The case against building a new $585 million convention center has been loud and clear, but the most expensive municipal project in Tennessee’s history seems poised for Metro Council approval tonight.
Though contested by a well-fueled opposition group and a handful of council skeptics, backing of Mayor Karl Dean’s Music City Center seems to have only mounted over the waning days — following a Metro government rule of sorts that says last-minute support falls behind the will of the mayor.
“In our system, the mayor gets a fair amount of credit for being the leader of the government,” said project supporter At–large Councilman Ronnie Steine, who chairs the Budget and Finance Committee and was first elected to a Metro office in 1991. “I think it’s sort of a natural tendency that as people begin to make decisions and consider information that the position of the mayor ends up being a persuasive one.”
Under the finance plan, a combination of taxes and fees that target tourists would over time pay off bonds used to bankroll the project. Non-tax revenue from Metro’s general fund would back up the bonds. There is also a $40 million reserve fund set aside to cover shortages. Only after that is expired would general fund dollars be used.
With Councilman Carter Todd, a Gaylord Entertainment Co. executive, expected to abstain from voting, 39 council members at most will have a say on the project. Twenty votes are required for a simple majority.
Lobbyists, council members and other stakeholders all seem to conclude Dean and project supporters have easily assembled an adequate number of votes. At the lowest, aye votes could end up at 25, observers have concluded, and at the highest, votes of approval could reach 29.
Projections are reinforced by a list of previously noncommittal council members who have officially jumped on board behind Music City Center in recent days.
They include Megan Barry, Lonnell Matthews Jr. and Jerry Maynard, all of whom voted for the project in last week’s Budget and Finance Committee meeting. In addition, Councilwoman Vivian Wilhoite, who had revealed some hesitance, announced her official support for new convention center in a letter distributed Sunday.
Even Councilman Jason Holleman, who has regularly questioned Music City Center, hasn’t ruled out voting for the project’s financing.
“I remain skeptical about whether the MCC will perform as projected,” Holleman said in a written statement. “However, I am optimistic about what the state officials are doing to fill the existing convention center space with the Medical Mart, and I believe their efforts may be the deciding factor in the overall result for Nashville.”
To be fair, undecided Councilman Jamie Hollin also announced opposition to Music City Center over the weekend. Nonetheless, it may be too little, too late for opponents to garner enough votes.
“Based on many of the statements that many people have made over the past few days, I’m optimistic that there’s a considerable majority of the council that’s going to vote in favor of the project,” Steine said. “I don’t anticipate any surprises.”
Project proponents have called Music City Center key to keeping Nashville competitive in the convention and tourism industry, a catalyst for future downtown growth and development, and vital to the city’s economic activity, an argument they say is boosted by a feasibility study conducted by HVS Consulting that suggests a new convention center would add another $135 million in Nashville’s economy each year.
Meanwhile, opponents have questioned the viability of the convention industry as a whole and the possible detriment a big-boxed convention center could have on downtown growth. They’ve also pointed out that taxpayers aren’t necessarily “off the hook,” so to speak, as Metro’s general fund will back up the bonds.
Opponents, led by a group that calls itself Nashville’s Priorities, have also worked to hold a public referendum to decide the fate of the Music City Center, with more than 8,300 petitions expected to be delivered to the council tomorrow afternoon.