Just a few weeks into 2010, Mayor Karl Dean enjoyed the greatest triumph of his three-plus years in office when the Metro Council voted to approve financing for his administration’s signature project: a $585 million, 1.2-million square-foot convention center south of Broadway.
By the end of the year, Dean reached a new political low point, backtracking this month on original plans to plot a new expo center at Antioch’s Hickory Hollow Mall, which would have opened the 117-acre Metro-owned fairgrounds for redevelopment into corporate office space. Dean calls the change of course a “time-out.” It seems more like a retreat, albeit a temporary one.
These were the bookends on the most eventful year of Dean’s tenure. In between, the mayor assuaged any fear of a property tax increase or drastic cuts to Metro’s budget by electing to restructure, or push back, the city’s debt. Twenty-four hours after announcing those plans, Nashville was overwhelmed by what some called a 1,000-year flood, transforming the priorities of the mayor’s office for the months ahead.
It’s these final two matters — navigating the city’s budget through a dismal economy and leading Nashville through its worst natural disaster — that are certain to be recurrent themes in Dean’s August re-election bid. Expect them to become more than just footnotes added to Dean’s relentless reminder of his “three pitches”: economic development, public safety and education. Heading into the final lap of his first term, Dean hasn’t given up his fight to redevelop the fairgrounds. With the council set to consider a bill that would move forward with the demolition of the fairgrounds’ racetrack, the future of the fairgrounds will remain at the center of immediate priorities.
Meanwhile, Dean has hinted at future big-picture projects, including a new downtown baseball stadium and an amphitheater at the 11-acre former thermal plant site. But if there are immediate plans to pursue either one of these initiatives, the mayor isn’t saying so. For the time being, he seems content to focus on the basics. Fairgrounds fallout aside, his political brass have demonstrated they know what they’re doing. Dean, widely perceived as a popular executive who has visibly become more comfortable in his position, still lacks an election opponent. It could be an easy road to a second term.
CP: Capping off a recent speech to the Rotary Club of Nashville, you concluded that it’s been a “difficult year” for Nashville given May’s flood and other circumstances. Talk about that for a second.
Karl Dean: It’s been a difficult year because we were confronted with two huge challenges. The Great Recession, the greatest recession since the Great Depression, continued, and it’s been particularly challenging for local governments. And we had the 500-year, or 1,000-year flood in May. So, we were presented with two big challenges, amongst the day-to-day activities that we work on, to manage our way through. If you look at it first from the flood perspective, clearly the flood was something I think the city reacted very well to. Metro employees, Metro departments were prepared. We had actually trained about 50 of them at a FEMA conference in Maryland on flood response. People knew what they were doing. Police, fire, EMS did a fantastic job of saving people, searching for people. They did about 1,400 water rescues and responded to somewhere between 49,000 and 50,000 calls. They put in hours of overtime protecting people, and then in the recovery, protecting property and homes. That was an enormous challenge, and then you had what our public works department did in removing tons of debris from the city. We’re still recovering, but if you stop and think about where we were in mid-May and where we are now, it’s incredible.
Metro’s flood buyout program is fully under way, with the city set to close on and demolish the first 81 eligible homes. Is this the beginning of the end of the recovery?
Oh no. I’m not satisfied until everybody is back or in a place they need to be. Obviously, everybody can’t go back because their homes are unsafe or they’re in an area where they just can’t go back. But the vast majority of people can, and we’re working hard getting that done. But if you look at other cities that have gone through this sort of experience, the flood-recovery process is not over in six months, it’s not over in a year. We have actually moved, I think, faster than almost any city we can find in terms of getting money to citizens working with FEMA and TEMA, and working with programs in terms of buyouts. That being said, I’m proud of the city’s response, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
Obviously, the fairgrounds issue has grabbed a lot of headlines recently. Based on your comments, you still seem determined to move toward redeveloping the fairgrounds site eventually. Is that fair to say?
What I’ve said is there will be a time-out where we look at the expo sites and the flea market to try to determine what’s the best thing to do. The issue came down, for me, is that it was pretty clear that there was some issue because of whether there would be the desire by merchants and vendors to go to Hickory Hollow, or whether the Hickory Hollow leases would work. Ultimately, if people didn’t show up to the flea market, there’s no point of the city entering into a lease that would expose us to financial loss.
