In what is arguably Mayor Karl Dean’s biggest political victory since taking office, the Metro Council last night approved financing for a new, $585 million downtown convention center.
After a few council skeptics made their final cases, Metro’s legislative body voted 29-9 to bankroll the 1.2 million-square-foot Music City Center, a project Dean first championed during his 2007 mayoral campaign as vital to staying competitive in the convention-and-tourism business and as a catalyst for economic growth.
Minutes after the vote — which drew applause from supporters in the packed council chambers — Dean turned to his favorite phrase, calling the proceedings “a great night for the city” before thanking the council for its nod of approval.
“[The Metro Council] has looked at this representing the entire city and the vote was fairly overwhelming,” a visibly pleased Dean said. “It’s not a divided council at all. It’s a very large vote in favor of this project.”
Under the approved financing plan, a combination of taxes and fees that target tourists would over time pay off an annual $40 million debt service. Non-tax revenue from Metro’s general fund would back up the bonds used to pay off the debt. There is also a $40 million reserve fund that would be enacted to cover shortages.
Approval came after the council voted down a motion 27-10 to defer the resolution from Councilman Eric Crafton, who argued the convention center should have been paid for with general obligation bonds.
The council signed off on the convention center’s financing just an hour or so after Nashville’s Priorities — a citizen-led group working in opposition to Music City Center — delivered some 9,000 petitions signed by Nashvillians hoping to have a public referendum to decide the issue.
Though the council’s decision had been forecasted weeks before, half of the 40-member body announced their positions on the floor of the council chambers.
Councilman Greg Adkins, who voted for the financing plan, said it’s about “jobs, jobs and more jobs.”
“This is Nashville’s stimulus package,” Adkins said. “It’s going to create 3,000 jobs during the construction phase of the project and approximately another 1,000 jobs once the facility opens. And who knows how many jobs it’s going to create from the ripple effects of more tourists who visit our city.”
Councilman Duane Dominy, who also signed off on Music City Center, acknowledged concerns that taxpayers may “foot the bill” but decided to vote for the plan after he concluded the city would likely “break even,” noting also the need for additional convention center space.
“I support this but not without concern,” Dominy said. “It is not entirely feasible, but I can tell you that if we don’t do this, the concerns are much greater for me.”
Likewise, Councilman Kristine LaLonde, who said she struggled with her decision, concluded that Music City Center is a “risk worth taking” and that a “far greater risk is to fail to move forward and live up to our potential as a great destination for visitors.”
Voices of dissent didn’t come from the usual pack of council skeptics, which includes Jason Holleman, Emily Evans and Mike Jameson, all of whom opted not to speak before voting against funding for the project.
Clasping a bucket used to collect water from the ceiling of a dilapidated Metro school, Councilman Michael Craddock reminded his colleagues that the school district is facing a $35 million budget shortfall and called the upcoming budget process a “train wreck of monumental proportions.”
“We can’t even afford to put a roof on a school,” Craddock said. “How can we sit here and make a decision like this that goes against the people and ignores elementary school children? That is beyond me.”
Using a similar line of attack, Councilman Jim Gotto called attention to the recent water main break along Second Avenue near Broadway, pointing out that approving a new football stadium more than a decade ago took money from Metro Water’s surplus.
“Do we need a new convention center? Absolutely,” Gotto said. “The one we have is outdated, but at what cost? The main problem I have for voting for this is the forecast. The forecast has been presented, and the company that’s presented it is unwilling to give us their track record and how they’ve done in other places.”
But in the end the mayor’s argument prevailed. Dean called the opportunity to double the number of conventioneers in Nashville an “enormous shot in the arm to our number two industry. The hope, he said, is to break ground by the early spring in anticipation for a Feb. 2013 opening.
He also said the council’s vote adds “more certainty” about plans to turn the existing Nashville Convention Center into a 12-story Medical Trade Center, which would be funded by a $250 million private investment.
Dean and his administration are now expected to turn their attention to landing either a private or public-private deal to finance a convention center hotel, which experts have estimated should cost $300 million and boast between 750 and 1,000 rooms. He said interested parties have approached him in just the past few weeks.
“My goal is to get that done,” he said of the hotel deal. “I don’t know how big [the hotel is] going to be, but I think it will get done. When we open the convention center, we’ll either have a convention hotel headquarters opening, or it will open shortly thereafter.”
Council members who voted against the funding: Michael Craddock, Jamie Hollin, Mike Jameson, Jim Gotto, Eric Crafton, Emily Evans, Jason Holleman, Randy Foster and Robert Duvall. Carter Todd abstained, and James Bruce Stanley did not vote.