Does convention center help or hurt May Town Center?

Monday, March 1, 2010 at 2:13pm

Advocates on both sides of the much-publicized May Town Center debate say their cases are reinforced by the city’s recent decision to approve a taxpayer-financed convention center.

Issues are generally the same as they were over the summer when the Metro Planning Commission shot down the contentious proposal to turn 550-plus acres in the rural Bells Bend community into a massive $4 billion mixed-used development. Though developer Jack May has said he would consider downsizing the scale of the project, Nashvillians speaking at Tuesday’s public hearing will be addressing the same –– now revived ––project that was debated ad nauseam only months ago.

What’s changed from July to today, May Town supporters contend, is the Metro Council’s 29-9 vote in January to publicly bankroll the $585 million Music City Center. As the city dips into hotel-tax revenues to fund one mammoth project, how can it deny a developer from using private funds to start another?

“If we’re going to invest in the convention center, any time we can have private developers come in and they’re ready and willing to do development on that scale, I think we need to explore that opportunity,” said Lonnell Matthews Jr., the council representative of the disputed area and May Town backer.

But citizens working in opposition to May Town have also turned to the recently financed convention center to make their point. The decision to move forward with the new 1.2-million-square-foot facility south of Demonbreun Street signals a renewed commitment to downtown development, they argue, and plotting a business-oriented town center on the county’s outskirts would detract from that.

“I don’t think anything has changed in terms of whether or not this proposal makes sense for the city,” said attorney David Briley, a May Town critic. “One thing that has changed is the city has made a commitment to build a convention center downtown. Anything that could or would distract from our focus on downtown is an unwanted distraction. It sort of reiterates what the planning commission was thinking when they decided to recommend disapproval.”

It appears Tuesday’s public hearing may be the first of two such gatherings. Matthews told TheCity Paper over the weekend that he would consider entertaining several amendments to the May Town zoning bill to address concerns such as the project’s size, traffic flow and the number of bridges that would cross the Cumberland River to the town center. He added he would like to hammer down an exact groundbreaking date within the legislation, so the project would be poised to take off upon approval.

If the council were to adopt these or other amendments, Matthews said he would then hope to defer the bill again to allow for a May public hearing on the new changes to the May Town plan.

For Tuesday’s gathering, expect the same sort of marathon public hearing and political sideshow that became the norm when the project went before the planning commission. Opponents will almost certainly be sporting their light green T-shirts to show their allegiances, with May Town backers wearing darker green attire. Signs and other campaign propaganda are sure to fill the council chambers.

Much of the support thrown behind May Town comes from the promise to transfer 250 acres of adjacent land to Tennessee State University, 50 acres that the institution would use as a research park. May and TSU have agreed on the land transfer regardless if the project passes or not, though the actual tract would depend on May Town’s fate.

Moreover, proponents claim May Town represents Nashville’s best chance to compete for corporate headquarters that have often relocated in outlying areas such as Williamson County.

“It’s all about economic development for me,” Matthews said. “The project itself brings a business district to an area of the county that virtually has no real business district at this moment. The main business in my district is probably the Kroger on Clarksville Highway. The jobs that would be created from what’s being proposed, I feel that it’s a no-brainer.”

But Bells Bend resident and environmentalist Barry Sulkin said, “The project makes less sense now than it did before.

“In Nashville, they just approved the convention center,” he said. “I don’t see how anyone can justify trying to support two downtowns. This would only suck that energy away from what they just approved.

“There are also three bridges that would be required for this project,” Sulkin added. “The applicant has not offered to build all those bridges. At one time you hear, ‘We’ll pay for everything,’ and another time you hear, ‘We’re not paying for all that.’ That means someone else does –– the public.”


16 Comments on this post:

By: Equanimity on 3/1/10 at 1:42

Actually, all the property owner is seeking is a zoning change, with which he can profit in any way he chooses. Armed with a change from AR2 to SP, he can sell the property to any developer. The Metro Council will no doubt consider what might happen to city coffers if that developer (of, say, a residential subdivision) chose to build only one bridge, and dumped all the neighborhood kids onto existing Metro schools. Let's see how long city "reserves" last after that and the convention center combine to create the perfect storm.

By: Dwilso31 on 3/1/10 at 4:26

Construction of May Town is a no brainer. Look at the tax revenue it creates. Look at the jobs created. I live in the true Bells Bend. Have lived here for forty years. I only know a very few opposed. Most are for. From where the bridge is going in it will not affect a turnip farmer or a lawyer that does not even live in Bells Bend one iota. But most of all it does not cost a taxpayer one penny!