Now we’re taking a time out to kind of figure out what’s the best thing to do there. Clearly, we have to continue the conversation. But what I’ve said is we’ve got to be serious about this. If we’re going to have economic development in Nashville, if we’re going to attract corporate headquarters, if we’re going to create jobs, if we’re going to expand our tax base, we’ve got to look for sites where we can put these buildings. The fairgrounds, look at it from an analysis of is this a good spot: It’s underutilized now. I think everybody agrees the fair loses money, and the speedway loses money. The flea market and the expo center could be almost anywhere. It is 120 acres and two miles from downtown. It’s next to the interstates, and there’s existing infrastructure. It is a project that would unquestionably be an environmental benefit to the city. You would help preserve and clean up a creek that is on the EPA’s impaired list. And then the clincher to me is the neighbors want it.
So when you do a big project, all things that people look for — neighborhood buy-in, infrastructure and environmentally sound — are all there. If not there, where? It’s easy to be a critic and say, “We’ve had the fair here forever, we’ve lost a lot of money, but we’ve got to just keep doing it.” Well, no. We’ve got to think through what’s the right thing for this entire city.
Have you been surprised by the level of opposition?
I’m surprised, well, I think part of the difficulty about this is that you have different groups for each one. Some of them are real organized. Some of them have people working for them, some that you’ve written about. For some of them, it’s an emotional thing, it’s a tradition thing. And I get that, and I want to be respectful of that. But I don’t think it’s an enormous opposition. I think people would rather see the tax base expanded and jobs created, and opportunities for their children, and the environment improved, than they would to see something that doesn’t work just keep not working.
Do you think long-term Metro should be in the flea market business?
I think that’s a legitimate question. It’s certainly not a core function of a government. I have tried — and I don’t mean to bore everybody again — but I have tried to say what our government is looking as a city at are economic development, public safety and schools. Could you argue that the flea market is economic development? I don’t know. It is unusual that we do that. The expo center, that happens more at other places. But running a flea market, and then basically having the vendors be a group that sort of lobbies and helps decide what happens to public property, is a little different.
You’re calling it a time-out. But the group Save My Fairgrounds and a handful of Metro Council members have said your change of course is just a way to push the issue until after your re-election date. What’s your response?
I’ve made it pretty clear we need to be doing something different than what we’ve been doing. That the status quo isn’t working. The council itself has taken a couple of actions. Councilman [Duane] Dominy filed an ordinance requiring the city to hold a fair, requiring the city to maintain a speedway, and that if we didn’t do it, to go put all these things somewhere else, and to find money to do it. That got overwhelmingly defeated and deferred because the writing is on the wall. So the council kind of gets it that something needs to happen. The council voted unanimously in favor of a capital program that has $2 million to build a park at that facility. And the council, not me, has filed an ordinance saying let these things stay for a year — and I’m fine with that.
Politics is about the art of the possible. You want what you want, and you’d like to see things done where you can improve the city and make things better. But if you can’t get people to agree on it, you can’t get it done. And so I’m willing to take a break and listen, and see what the ideas are. The challenge I think for the opposition — wherever they live and whoever they are — is to say if not this fairgrounds, this is where we will do it. This is where we will assemble 80, 90 or 100 acres, where we can get the jobs we need and maintain our tax base. I don’t think you hear that.
It sounds like you’re saying you have the council’s support for your overall vision for the fairgrounds.
I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of things that are happening, and we’ll see how it unfolds. I think there will be discussions about various ideas. And there may be some idea that works out there that we haven’t thought of.
Multiple companies have approached Metro and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce about moving to the fairgrounds. Will this “time-out” dissuade them from still pursuing this?
I think realistically, you’re not going to get — this is like what’s happened in other cities or counties, or states that have done this. You have prepared sites for corporate headquarters or business expansion. The site’s there. You show it. You can tell somebody, “You can move here. This is how it all works.” I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but it’s very unlikely that a business would want to locate and go through the political process of what we’ve gone through in terms of determining whether we get the land. Companies look at Nashville all the time. And the chamber does a good job and [Metro director of economic development] Alexia Poe does a good job of talking to them about coming to our city and expanding in our city for existing companies. And people have looked at the fairgrounds, but there is no deal, there’s no wink. There’s nothing going on, and I don’t think anything will until it’s determined how development could take place.
You must be pleased with how things turned out with Music City Center. With the approval of the hotel plan, the project appears to have come together.
If you stop and think where we were last year at this point, we’re going into the Christmas holidays and we had made the decision in November where I decided that we’re not going to go ahead with having the hotel and the convention center locked together. I had the confidence that, as a city, our appeal was such that there was a need for another hotel and that it would come. The market would take care of it. The convention center, despite a lot of debate and controversy, passed overwhelmingly. And then the hotel deal happened. The hotel deal, I think most people agree is just a wonderful thing for our city. It is a privately financed agreement. It is a hotel where we are clearly giving incentives in terms of some taxes generated by the project, but it is a massive investment in the city of Nashville by a man who runs a very successful company who understands the huge potential that we have here. So I couldn’t be more gratified. And then the fact we’re doing this tie-in with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to create I think the most unique downtown convention center hotel in America, is just icing on the cake.
