Metro Council members reminisced about the bygone days of Opryland before giving preliminary approval of a $5.8 million tax break to accommodate a new tourist destination for that area: a water and snow amusement park billed as the first of its kind.
Arguing job creation trumps tax-break criticism, the council by voice vote approved on the second of three votes a bill that delivers a 60 percent property tax abatement over 12 years to Gaylord Entertainment Co. and Dollywood Co. Through a partnership called Park Holdings, the two companies plan to build the $50 million water and snow park on Gaylord-owned 114 acres at Briley Parkway and McGavock Pike.
“There are a ton of people in this city that think that we ought to have something like Opryland, and wished that it was back, and will be glad to see something like this for families –– regardless of how we get it,” At-large Councilman Tim Garrett said.
Opryland closed in 1997. Construction on the water and snow park is slated for 2013 before a planned 2015 opening. The deal goes before the council for final approval later this month.
Moments after approving a tax break for one Nashville-based corporate giant, the council did the same for another. By a 29-3 vote, the council on final reading approved a seven-year, 60 percent property tax abatement for Hospital Corporation of America to accommodate the health care provider’s planned $200 million new data center in Antioch. The abatement totals more than $3 million.
The convergence of both deals before the council on the same night triggered a brief discussion on the pros and cons of financial incentives in spurring economic development. In the end, job creation easily carried the day –– with the help of Opryland nostalgia.
“As a young man selling ice outside of the ‘Grizzly River Rampage’ and ‘Rockin’ Roller Coaster,’ I hear the remarks that we should have never let this park leave,” Councilman Scott Davis said.
“You know whose district needs the jobs? My district,” he said of his East Nashville District 5.
According to a report from the University of Tennessee Center for Business and Economic Research, the new water and snow park is supposed to generate 1,900-plus construction jobs and 762 jobs from the park’s onsite activities.
Only a few council members were unimpressed by those stats.
Councilman Josh Stites said he doesn’t want his “appreciation and adoration of Dolly Parton” to be called into question, adding that her latest album is on his iPod. He simply has a “problem with giving tax incentives to companies that move here,” he said.
Stites called the promised construction job creation “disproportionate” with the project’s $50 million price tag. He also said the new water and snow park could “cannibalize” other existing Nashville water parks –– presumably Nashville Shores.
“I don’t think we should be charging other private investors that have large water parks 100 percent taxes, so we can then turn around and essentially subsidize a new water park,” he said.
In his dissent, Councilman Robert Duvall raised the specter of a potential property tax increase, which some observers are predicting this budget cycle.
“The last thing we need to be doing is giving tax incentives to some individuals and then turn around and raise property taxes on people ...” Duvall said.
The council’s approval of the Gaylord/Dollywood deal came after it deleted a condition that required only Nashville-area contractors work on the project after council attorney Jon Cooper cited legal issues with that component. Council members vowed to find a “mechanism” to ensure local workers find construction employment at the site.
The policy of offering PILOT –– payment in lieu of taxes –– deals to companies is one Mayor Karl Dean’s administration has embraced but represents a sharp break from his predecessor Bill Purcell, who never orchestrated any PILOT deal.
Councilman Charlie Tygard, a critic of Purcell, told colleagues Tuesday that Purcell’s “lack of [offering] one minor incentive” to Nissan was the sole reason the car manufacturer built its North America headquarters in Williamson County instead of Davidson County.
Contacted by The City Paper, Purcell’s former finance director David Manning said, “That was not the case.”