Nashville 2010: A year to forget — as much as to remember

Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 10:05pm
By a City Paper coterie
Eric England/SouthComm

Things were bad this year. It sure feels like we’re still in a recession, even though “experts” are telling us otherwise. We had one of the worst floods in our history, and many of us are still trying to recover — more than six months later. Our national image was tarnished by a small group of haters trying to derail a new mosque and community center in Murfreesboro. The debate over the future of the fairgrounds devolved into a culture clash (Elite vs. NASCAR, sound familiar?) that felt more like a schoolyard brawl. And the Jeff Fisher-Vince Young drama peaked with an outburst worthy of Bristol Palin. 

But there is an upside. We got started on the biggest construction project in Nashville history in our $585 million downtown convention center, despite the still-awful economy. Charter schools are blossoming, bringing new innovation to a public school system sorely lacking. Commercial economic development is moving along nicely, as is the redevelopment of our beloved riverfront. And our buses and bikeways are getting better by the week.  All this? Well, it’s just about a year’s work here in Middle Tennessee.

The Great Flood of 2010

It seemed like an unusually heavy rain on Saturday, May 1, but nobody expected what came next: more rain. Then more. And more. Over about two days, more than 19 inches dropped on Middle Tennessee, and the Cumberland River rose to a level it hadn’t since 1937, filling downtown like a bowl. LP Field, Bridgestone Arena, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, The Pinnacle — all filled up with floodwater. Gaylord Opryland was devastated. The hotel was trashed, and our heritage took a hit with the damage to the Grand Ole Opry. The devastation in our neighborhoods was worse still. Raging waters gutted homes and offices, killing 10 people in Davidson County and 21 statewide. It was a 500-to-1,000-year flood, we would later learn. And while it wrecked pretty much everything in its path, the flood also brought out a renewed sense of togetherness for Nashvillians, who proved once again that we’re a kind, resilient lot.

Fair game at the fairgrounds

What will happen to the 117-acre Metro-owned fairgrounds turned into perhaps the most contentious issue of 2010, so much so that Mayor Karl Dean has at least momentarily put plans to redevelop the property on the backburner, in what was seen by most as a political defeat. In September, Dean announced intentions to relocate the fairgrounds’ expo center to a space inside Antioch’s Hickory Hollow Mall, paving the way for the fairgrounds to become the future home of (deep breath) corporate office space. But the backlash — from the public at large and several council members — was more than Hizzoner bargained for. So he retreated, at least for now. A bill sponsored by nine council members would keep the state fair and expo center at the fairgrounds for another year, though it would demolish the racetrack to make way for a 40-acre park.

A new superstructure for downtown

Just 19 days into the 2010 calendar, the Metro Council signed off on the most expensive municipal project in Tennessee history, pledging $585 million in tourist-generated tax dollars to build the new 1.2 million-square-foot Music City Center, a public venture seen as essential by the city’s business establishment to play catch-up in the ultra-competitive convention arms race. By the end of the summer, Dean and his administration finally landed a public-private financing deal for a new $287 million Omni Hotel to anchor the convention center. The council unanimously approved the package. Now the entire city will be watching to see if Music City Center’s promise — an influx of previously unattainable conventioneers — holds true come February 2013.

Uncharted waters for public schools

The charter school movement reached new heights in Nashville during the past 12 months, continuing the momentum of the previous year. A 2009 state law expanded the number of charters allowed in Davidson County and doubled the number of students eligible to attend the publicly financed, privately operated schools. Metro Nashville Public Schools opened its central office to a new charter schools czar. A “charter incubator” opened, and a school board once skeptical of the experimental schools suddenly seemed more receptive. In 2010, the build-up amounted to the approval of six charters, which will bring the district’s total to 11 when they open. New schools are Nashville Prep, Liberty Collegiate, Drexel Preparatory, East End Prep and STEM Prep. Cameron Middle Schools, after failing to reach federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks for several years is a row, is being transformed into a charter.

Give ’em something (else) to talk about

When the Metro Council wasn’t signing off on Dean’s Music City Center or throwing mud over the mayor’s fairgrounds proposal, the city’s 40-member legislative body passed a few noteworthy laws. The council adopted a new living wage, which raised the minimum wage for Metro employees to $10.77. The law, pushed by At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry, is more symbolic than anything else, as it affected just 14 employees. A bill spearheaded by rookie Councilman Jamie Hollin streamlined the way restaurants in residential areas obtain beer licenses. Trips to several Metro commissions are no longer necessary to receive exemption from the city’s archaic distance requirements. And in light of May’s flood, a bill sponsored by Councilman Darren Jernigan of Old Hickory would ban future development in the city’s floodway, among other things. It is expected to pass.

