When plans to locate a medical trade center in a retrofitted Nashville Convention Center were revealed in late 2009, Mayor Karl Dean insisted the timing of the announcement was “not directly related” to a key Metro Council vote that week on financing for the Music City Center.
At the same time, he said the plan for a Nashville Medical Trade Center — otherwise known as the Med Mart — “would not be where it is if we were not going to move forward” with the Music City Center. Whether the timing of the announcement was meant to leverage support for the new convention center, or to allay concerns about what would become of the old one, the two pitches did appear linked.
Three years later, the news that the Med Mart project had fallen through was not particularly surprising. Dallas-based developers Market Center Management Co. had been struggling to find tenants for the space for some time, and Dean seemed to be cooling on the project in a May interview with The City Paper. But its failure has brought questions about to what degree it was linked to the ultimate success of the Music City Center, not to mention support for its financing.
There are only three remaining council members who voted against the green-roofed behemoth that has grown into the Nashville skyline over the past year. While all three — Jason Holleman, Emily Evans, and Robert Duvall — acknowledged the overlap between key votes on the Music City Center and the Med Mart announcement, they declined for the most part to speculate retrospectively on the motives behind it. In any event, they said, now that the new convention center is a reality, they’re committed to seeing it succeed.
“We’re city officials, we’re leaders of our community — our job is to find a way for the Music City Center to be successful,” said Evans. “Find a way to make sure our revenue streams, our hotel occupancy taxes, are as diverse as possible. That they’re paid for by business travelers, by leisure travelers, by convention and trade show visitors, all of that. That is our mandate, that’s what we have to do.”
But on that point, there are still concerns.
Holleman, who survived a Dean-backed challenge to his council seat, which was widely seen as the political cost of his vote against the mayor’s signature project, worries about how the two projects were linked in the city’s planning. He told The City Paper last week that he’s concerned about the city’s ability to handle the debt on the new convention center.
“I think the ability of the city to cover the debt service on the convention center was marginal,” he said. “And to me, if the Med Mart project was made possible as a result of vacating the convention center space, then I thought the project could work. But without that, I had and continue to have concerns about our ability to cover the debt service without relying on the fallback funding sources, such as non-tax revenues.”
Duvall, who is currently running as a Republican for the state House District 59 seat, said he never perceived the Med Mart project as the “tipping point” for getting the Music City Center approved, but rather “some more meringue for the pie.” Now that it’s gone, he said it’s just another problem on top of others, such as the nearly $700,000 Metro will have to pay out to two groups forced to relocate their conventions due to delays with construction on the Music City Center.
“It was kind of a side note. ‘Oh by the way, we’ve got a tenant for the old convention center, it’s not going to be a problem getting rid of.’ Now we don’t have a tenant for it, so now we do have the problem again,” he said. “It’s more piling on.”
As recently as July, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau was announcing advanced bookings at the Music City Center of more than 730,000 room nights for 86 meetings. They have set a goal booking 1 million room nights before the center opens in 2013. But for Duvall, general uneasiness about the viability of a convention center lingers.
“At this point, I’m more than a little bit concerned about where we’re headed,” he said. “I hope that we can fill that thing up and we can make it very successful. But it was built in an overbuilt category that is declining. And, you know, I guess people are going to come to Nashville, but are they really going to come to Nashville to go to the convention center, or are they going to come to Nashville to do something else?”
While noting that Market Center CEO Bill Winsor was “nothing but straight with everyone from the very beginning” about the fact that he couldn’t guarantee the Med Mart project would ultimately come to fruition, Holleman said he still believes, as he did three years ago, that making sure the old convention center houses an “economic driver” is a key component of the viability of the Music City Center.
“And so, now that we know it’s not Med Mart,” he said. “I think that at the top of our list of what we do is to find a reuse of that building, and find it quickly, and make sure that it is a building that adds jobs and economic vitality to the downtown core.”
In light of the Med Mart’s demise, Dean remained optimistic. After the announcement, he said the old convention space “remains a desirable piece of property” that is “generating a lot of interest.”