Beef Wellington with wild mushrooms. Maryland crab dip. Saltimbocca chicken with a truffle oil drizzle. Moroccan lamb. The menu reads like a top-tier wedding reception; but there was no wedding involved. The reception was a party for 230 guests to honor Metro’s outgoing Chief Operating Officer, Rich Riebeling, who officially retired in October.
News 4's Investigative Reporter Nancy Amons asked what the reception cost and who paid for it.
The retirement party, held at the Music City Center October 12th, was hosted by its CEO, Charles Starks. The price tag is hard to calculate.
Starks told Amons in an email that the cost was "minimal, as we just used food products on hand, and staff that were already working for the day."
When we asked for any documents about the reception, or event contracts, Starks said there weren’t any, since everything was handled “internally.”
So the I-Team filed an Open Records Request for all emails written to and from the Music City Center’s catering director.
The banquet event order we found in those emails showed that sixteen employees worked the two-hour reception. There were four chefs manning the Beef Wellington carving station; others manning a station where whole cold smoked salmon was served in a watercress verle sauce. Butlers passed hot and cold hors d-oeuvres such as toasted cashew-filled strawberries and imported prosciutto di Parma. A stationary display featured artisanal cheeses and breads. A dessert station offered “MCC’s very best chess pie tartlets”, red velvet shooters, and more. No alcohol was served.
The reception spanned two ballrooms. Electronic signs throughout the Music City Center celebrated Riebeling’s career.
Guest parking at the Music City Center, posted as a flat rate of 20 dollars that day, was complimentary for all the reception’s guests.
"To say that it was free, to even think that we're that stupid, it literally ludicrous," said councilman Steve Glover, when we showed him photos of the event.
“That doesn’t look like food that was leftover, that they pulled out of the refrigerator. Nothing in life is free. Somebody picked up the tab,” Glover said.
Why did the Music City Center host the event? Starks wrote that it was "for the appreciation we have for all of Rich's accomplishments with Metro and the MCC."
Starks are Riebeling go way back. Riebeling was the city’s finance director and helped push through a no-bid contract to build the Music City Center. Riebeling’s friend Larry Atema of Commonwealth Development got the contract.
Riebeling and Atema’s recent actions have been the focus of several I-Team stories.
The I-Team discovered Riebeling encouraged the Board of Fair Commissioners to hire Atema’s company to oversee $12 million dollars in improvements at the fairgrounds. Most of those improvements were never made. Atema and Riebeling instead began the process of laying groundwork for an MLS stadium to be built. The project had yet to be approved by Metro Council; Riebeling took funds to pay for early engineering work from the Sports Authority without asking or telling them. After the I-Team story, the money was returned.
After a number of our I-Team stories about Riebeling aired, Mayor David Briley announced in June that Riebeling would be leaving the administration. Riebeling waited until after the final MLS vote passed council before making his retirement official.
The mayor’s office sent out the invitations for Riebeling’s retirement party but told News 4 that no taxpayer dollars funded the event.
Technically, no property tax dollars fund the Music City Center; it is supported in part by the revenue it generates, such as fees from the parking garage, and food and beverage services. The expenses and revenues of the MCC nearly balance, if you don’t include the payments on its construction debt, which are 40 million dollars a year.
That debt is paid for by taxes on hotel and motel rooms, rental car taxes, and a portion of the sales taxes collected on what everyone, including locals, spend in what’s called the Tourist Development Zone. The TDZ is an area that centers on downtown, but includes a radius of about three miles. If you spend money downtown, some of your tax dollars go to the Music City Center.
What would Riebeling’s reception have cost you as a private citizen? It’s hard to calculate; figures from the Music City Center’s reception menus show that the general public would pay $150 for each chef manning a carving station.
A steamship round of beef to serve 150 guests would cost $950. Salmon en Croute for 30 is listed at $350. Cheese displays are set at a price of $10 per person; a display of artisan bread is $8 per person. Hot Hors d’Oeuvres range from $4.50 to $7.50 per piece. One gallon of coffee is $69.00 All food items are subject to a 23% service charge.
The catering director’s emails did not list a value for the food provided for Riebeling’s reception. Normally a banquet event order lists priced charged for each item. The price and total columns for the food items are blank. A note at the bottom of the document reads “This is a MCC At-Cost Event.” It shows the total value of the labor was $225.