The most boring race

Synopsis of the gubernatorial battle royale is as follows: Frist says no, so Republicans Wamp, Haslam and Gibbons jump in. Pause. Ramsey joins. Pause. Haslam has money, Gibbons and crew say, “Show me,” Haslam says no. Gibbons quits, Ramsey shows boot on TV, Wamp whines, Haslam wins GOP primary. Meanwhile, Democrats Kyle, Herron, McMillan, Cammock and McWherter enter ring. McWherter wins war of attrition (everybody else quits). Haslam vs. McWherter. Haslam looks like a softer Dana Carvey in ads, McWherter tries to tie him to foreign oil but no one bites because it’s absurd. Haslam shoots mouth off about dropping gun permits, no one cares. Haslam wins in landslide.

Stink over Stieglitz

Rarely do arts issues stoke fervor from this arts-modest city. But with Fisk University’s famed Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art, a mix of ongoing courtroom drama and enough opinions to fill the Louvre sparked a firestorm. Could Fisk legally sell the $74 million collection to Arkansas-based Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art? Should it? What did Georgia O’Keeffe intend for the future of the collection when she gave it to Fisk? What if the sale would mean the survival of the historically black university? Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that Crystal Bridges could acquire a 50 percent interest in the collection. But the chronically broke Fisk would be allowed to spend only $10 million of the approximately $30 million deal, with the balance placed in an endowment fund limited to, Fisk claims, an insufficient $1 million for collection maintenance. Displeased, Fisk appealed.

Up and down is the new rebound for housing

Nashville’s real estate market started 2010 on a bit of a winning streak. Year-over-year increases in housing sales returned in November 2009 and just kept going as the calendar turned over. They climbed through the winter and into the spring. For eight months, Nashville’s residential real estate market was on an upswing. Experts warned it was a false economy — the looming expiration of the first-time homebuyers tax credit was priming the pump. Sales-wise, the bottom of the market was expected to fall out in May. Then the bottom of the clouds fell out, and already-anxious agents become more nervous still. But the market had other plans, posting another increase in May, despite the flood, and again in June. Since then, though, it’s been downhill. Down 21 percent in July, 22 percent in August, 19 percent in September and finishing the fiscal year on a truly sour note: down 30 percent against October 2009, with year-to-date sales finally passing 2009. The pronouncement that Nashville’s home market was on its way back was premature, just as the prediction of a downfall was.

Rollin’ on the river

Nashville’s downtown riverfront has long languished, its banks begging for reinvention like what Chattanooga and Louisville have enjoyed. But with the May flood came renewed attention on the riverfront, and in late summer work began on both Adventure Park and the rehabilitation of the historic NABRICO Building. The park will bring water features and interpretative elements. NABRICO straddles the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge, and with a possible upper-level restaurant/bar, could offer superb views of downtown. Both NABRICO and the park will anchor the east bank and give LP Field aesthetically tasteful neighbors to counter the PSC Metals eyesore.

Wait. They’re building a mosque in Murfreesboro?

Part of the beauty of our little experiment in democracy is the notion of due process, that as a law-abiding citizen you are guaranteed certain personal rights and freedoms, as well as specific processes for interacting with your government. Those processes are intended to protect you from bias and ideology in decision-making. Say you want to build a building. Or maybe a religious structure. Say you’re the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, and your congregation — which has been in Rutherford County for 30 years — is expanding, so you buy land and file permits for a new mosque and community center. You meet all the deadlines for permit applications, and you receive the unanimous support of the county commission to build your mosque — exactly the same way a Christian congregation might begin to go about erecting a new church. Except that you’re Muslim. And you live in Murfreesboro. So some nativist outliers challenge your rights. Unsuccessfully, it turned out.

Davis-Kidd über alles

The autographed photos are all off the walls, the everything-must-go hysteria, complete with a man on a microphone hawking $4 Complete Idiot’s Guide to whatever, is in full effect, and now you too can own the furniture that once held Davis-Kidd Booksellers’ books. Where does that leave Nashville, proud home of the Southern Festival of Books? The first inclination may be to ask, “Where’s Garth Brooks with a fundraising concerts now?” But perhaps it’s just what some entrepreneurial spirit needs to give birth to Nashville’s own Square Books  or City Lights. Step up.