What’s your take on the controversy surrounding Belmont University following the dismissal of gay women’s soccer coach Lisa Howe?
As probably most people in this city, I have no idea what the facts are. I guess my role as mayor should not be to comment on No. 1, a situation where I don’t have the facts, and I should not comment on — I’ll let Belmont run Belmont. The difference between what we’ve done in Metro is clearly, as a city, we’ve adopted a council-sponsored ordinance that I signed — I was happy to do it — that said we have a nondiscrimination policy here in terms of employment. I think that’s absolutely the right thing to do. I think the metropolitan government of this city’s role is to not only be fair in employment practices, but it’s important for the city to set an example on issues of public policies like this.
In response to all the news of the last few weeks, I started thinking about boards and commissions, and whether there is any potential lack of a policy for those. Most of the authorities are not covered by it, so we sent letters to each one, asking them to look at it and consider adopting the policy the general government has.
Council members Jamie Hollin and Mike Jameson have filed a bill that would require companies that contract with Metro to adhere to the same nondiscrimination policy that Metro has. What are your thoughts about that?
I’d have to look at it. My general sense of things is this: As a city, we need to be a city that embraces diversity and is a welcoming, friendly city. My general sense on how this works is that as a city government, it is certainly appropriate for us to establish policies that do that, and that those polices can set an example for the private sector. There are companies and institutions in Nashville that already have policies like that. I’d have to look at something [the bill] after it’s actually written, but in general, the less regulation we do of businesses, the better. My general reaction is not for the public sector to immediately begin regulating the private sector. I look at regulating the private sector very, very cautiously.
Even companies that contract with Metro?
Again, I do think that the best thing metropolitan government can do is lead by example, to say we’re not going to discriminate. And that if we do, then we’ll correct it, because certainly we’ll make mistakes down the road. But taking a strong position on a public policy issue like that is probably the best thing we can do. I’m not saying I wouldn’t consider something. You have to look at everything. But my natural sense is that we should not be over-regulating the private sector.
Director of Schools Jesse Register has led the district for nearly two years now. Are we starting to turn things around?
I think we’ve made a lot of progress. I think the city has focused on education certainly for the three years since I’ve been in office. There’s been a sense that we are aware of the challenges we had under No Child Left Behind, we’re aware of the challenges that we have in terms of graduation rates. And we’ve seen improvements. When the schools release graduation rates, my understanding is that you are going to see graduation rates going up. That’s good news. That’s a compliment to Dr. Register. That’s a compliment to teachers. That’s a compliment to the city, which has steadfastly financed and supported education during difficult years, during a recession.
It’s also an indication that I think the reforms we’ve been talking about are beginning to help, too. There are a lot of challenges, though. We’re going to have a hard time with the new standards that have been set by the state. We have to make the commitment to not be afraid to continue down the path of reform, and to make the commitment to continue to fund schools. And the revenue issues don’t get easier. It’s not going to get any easier next year. But it’s my top priority, so I’m confident we’ll get it done.
Not long ago [prior to the district most recently reaching No Child Left Behind benchmarks], you were discussing the idea of a mayor-run school district. Is that something you still think about?
I clearly did when I didn’t think there was fast enough action, and we were slowly moving toward the most severe sanctions of No Child Left Behind. I think that in Tennessee as a whole and in Nashville, just take the change in attitude toward charter schools. You go back four or five years ago, it was hostile. Now we’re being acknowledged as one of nine cities by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as leaders in this area. We didn’t have Teach For America. We didn’t have the New Teacher Project. We didn’t have after-school programming. We didn’t have truancy programs. I have found that when the school board hired Dr. Register, they hired a really good person. They hired somebody who is smart, who is a good communicator, who I think his sole mission is to get this right. I think he has the ability to do it. And we work well together. So, right now, I’m very comfortable with where we are. It’s not going to be something for the timid. We have got to keep pushing forward.
Let’s talk about the Nashville Sounds’ desire for a new downtown ballpark. Do you want a downtown baseball stadium? Is Sulphur Dell your preferred location? When does that pick up?
