Here we go again. Naysayers are selectively trotting out information to make a case that a new convention center will be a colossal blunder that costs taxpayers money.
All their carping suggests that Nashville should simply give up on an industry it spent two decades building into a part of the city’s economic fabric, particularly after the Opryland theme park closed.
There have been plenty of naysayers during Nashville’s convention history. In 1982, a councilman called supporters of building the current center idiots for wanting something he said would always be secondary to Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. He called it a “pink elephant.” He turned out to be wrong.
The convention business is like any other industry: It’s a beast that must be fed and nurtured or alternatively killed. And Nashville leaders have chosen not to kill it. Hotels and attractions pay millions in property taxes based on the value of business they do. If they sit mostly empty, their value drops and they generate less revenue for the city.
Supporters of the Music City Center purposely created revenue streams from visitors so residents won’t have to pay for it. Credit former Mayor Bill Purcell for that.
The current convention center has had operating deficits. But covering them has not used one penny from the general fund. The hotel tax fund has taken care of that.
And to say that is bad is taking a narrow view: The fact that the hotel fund has had a balance would suggest the convention center has helped produce profits because of the hotel nights it generates.
No one is denying the MCC could also have an operating deficit. But you can’t underestimate the power of parking to cover the shortfall. As one observer put it, the late parking magnate Monroe Carell didn’t build a children’s hospital at Vanderbilt University because the parking business was bad.
Lowered hotel tax revenue projections don’t include incremental sales tax revenue from the Tourist Development Zone around the center. Gravy perhaps.
There’s a great deal of skepticism from some quarters given national attendance figures and the addition of convention space around the country. That’s warranted. But it’s also instructive to take a deeper look at local trends along with the types of conventions that are tracked in the national numbers.
The National Hardware Show, for example, will never come to Nashville because it’s an iconic show that has stayed in one place, Las Vegas. Its falling attendance is Vegas’ problem, not Nashville’s.
What is forgotten is a bulk of the conventions and meetings rotate among cities chosen years in advance. Attendees typically don’t like going to the same city over and over again. There’s only so much Disney World you can take.
Associations are in the business of attracting membership and retaining them. Keeping them happy and entertained is key.
Several conventions that have cycled through Nashville have rung up record attendance compared to meetings elsewhere. Take, for example, the Passion Conferences in 2006. The group brought 16,000 people to downtown, almost 7,000 more than its record in a different city.
Apparently, people like the affordability. Higher taxes haven’t hurt. And, there are a whole lot of country music fans out there. Look at how top country acts draw at concerts and the number of country radio stations.
Discussions of other cities’ failures rarely take into account why. St. Louis, for instance, stumbled after trying to buy in big without the track record to back it up. Boston built its new center too far from hotels.
And there are cities that probably should reconsider their plans. Cleveland, for example, is close to building a $425-million convention center. But going to Cleveland for a four-day convention? The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a river that caught fire back in the day are about the only attractions. Talk about a day trip.
So maybe after the MCC opens and is full its first few years, Mayor Karl Dean will be able to kick back and blow the smoke from a fine CAO cigar at today’s naysayers.