No home for the homeless

Some 140 homeless people populated Tent City before the Cumberland River washed it out in early May. Two months later, after the city closed down a reimagined Tent City in Antioch, emails from downtown residents and workers began pouring into the mayor’s office. People were concerned that the homeless population in the downtown core had increased (given the events of the preceding months, that’s a no-brainer) and the quality of their lives was tanking as a result. The Room In The Inn’s Comprehensive Center opened in September as a bright spot for providing services to the city’s homeless, but regular meetings involving homeless advocates, the central police precinct and the public defender’s office must keep communication lines open moving forward.

Does this mean we have to get insurance? 

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — though beat up and watered down — was signed into law in March. The health care reform package has been lauded by many for providing health insurance to those who can’t afford it or have been denied coverage because of pre-existing health conditions. Others have derided it for giving the federal government expanded (and expensive) control of Americans’ health care. So far, few of the law’s provisions have taken effect, and the rising rolls of uninsured continue to plague the profits of Nashville’s bread-and-butter hospital industry. Last week, a federal judge in Virginia ruled the individual mandate unconstitutional. There appears to be a long road yet. 

Freeman ousted from Predators 

The quiet man who saved the city’s hockey team found himself back in the shadows in 2010, and that might be all right with him. David Freeman, who put together the coalition of Nashville businessmen who bought the Predators in 2007 — keeping the team in the city — was forced from the forefront as his personal finances, particularly a $3.3 million IRS lien (which is still outstanding), became a point of concern for the Metro Sports Authority. News emerged of Freeman’s lien in November 2009; in March, Freeman stepped down as team chairman, replaced by the affable and avuncular Tom Cigarran, a hockey fan who admitted he was not a hockey man. His biggest steps thus far have been the hiring of Jeff Cogen as CEO and Sean Henry as COO. The two men come with a pedigree of success from Dallas and Tampa, respectively. For now, the ownership group — Freeman included — has retreated to a behind-the-scenes role.

Meet the new boss

When then-Assistant Chief Steve Anderson stepped up to fill the vacuum left by the exiting Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas, who left Nashville for a ticket home to New Orleans and its top-cop position, Anderson said he had little interest in the full-time chief job. At the time, the mayor said he’d be held to no “arbitrary deadline” to name a new chief and referred to the department’s “deep bench” of potential chiefs. Seven months later, it’s status quo at the department with little expectation of Dean pulling the trigger on a different chief ahead of the 2011 election. Meanwhile, Anderson is settling in just a couple months after filling deputy chief vacancies left in Serpas’ wake.

Where art thou, Nashville Medical Trade Center?

The big news about the Nashville Medical Trade Center this year was that there was, well, little news at all. After the $250 million project’s developer picked the Nashville Convention Center as the med mart’s future home in late 2009, Nashvillians expected a stream of tenant announcements. Instead, we got a vague partnership with Lipscomb University and one lease with a health IT association. Oh, and construction will now start in early 2011 — that is, if there are lease commitments for 60 percent of the 1.5 million square feet of showroom space. That’s all it’ll take to secure the financing.

Oh, look! A solid year for economic development in the region

Overshadowed by The Flood, the Omni hotel debate and the late-year fairgrounds fight was a solid year for Middle Tennessee’s economic developers. Loews Hotels’ commitment to a downtown billing center and Jackson National launching a big Cool Springs office led the way, but there were significant deals across the region. Auto-related companies LKQ and NHK said they would create more than 200 jobs each in Nashville and Murfreesboro. Macy’s announced a 250-job expansion of its Portland warehouse, and local insurer HealthSpring and logistics player OHL each said they, too, would add at least 200 jobs each in the coming years. In a sluggish job market, these companies look set to lead the way.

Sommet: Things fall apart

Payroll outsourcer Sommet Group began the year embroiled in a dispute with the Nashville Predators over the three-year, $4 million naming-rights deal that made the hockey team’s home arena the Sommet Center. By February, tiremaker Bridgestone had supplanted Sommet on the marquee. But Sommet’s troubles were about to get much worse. On July 6, federal agents raided its Cool Springs office, accusing founder Brian Whitfield of “ongoing criminal activity.” A lot of other companies’ money was missing. Then The City Paper broke news of past claims that Whitfield took part in “fraudulent, inappropriate and racketeering activities” as CEO of a prior venture. In depositions after the raid, Whitfield and his wife invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination more than 280 times, provoking a bankruptcy judge to find them in contempt of court. The trustee trying to sort out the company’s affairs said he found “shocking” evidence of “massive fraud.” The search for Sommet’s missing assets continues.