I think we need to have a new ballpark. I think downtown is the appropriate place for it. The exact location, you know, there’s a lot of speculation. Everybody’s got their favorite. They’re all intriguing, and Sulphur Dell has gotten a lot of interest, which is justifiable. But in terms of the timing, it really all comes down to the ability to pay for it in a way that’s responsible. I understand the Sounds need to see progress and move forward, that’s OK, but it’s a private business. We have got to make sure that when we do it, that it’s right for the city and the taxpayers are protected. Those are the things that control the timing.
Talks of a new downtown ballpark are in many ways tied to the future of the 11-acre former thermal plant site. That’s still the Sounds’ preferred location. You’ve talked about a possible outdoor music venue at that site.
What I’ve said all along, and what I firmly believe, is that the thermal property is a unique property. Even though we have this great, long riverfront in downtown Nashville, the thermal site is uniquely located there up on a hill, and it’s positioned in a way where it could very easily be a signature project for the city, a project that when you see it you think, “This is Nashville.” So an amphitheater is something that is music-related and performs a variety of roles. It brings people downtown, like a ballgame would, to attend a public event. It also can be used for multiple genres of music — whether it’s the [Nashville] Symphony, rock, country. It could be used for the CMA Music Festival. And you could design it in such a way with public art and the nature of the facility, where it is truly a symbol or a signature of the city. The same issues are there with building a new ballpark. It’s just got to be right financially, and it’s got be done at the right time.
It’s my understanding that your office has communicated with state officials regarding the relocation of PSC Metals Inc. [located on the east bank of the Cumberland River]. Last legislative session, an incentive was approved that would “allow a relocation expense credit to any scrap metal processing facility relocating from a central business district or an area adjacent to the central business district and separated only by a waterway.” Is this something you’re working on, or is it solely the state?
Let me just say right now that there’s nothing imminently happening. There’s nothing happening. There’s a change in administration [governor]. But No. 1, PSC Metals is a private business, and I respect that. Obviously, I’m not the first mayor to have an interest in trying to develop what I would say is an underutilized piece of land right next to downtown. But it’s privately owned, and I’ll be respectful of that process. And I would confirm that there have been discussions, but for something to happen, you have to have a willing seller, you have to have the ability to buy, you have to find a place to put something, and you have to have money to do all that. That being said, there’s nothing to announce.
You weighed in on immigration policy the other day. Are you worried that the state’s heavily Republican legislature — now with a newly elected Republican governor — will try to adopt a law similar to Arizona’s?
I wouldn’t do it by party. I try to actually approach this job in the most nonpartisan way I can. I think the issue, for both parties, has been one on the national level where there has not been the necessary attention to the necessary reforms, so there’s this sense that local governments and state governments have to take these dramatic actions for what is largely — what is — a federal role. There has obviously been a lot of discussion in the newspapers and elsewhere about the issue. What I said in my speech the other day is that I’m not trying to interfere and meddle with the business of the General Assembly. But I would say — and I think it’s my responsibility to say as a mayor of a major city, a city that has a hospitality industry that’s its second-largest private employer — that we need to be cautious and think through what we’re doing. You add in our universities and colleges. We are an enormous academic center, too, where there are a lot people from other countries coming to our schools. And so whatever actions they take, I would just ask they give consideration to what the impact would be on the economy of Nashville and the rest of the state.
You and other elected officials recently signed the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. You’ve talked about taking mass transit more seriously. It all boils down to finding a dedicated funding source. Is this the year that happens?
Before you go into a discussion about dedicated funding, you have to have a plan, or a vision as to how this would all unfold, in order to get people to buy in. You don’t do transit for the sake of transit — because you like trains and you like buses. You do it because when you have a good transit system, your economy works better, people’s costs and their own family budgets are lowered. They’re able to have alternatives to cars, alternatives to parking. It gives young people more choices when they move into a city. All those things are good for the city and good for our region. That’s why you do it. But to get there, and talk about the funding aspect, you’ve got to have the plan first. A serious plan. And one you communicate to the public. That’s the process we’re going through.
You’ve talked primarily about light rail. When is this a possibility?
Well, we’re going through the process now of doing a streetcar study on West End-Broadway. I don’t know what the results of that will be, but that is an ongoing, real project that may happen. The work we’ve done on Gallatin Road with Bus Rapid Transit — it’s sort of “Bus Rapid Transit light.” But I think the bus stops are better. They have real-time information on them. They’re more comfortable. The buses are better. They’re more comfortable. They make fewer stops. That needs to become more sophisticated. If light rail is a solution, as you move to it, you need to continually make improvements in the transit system. And within Nashville itself — not just regionally — we need to do it as a city. People need to be able to move around the city better than they can right now. It is an ongoing challenge, but I’m excited about working at it.