One week before the Metro Council decides the fate of a proposed $585 million convention center, Nashvillians weighed in on the massive proposal at a public hearing Monday night, offering some familiar reasons for and against moving forward with the project.
After competing sides staged rallies outside the Council chambers, project supporters reminded the Council of Music City Center’s economic impact and promise to create jobs, while skeptical citizens urged for a public referendum and called attention to its financial risk and potential detriment to downtown growth.
Ron Samuels, chairman of the Music City Center Coaltion, a group lobbing on behalf of the convention center, said revenues from taxes and fees that target tourists will pay for 100 percent of the project, adding that the pay structure used to fund the existing Nashville Convention Center offers a “proven track record.”
“This is about building our city,” Samuels said. “There are very few opportunities that we have to make an investment in an infrastructure facility where the revenues actually cover the debt service.”
Dan McGee of the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention –– a group that’s already reserved a convention at Music City Center in 2013 –– said that in 2005, the last time the organization held it annual meeting in Nashville, the organization was “stretched” in terms of facility space.
“We would like to come here more often,” McGee said. “This is our hometown, and we would like to hold our annual meeting here more often, but we’re not able to do this because of the limited facilities.”
Other supporters included a woman business owner and an African-American entrepreneur, both said their employees would benefit from the 2,000 construction jobs spurred by a new convention center –– the Metro Development and Housing Agency has vowed that 20 percent of all work related to the center will come from a combination of small businesses and companies owned by women or minorities.
Meanwhile, a few owners of downtown music venues and museums made the case that the new Music City Center would produce more conventioneers, boosting the economic activity of the city’s urban core.
On the other end of the spectrum, Kevin Sharp, who heads a convention center opposition group known as Nashville’s Priorities, demanded a referendum to decide whether the city should build the center.
“There are tens of thousands of people across Davidson County who cannot be here tonight to tell this Council what they think about the project,” Sharp said. “But they deserve that right to be heard on this project.”
Sharp said he’s collected thousands of signatures from people asking to be heard on the project through a referendum, petitions that he plans to hand the Council later this week.
“This project is massive,” he said. “The risk is extraordinary to all the citizens across Davidson County.”
While acknowledging some potential benefits, Tad Wood, a resident of the Belmont neighborhood, said there’s no guarantee that the revenue streams will come in, adding the cost of the project itself will likely go over budget. He also pointed out that project still needs a convention center hotel, which project leaders have projected would cost $300 million.
“It’s going to be rammed down our throats,” Wood told Council members. “[The convention center’s] not going to be built without [the hotel]. We know it’s not being included so we wouldn’t get the whole price tag.”
Ernest Campbell, a longtime resident of the Germantown neighborhood, argued that while it’s regrettable downtown Nashville lacks the vibrancy and offerings found in other cities, a new convention center isn’t the answer.
“A new convention center does little to change this,” Campbell said. “It would be built to attract temporary residents temporarily. To the overwhelming majority of Metro Nashvillians, it will be absolutely irrelevant.
“Downtown financial commitments and obligations should be made toward projects that make downtown more attractive to residents as well as visitors,” he said. “The convention center does not do that.”
Read our previous Music City Center stories here.