By: JeffF on 3/1/10 at 5:17

All the convention center did was indicate the city's desire to turn downtown further down the tourism road. Real business development lost out. In fact real businesses were bought out or condemned or closed in order to make room for a publicly financed tourism "loss leader."

If Nashville was indeed interested in developing for business then the convention center would have been the last thing on the list since it would be creating a black hole over a sizable piece of land. Development is not a government function, it is a private sector one. So instead of setting aside land from the real engine of development (private industry), it has forever been tied up off the tax rolls in a street blocking, public monstrosity covering at least four square blocks of land.

Sooooooooo, downtown has prioritized and has placed private development pretty low on the list for downtown, and then at the same time has decided that this development cannot go anywhere else as well? I think I see why Williamson County is kicking our butts. An economy based on private industry (other than the poor of excuse for and industry, tourism) is just not welcome here. Please don't waste our time with high paying, technical or professional jobs, Nashville wants more bellmen, housemaids, banquet servers, airport shuttle drivers, desk clerks, and waitresses! The meeting planners deserve their tribute because they tell us just how valuable they are.

The ideal downtown will eventually only have government buildings, bars, hotels, tacky souvenir shops, convention and event facilities, and transportation systems for getting you between them all. How do I no that? Because those are the only things two of the last three mayors ever would support for downtown.

By: TITAN1 on 3/2/10 at 5:53

Jeff, not sure what you have against tourism. Tourism and Nashville go together like bread and butter. I like the plan for Nashville, but then I'm a positive kind of guy.

By: Kosh III on 3/2/10 at 7:50

Maytown will cost the taxpayer---and plenty. The second and third bridge, buying the pricey homes and land in West Nashville to make room for the bridges, the utliity lines, the schools and on and on.

Swap the fairgrounds for this property, let the fairgrounds become a shiny corporate center with easy access to freeways and downtown. Add the Bells Bend area to Bells Bend Park.

By: nvestnbna on 3/2/10 at 7:54

Sadly, Jeff excellent assessment is the sad reality. Downtown has been given over to temporary visitors here temporarily. For most Nashville resident's, it will be substantially irrelevant. He didn't mention the massive vagrant warehousing operations that also serve as a serious deterrent to a business campus environment downtown.

From my perspective, May Town will probably not take anything away from downtown development that isn't already forsaken. It's an opportunity to create a unique business center with unique surroundings in Davidson County. I don't buy the need for three bridges. One adjacent to Cockrill Bend would offer ideal connectivity into downtown via Briley and the proximity to the airport would be a great asset.

On preserving open space, that is misleading. What the city has done with their greenways is take open space and return it to woods, under the guise of creating wildlife habitats. They build these interesting outdoors centers and then don't fund programing or staffing them, so these facilities end up being inactive vacant structures albeit nice looking ones. Bell's Bend has just such a feature already.

By: Anna3 on 3/2/10 at 7:59

May Town must be built. It is a quality development and will help us FINALLY compete with Williamson County. We need the jobs and the tax revenue here. If we are afraid that Mr. May will rezone and sell...why don't we rezone it as a PUD that must be built as designed or it will revert to its original zoning in say 6 years? That locks everyone into the promises made.

By: JeffF on 3/2/10 at 8:29

Nashville needs a real center for real commerce. That job is normally taken by a downtown, but city leaders have changed the focus of downtown development to make it toxic to private commerce not related to the entertainment of tourists. Believe what you will, but real business does not get done in an area utterly devoted to the tourists trade. And unfortunately tourism is the most up and down industry in the world. Downtown will be forced to ride this economic roller coaster from hell. But at least we will have an industry that loves the high school dropout and illiterate.

By: nvestnbna on 3/2/10 at 8:34


I think that is what the SP 'specific plan' zoning calls for. PUDs are more for tract developments which I don't think would require a zoning change out there. I may be wrong but my understanding is it is already zoned for two units per acre and that would be a shame if it ended up being a Williamson County style tract development. That is what was appealing to me is the densely developed area surrounded by open land areas.

I also like the idea of trading the fairgrounds for it, but I think there is already something working behind the scenes on the fairgrounds, if the Mays had it there would be folks coming out of the woodwork to micro-manage every aspect of it.

