for us and we could leave this all behind; yet we’ve heard … nothing. Not a word from a single one of them.
Once the city, via the MTCDC commission members, lawyered up with taxpayer funds, we were forced to hire a Nashville attorney to represent us. Our intellectual property is protected by law, but collecting from a city hell-bent on not paying isn’t something we can do on our own. How could we? Mr. Ewell is on retainer and doesn’t care about billable hours because he’s guaranteed to be paid, regardless of the outcome of the legal matter. Us? Small business owners twisting in the winds of ignorance and government bullying, left to fend for ourselves while fighting the very people we thought served the interests of a community we care deeply about.
But, do Manchester residents even care?
Our scenario begs the question: Are the mayor, tourism commission and city lawyer operating so separately from the city government that its other aldermen don’t know what they’re up to? These are taxpayer dollars we’re talking about here, more than $100,000 per year allocated for the tourism commission, and there’s nothing we hate more than seeing hard-earned money donated to political malfeasance. There are plenty of questions in my mind about how the entire tourism commission functions and its role in our community.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the trio of aldermen with whom we spoke were genuinely surprised that the commission had hired then never paid us, particularly since just weeks prior Mr. French had stated in a public Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting that the tourism commission owed no more money for its website—despite never actually paying the team who created the content for said website and who facilitated the entire thing, tip to tail.
Manchester has a part-time mayor and six aldermen, none of whom are full-time city employees. Residents don’t attend public meetings because they don’t feel as if their voices are heard—and as someone who has sat through many of them, I’d say they’re most likely right; minutes from these meetings aren’t published for months after the fact, if even at all, meaning no one really knows what’s going on within the government. Without anyone to hold the city government accountable or to pay attention, I’m sure our case is hardly an isolated one; in the past year, we’ve heard many tales of others in Manchester being treated similarly, particularly by Ryan P. French. Maybe Manchester residents are just so used to this level of political malfeasance that they’ve become immune and have grown to expect this type of behavior from their “leaders.”
We live in the United States of America, right?
I’m not going to lie: This all felt vaguely retaliatory for two reasons:
The first time I asked Alderman Ryan P. French about his exposure as an elected official to his side business as a youth basketball organizer, it was lighthearted, but intended to draw a line for what we’d have our name and business associated with. Mr. French was immediately defensive about the issue, claimed to be doing everything on the up and up, everyone always questioned his motives, the newspaper was out to get him, everyone sucked, etc.—we heard the same complaints from him over and over again, so we moved on.
The second time I asked about it, triggered by some shady activity that he published on the city Facebook page—not to mention, stories I’d heard from sources within the school system about gyms being used as profit centers—I pressed a little harder, and bluntly told Mr. French that this activity needed to stop. Immediately, relations changed. The second in command of our city government became unapproachable, which didn’t bode well, and he refused to communicate with me. Instead, he darkly threatened to people I know to use the city attorney against us, which put me up against a wall of ethics.
I knew Mr. French had a brittle nature. This wasn’t the first time that I’d run into the man behind the façade of an elected official “doing the people’s work,” but I chalked it up to yet another reason to eventually remove ourselves from doing business with him and the MTCDC. We planned to complete the website and our branding work and move on, which I shared with one of the commissioners once this issue crystallized.
The second incident coincided with the installation of our first mural, a community improvement project we had pitched to the commission aimed to drive investment and tourism. When they neglected our idea for 12 months, we moved ahead on our own, engaging a few key local sponsors and paying for the rest out of our own pockets. Our initiative quickly garnered not only state attention—ABC, CBS, Fox 17 and several regional radio stations all ran segments on our public art program—but also national press.
Days after the first mural went up, we found out that Mr. Ewell, the taxpayer-funded city attorney, convened with a small sub-group of the Historic Zoning Commission—the very commission our friend John and I are on—in a secret meeting at City Hall to discuss legal recourse (i.e. whether or not they could press charges against John and me or, in what would have been the most epic mistake in the history of mistakes, paint over the American Flag mural). Evans Baird, Pat Berges, Ray Amos and Gary Trail, all HZC members, were in attendance and all for pursuing legal action because they didn’t like the artwork.
The current chairman of the HZC, Ray Amos, is now pushing to have me removed from the commission for non-attendance, which feels about right and will be a nice bookend to my relationship with the city government over the last four years. It’s an invalid commission anyway, drunk on the authority of telling business owners what shape their sign or security light needs to be, so I won’t be sad about leaving.