Vanderbilt’s football coaching carousel

Less than seven weeks before the season opener, Vanderbilt football coach Bobby Johnson surprised everyone by retiring. In a bind, Vanderbilt promoted longtime assistant Robbie Caldwell to head coach. With an outgoing personality and great sense of humor, Caldwell, who had been the Commodores’ offensive line coach since 2002, immediately won over the media and the public. He couldn’t win on the field, though. Vanderbilt finished 2-10 for the second straight year, and Caldwell resigned the morning of the last game of the season. The Commodores are searching for a new coach to lead them out of the basement: In the past 28 years, they have had just one winning season.

Ogilvy leaves for draft, doesn’t get drafted

After three years at Vanderbilt, and finishing the 2009-10 campaign averaging 13.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, A.J. Ogilvy decided he was ready for the next level. So the 6-11, 250-pound center hired an agent and entered the NBA Draft. Many pundits thought it was too soon, especially since Ogilvy appeared to have problems when matched up against bigger, more physical players. NBA executives apparently agreed, and Ogilvy wasn’t drafted. Undeterred, the Australian signed a contract with Besiktas Cola Turka, a Turkish team in the European League. And guess who one of Ogilvy’s current teammates is: Allen Iverson.

Another Predators playoff flameout

The Nashville Predators’ 2010 first-round playoff series constituted progress in that the team won a road playoff game for the first time in franchise history. Poised to take a huge step forward in Game 5 (the series was tied at two games apiece), they instead allowed the Chicago Blackhawks to score a game-tying shorthanded goal with 14 seconds in regulation and eventually got beat in overtime. Stunned by the sudden turnaround, they were eliminated with a loss at home in Game 6. Chicago ultimately won the Stanley Cup, and their players said no series was more challenging than the first. Maybe that too was progress for the Predators, who fell to 0-5 all-time in playoff series, all of which have ended in six games or fewer. 

Price finishes second in Cy Young voting, starts All-Star Game

Former Vanderbilt standout and Murfreesboro native David Price enjoyed the best season of his young professional career. The Tampa Rays ace was 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA and 188 strikeouts as he finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting to Seattle’s Felix Hernandez. Price, who has already pitched in a World Series in his three-year major league career, also started on the mound for the American League in this summer’s All-Star Game. He pitched just two innings and allowed no runs on one hit as the American League lost to the National League for the first time since 1996. 

Betting on bikes and buses

It will be many years before downtown Nashville is truly mass-transit effective. But Metro’s Music City Circuit and bike-share program represent respectable 2010 additions. With green, blue and purple lines, the hybrid-bus circuit shuttles riders through the city’s urban core — for free, no less. To date, ridership has been respectable, or so say Metro Transit Authority officials. Much like some of us when pedaling a two-wheeler uphill, the fledgling bike-share program has struggled — the central business district’s hilly terrain and a lack of advertising budget aren’t helping matters. Still, training wheels, and patience, are needed to transition folks from cars to bikes and beyond.

Titans acquire Randy Moss, don’t use him 

After 13 years, the Titans finally got Randy Moss. Having passed on him because of character concerns in the 1998 draft, the Titans got him during their 2010 bye week when they were the only one of the NFL’s 32 teams to make a waiver claim. One of the league’s top 10 all-time receivers, Moss was placed on waivers by the Minnesota Vikings, who had traded with New England four weeks earlier to get him. Both previous teams soured on him. The Titans simply let him get stale. Three different quarterbacks failed to get him involved in the offense and showcase his big-play ability, and by mid-December he was Kenny Britt’s backup. 

Jeff Fisher vs. Vince Young

More so than at any point during his 16 years in charge of the team, Jeff Fisher’s authority was openly challenged when his quarterback pouted on the sideline during an overtime loss to the Washington Redskins and afterward stormed out of the locker room. Fisher immediately declared that Young had forfeited his role as a starter and days later dismissed Young’s attempt at an apology made via text message. With Young sidelined by an injured thumb, the issue lies dormant. It is certain to flare once again during the offseason and will likely mean the departure of at least one of the two. 

The rise of Ensworth

Ricky Bowers is definitely in the spirit of the season as the Ensworth High athletic director has watched his school win two state championships in a little over a month. The volleyball team, coached by Eva Lea, won the DII-AA state tournament at MTSU in late October. The Tigers rallied to beat St. Benedict in five games in the finals, with junior ReJean Rouse named tournament MVP. The football team, coached by Bowers, rallied for a 28-21 victory over Chattanooga Baylor in the championship game in Cookeville Dec. 2, Ensworth’s first title in that sport. David Dingess made a spectacular game-winning touchdown catch from quarterback Drew Parker, the offensive MVP.