By: Shuzilla on 3/2/10 at 9:02

The problems are that our planners and politicians think too small and have ceeded our growth to surrounding counties. Census projections have 110,000 more-or-less people in Davidson by the time May Town is built out, while there is a three-quarters of a million increase outside of Davidson, mostly around the 840 corridor. Poorer folks will gravitate disproportionately to Nashville because housing is generally more expensive everywhere else, making up a large portion of our projected growth. Note the unexpected growth in Antioch that came along with the growth in the counties just across the county line.

With almost a million more people living in the midstate by the time May Town is built out, we need a plan to get about half of those folks living in Davidson County to capture the full bandwidth of incomes and demographics. And no way 400,000 people won't fit downtown! Not only do we need May Town, but we need plans to get ahead of growth with our infrastructure and nurture all the suburban developments located around the Briley Parkway/Woodmont/Thompson Lane loop into "May Towns." That's the Belle Meade shoping area, Green Hills, 100 Oaks, etc., all becoming miniature cities, all interconnected with good roads and light rail.

Or the growth that is projected occurr will render Nashville a peripheral player the regional economy of 2.6 million people by 2035, and that's no good for downtown boosters

We need someone to take a fresh look at what a Nashville of a million people should be, and we need to can this anti-growth BS.

By: JeffF on 3/2/10 at 10:14

for point of reference, in the counties that the real economic growth will occur, which one is as devoted to the tourism sector as Nashville is? None of them.

While Williamson pulls in Clarcor and Nissan we continue to fiddle with honky tonks, meeting planners, and publicly financed tourism and entertainment facilities. Williamson businesses employ college graduates and see a rise in the standard of living and increased property and sales tax revenues. Davidson's tourism businesses employ high school dropouts and immigrants, keep a majority of their tax collections for their own needs, and work in publicly owned buildings that do not pay property taxes even though they use government services.

Nashville needs a coup.

By: Shuzilla on 3/2/10 at 10:20

I should have said, "No way 400,000 MORE people WILL fit downtown." What is considered downtown-like density must expand outward instead.

By: TN4th on 3/2/10 at 10:47

Maytown was designed to compete with Cool Springs, not with downtown. Davidson County so desperately needs to stop exporting the good stuff to Williamson County. It was a crying shame that Giarritana was driven out of the game. He was ready to support the required infrastructure, and work with the planners on every aspect. He's local, and he's a proven developer. The next developer may not be nearly as good a choice.

Tourism may help fill the street level of downtown, but it isn't going to salvage the rapidly vacating office buildings. If the parking dilemma remains, and if all the street level retail is tourist trap junk, there is little attraction to establish office tenancy downtown.

If you look at cities with good downtown office, they have street retail that normal people want, not one bar and boot shop after another.

By: Kosh III on 3/2/10 at 12:02

We should have a large mall+cinema downtown like San Diego has in it's successful Horton Plaza.

By: dleibacher on 3/2/10 at 4:55

dlynn: I also live in Bells Bend, and don't know anyone that is for Maytown. It would destroy a unique area of Nashville, for what? So the Mays can profit.. You have to look at the business climate, no one is expanding right now, especially in an area that is not convenient to anything, there are other areas in Nashville that are adjacent to the interstate, easy access, that would not change an entire area. Bell's Bend is rural, the only rural area left in Nashville. Let's not destroy it to make the May's brothers profit.

By: Inglorious bastard on 3/3/10 at 12:00

JeffF is not too bright or well informed by stating all the people in the tourism industry are high school dropouts and immigrants. When he stated "How do I no that" at 5:17 pm I knew he was not very well educated himself. The appropriate use is "How do I KNOW that?"

I spent 7 years in the hotel industry and the majority of supervisors, management, and staff had college degrees and most were bi-lingual with many making over $40,000 a year including most bellmen I worked with. Many of the valets I worked with were in graduate school with one person working toward a Ph.D.

The average management staff person makes upwards of $75,000 a year with General Managers, Directors, and Executive Chefs making over $150,000 a year. A Front Desk Supervisor makes a minimum of $35,000. The Bell Captain at Opryland, The Renaissance, or the Loews make in excess of $50,000.

Yes, housekeepers (the term housemaid has not been used in years.) are mainly immigrant but the overall staff of most hotels are educated and have diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds who spend their hard earned money in the city after work. Maybe JeffF could work on his racist and bigotted attitudes before he opens his mouth, or types on his keyboard.