We heard about this secret meeting with the attorney a couple days after it transpired, but honestly, it didn’t matter to us; they couldn’t punish us for painting a pretty piece of art on private property, and if they had done so, we would have won a million dollar lawsuit in federal court. The strong show of support from the community at the next Board of Mayor and Alderman meeting after the mural kerfuffle, so jam-packed with citizens that the fire marshal had to monitor it, quickly put that line of action out of the question. The mayor appointed Cheryl Swan, then an alderman, to have everyone “be happy” about the issue. Y’all know how that meeting turned out.
It does feel like since we “won” that fight by sharply curtailing the HZC’s authority when it comes to public art that certain public figures within, or perhaps tangentially connected to, the city government have had it out for us. That’s merely speculation, but it’s something many community members have suggested to me when we have relayed to them that the city is refusing to pay their bill to us. “Not surprised,” one Manchester business owner told Kristin recently, shrugging in sympathy. “This kind of thing happens here all the time. I could write a novel with the kind of bullying I’ve gone through in recent years. When our kids graduate, we plan to leave here for good, as there’s simply no desire by our current government to make Manchester an attractive place for businesses and individuals to relocate.” We keep hearing the same narrative, a highly disturbing thread, that this is “just the way things are around here.”
After more than a year of the city of Manchester enjoying free marketing via the website, writing and photography we created, the MTCDC removed the site entirely in late May, suspiciously timed to the day we issued a DMCA takedown to the developer and host of the website. Currently, the site is a dead link that says “privacy error”—not a good look for a city about to host more than 60,000+ festival goers, visitors who might have spent dollars locally in the community based on our enticing recommendations, nor to the tourists who are constantly driving by Manchester on the way to somewhere else like a distillery.
The only “marketing” the tourism commission is currently doing is a pretty sad stab at reposting erratically on Facebook, the text riddled with grammatical errors, misplaced capitalizations and disjointed sentences that make our eyes bleed.
We’re past the point of anger and have moved on to embarrassment; we’ve never been so embarrassed by the behavior of a city department. A county we are so passionately wanting to elevate with our skills as storytellers has a city that’s never going to dig itself out of its current state of neglect until something changes. Our nation is founded on the principle of government by the people, for the people. How about y’all get involved, at the very least in the ballot box next time around? I’m serious about this. Local voting impacts our lives more than anything else.
In 10 years as business owners, we’ve never had so much as a tiff with a client, and the fact that this was a city we had sunk so much time, energy, sweat equity and our own savings into improving—well, that part is what hurts the most. And it only took a handful of rogue politicos to kill that dream entirely. If you want to help but can’t do so publicly for fear of retaliation, do it in private by pulling the lever for thoughtful leaders when the time comes. And try to show up. It’s amazing how everyone sharpens their pencils when a citizen is in the audience.
Is this over? Far from it. The city of Manchester used our copyrighted intellectual property—words, photos, videos—for 16 months without paying a penny. In fact, they continue to use a selection of our copyrighted material in print and online outside of the website, even now, completing ignoring our attorney’s demands. And we, in turn, will continue to make this public to prevent cities like Manchester from taking advantage of creative entrepreneurs like us. If we don’t ever get paid, I take solace in educating other entrepreneurs, in person and online, on how to read the warning signs from a potentially morally corrupt client or business partner.
All of these are our copyrighted images still used by the MTCDC as of June 3, 2019.
And yet, despite being dragged through the dirt, having city appointees attempt to slander our name, having a taxpayer-funded attorney on our back and having to fight this battle, we both still have this glimmer of hope. Call it #lovescript, because that’s what we’re calling it. We’ve met so many amazing Manchester locals in the last few years who are frustrated by the politics of the town and the city’s inability to attract new business and residents, and we’re still listening. We had an army of support behind us when we installed that first mural, and we’ve noticed. We will continue to be a voice for the residents we’ve met, friends we’ve made, and the ones who are so eager to get their hands dirty in an effort to move the needle of change where it matters. We don’t feel as if our work here is done. Not by a long shot.
For us, there’s still this feeling that there is so much potential in Manchester—if for no other reason, these voices we’ve heard privately whispering to us, asking us, begging us to keep on soldiering on, to be a beacon of hope for anyone who feels as if Manchester has a bright future—and we are confident that if the local population actually got out and voted, if they truly believed their voices mattered, if they showed up to even one of the gazillion meetings on the city calendar, then the path toward change would be set into action. When that day comes, we’ll be ready to jump back in and assist, because we’ve always approached our relationships with nothing but love, which is what truth is when you get right down to it.
If you made it this far, we applaud you. Seriously. And now it’s your turn to tell us: Have you ever experienced anything similar where a client (or city government) completely pulled the wool over your eyes? How would you have handled this whole boondoggle if you’d been in our shoes? Share your stories with us in the comments, privately or through social media. We’d love to hear, and help.