Public money, personal palace: A look at luxurious features inside 'Living the Dream'

Public money, personal palace: A look at luxurious features inside 'Living the Dream'

March 30th, 2014 by Ben Benton in Local Regional News

Mark Farley, executive director of the Upper Cumberland Development District, stands in front from of the former "Living the Dream" assisted living facility west of Cookeville. A sweeping staircase fills the room and ends facing a wall. Twin Magnolia Farms is the new name of the 13-acre complex that sits in an upscale neighborhood.

Mark Farley, executive director of the Upper Cumberland...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.


Anyone interested in learning more about the Twin Magnolia Farms (formerly Living the Dream) facility in Putnam County, Tenn., should contact Lee Amonett with Ken Byrd Realty and Auction at 931-526-5335. The gated property is at 1125 Deer Creek Drive in Cookeville, Tenn.

Source: Upper Cumberland Development District

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. - The Upper Cumberland Development District in Putnam County is selling a "dream" to rid itself of a nightmare.

The senior living facility once known as Living the Dream must be sold by April 21 or relinquished to the bank as officials try to recover almost $1 million the district stands to lose as a result of what its leaders have called public money spent for personal benefit.

Authorities say former executive director Wendy Askins tried to turn the facility into her personal palace. She faces federal and state charges in an associated investigation launched by federal authorities, the Tennessee comptroller's office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in 2012.

New executive director Mark Farley said the facility, now renamed "Twin Magnolia Farms," is being readied for sale -- if the district is lucky -- to a buyer in the next three weeks.

"We basically are working with the [Bank of Putnam County]," Farley said Thursday as he showed off some of the extravagant features officials now hope will help lure a buyer.

"Unless we get it sold in the next few days, we're going to do an orderly foreclosure with [the bank] and let them assume control of the property," he said.

On Thursday, Farley started taking a rough inventory of the remaining contents of the 6,600-square-foot main home and the attached 4,400 square feet or so of resident dormitories. A horse barn out back came with the incomplete house when the Living the Dream board purchased it in a foreclosure sale about four years ago, he said.

The palatial grounds and home lie in an upscale neighborhood west of Cookeville. It has a commercial kitchen and laundry, a beauty salon, exercise and multipurpose area and media room that were to be used by senior residents living there in an attached wing of dormitories.

But there are also the lavish extras Askins used taxpayer money to purchase for quarters she and her adult daughter used in the main house. Those features included steam showers valued at $6,000, a living room-size walk-in closet, wet bar, large-screen televisions and luxurious furniture.

A $25,000 curved aluminum-framed, wood-clad double staircase fills the two-story front entry, where doorways arched to mimic Mediterranean styling lead to the master bedroom suite and a guest bedroom on the bottom floor. Top-quality tile lines the huge downstairs with the open floor plan. The space is adorned with a crystal chandelier, a double-sided fireplace and pendant lighting, and the dining area is festooned with granite countertops, ornate wooden trim and sleek furnishings.

Upstairs, where Askins' daughter lived, is a studio apartment with a wet bar and the larger of the two high-dollar steam showers.

Since the scandal broke in 2012, the building has been fitted with fire sprinklers, and most of the furniture and high-tech equipment have been stored for separate sale, Farley said.

An asking price is hard to establish because of the facility's unique features, but "it's easy to say it's a million-dollar facility. The replacement cost would be more than that," Farley said. "But I don't think anybody would say we're not going to take a beating on it."

If built as originally planned, the facility has the capacity for up to 30 residents and a manager. The last senior client moved out in early January, Farley said.

A Tennessee comptroller's office audit released in October 2012 led to federal charges of conspiracy, embezzlement, bank fraud, unlawful monetary transaction and making false statements.

The state followed suit in October 2013 with charges of theft between $60,000 and $250,000, money laundering and forgery up to $1,000, according to Putnam County Circuit Criminal Court records.

Askins' hearing scheduled for Thursday in Cookeville on the state charges has been rescheduled for July 17, court officials said.

The deputy director at the time of the audit, Larry Gene Webb, of Smithville, Tenn., and DeKalb County Mayor Mike Foster, also of Smithville, were charged in the investigation along with Askins. Webb's case is pending, while charges against Foster have been dropped.

Askins' attorney, Lebanon lawyer Jack Lowery, could not be reached for comment Friday.

"These types of abuses of the public trust are likely to outrage many citizens who live within the Upper Cumberland Development District boundaries -- and rightfully so," Tennessee Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said during the investigation.

"Every public dollar that's spent for the personal benefit of a government official is one less dollar that can be spent to benefit the people who need government services," Wilson said.

Comptroller's officials said at the outset of the probe that Askins once called the facility "one of the sweetest projects in the history of [her] career," but, compared with residents' accommodations, Askins was the one living the dream.

The scandal tainted the agency's efforts to continue operating the facility itself, but not the effort to sell it, Farley said.

Some officials have even suggested returning Twin Magnolia Farms to its original Living the Dream name because of the tremendous recognition it gained through the investigation, he said.

About a dozen "genuine" potential buyers visited the facility in the past six months, according to Farley. Most were interested in operating it as it was designed, while others had more commercial ideas.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569.