After months of sturm and drang about a controversial new $585 million convention center for Nashville, the largest capital project in Tennessee history seems to have the assured support of the Metro Council.
Though the recent unveiling of the project’s long-awaited finance package lacks financing for a hotel -–– a component viewed almost universally as crucial to the facility’s long-term success –– lobbyists and Council members on both sides of the issue all seem pretty confident that the Council, the ultimate arbiter on the question, will approve the so-called Music City Center come Jan. 19’s critical final vote.
Mayor Karl Dean and his administration have fielded some pointed questions about the enormous capital undertaking, most consistently from a cluster of circumspect Council members such as Emily Evans, Eric Crafton, Mike Jameson and Jason Holleman. But the arguments against committing dedicated sales taxes and hotel-motel taxes to bankroll the project — which include the notion that investing in a contracting convention market nationally might be folly — don’t seem to be gaining meaningful traction in terms of projected opposition votes.
Moreover, the Council has already signed off on several significant incremental project phases that include predevelopment and land-acquisition work and the appointment of a nine-member Convention Center Authority to oversee the development.
Project supporter and Council Budget and Finance Committee chairman Ronnie Steine said he is “very optimistic” the body will green-light the convention center, adding that it would fall short of majority support only if Mayor Dean “backtracked from the promise” of not using “property or undesignated sales tax dollars” to fund it.
Even project skeptic Jameson, though bemoaning the lack of early, sustained and nuanced debate about the civic bargain, seems to predict its ultimate authorization. “I’m not betting on it not passing. But it would have been nice to see it preceded by more thoughtful debate,” he said.
While skeptics question the project’s viability and proponents trumpet its economic impact, the issue boils down to a political game of votes and number crunching. With Councilman Carter Todd, a Gaylord Entertainment Co. executive, expected to abstain from voting because his employer competes with Metro for conventions, 39 Council members at most will have a say.
A simple majority requires 20 votes on either side. So it’s all about the math.
Posturing paints murky picture
Unlike state and national elected officials who often toe party lines and vote according to political or ideological allegiances, Metro Council members aren’t always as easy to read. It’s customary for the city’s representatives to be reluctant, especially publicly, about pledging their support — or lack of it.
“I’ve come to this with an open mind,” At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry said. “My mind is still open, and I want to make the best decision for Nashville.”
Barry’s politic remark is typical of common neutral posturing among Council members. But like any legislative battle, stakeholders are constantly pigeonholing legislators as proponents or opponents of Music City Center. Counting votes on the pro-convention center side are registered lobbyists working on behalf of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Music City Center Coalition. And project adversaries have formed Nashville’s Priorities, a nonprofit group that has received at least some funds from Gaylord Entertainment Co.
Paid boosters claim as many as 28 Council supporters, with only six sure-fire votes against it, leaving only a handful of undecided members. On the other side, attorney Kevin Sharp, president of Nashville’s Priorities, believes both the yes and no columns number around 10 apiece, with a large pool of “undecideds.”
The discrepancy found by competing lobbying arms seems to paint a murky picture, but Council members themselves attest to the finance plan’s strong support. One member — albeit a supporter — has tallied between 27 and 29 votes of approval, with another backer projecting the figure could reach 30. But even an opponent forecasts the number of supporters to be 23, with only seven definite nay votes.
Another stakeholder who would naturally be counting heads is the Mayor’s Office itself, which has made the convention center its signature issue. Rather than skating by with a narrow victory, the Dean administration would certainly prefer a mandate to avoid backlash.
“If you look at history, history says that we’ve received strong votes on this project since the Council’s been asked to consider it on several different occasions,” said Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling, stopping short of engaging in a vote-guessing game.
Hotel may be a game-changer
If the Council does approve the Music City Center’s financing, it’s not because members haven’t raised alarm about what’s at stake. And if there’s a game-changer that would jeopardize the convention center’s passage, it would most likely be the uncertainty of an adjacent hotel.
Evans, perhaps the most vocal critic of the convention center, believes the absence of such a deal has forced some of her colleagues to rethink their positions. “It’s hard to know what will happen,” she said. “It’s a long time between now and Jan. 19.”
The plan recently unveiled by the Dean administration aims to pay off the project’s annual $40 million debt service through a combination of sources, including hotel-motel taxes, visitors fees and dedicated sales tax revenue from a so-called tourism development zone. Non-tax revenues from Metro’s reserves would back up a portion of the debt.
Despite acknowledging the necessity of a convention center hotel, Riebeling said it was absent from the finance package because of the difficulty landing a private hotel developer during a time of depressed capital markets. Experts have said the hotel should include 750 to 1,000 rooms and could cost $300 million to build.
“We will have a convention center hotel,” Dean told Council members as he unveiled the plan earlier this month. “This proposal may come in the spring, it may come much later next year, but I’m confident it will come.”
The administration’s plan is to continue negotiating with hotel development veteran Phelps Portman in hopes of inking a deal that would allow the hotel and convention center to be completed simultaneously for a February 2013 opening. Though private financing would be preferable, administration officials have said, there’s no guarantee they won’t ask that public dollars underwrite the hotel.
“The thing I didn’t hear the other night was that there would not be any public financing of the hotel,” said Councilman Jim Gotto, who months earlier passed a non-binding resolution that asked the convention center and hotel plan be presented together. “That door was left open. I’ve got a problem with that.”
As does Evans, who notes that there hasn’t been a privately financed convention hotel built in the United States in a decade “because the convention business continues to contract.”
Signing off on the center, both Jameson and Evans worry, could bind the Council to approve a hotel at a later point when the economics aren’t certain. Jameson said he doesn’t doubt that private hotel financing at the moment is next to impossible, but it shouldn’t be about taking anyone’s word at face value.
“It’s simply economic analysis,” he said. “This has nothing to do with how I feel personally about anybody or their judgment or their character.”
Meanwhile, Councilman Bo Mitchell, who “if pushed” is leaning toward supporting the convention center, said the hotel remains his main concern. “For the success of the convention center, I think you need the hotel,” he said. “We need those additional hotel rooms … to attract the type of conventions that we’re looking to attract.”
Representatives of First Southwest Co., a firm that provides financial counseling for Metro, say the city can pay off the project’s debt even without revenues from a convention center hotel. The finance structure, they contend, is sound and self-supporting.
Steine said Council members should understand experts wouldn’t risk their reputation by providing erroneous numbers and they should have confidence the finance package is solid.
“If you, on the other hand, are just generally skeptical of all numbers and have at least a skeptical view of Nashville’s future and our ability to grow and to continue to generate interest and visitors, then you would naturally be skeptical of all this,” Steine said. “That’s just two basic fundamental points of view about the future of our city.”
What does the public want?
Frustrating for some Council members is the absence of any scientific polling throughout the debate that could provide at least a hint of how much public support exists for the project. Short of an independent phone survey conducted by Nashville’s Priorities, which some characterized as a skewed push poll, Council members have been left to gauge support on their own.
Councilman Sam Coleman, who said he’s undecided, estimated half of his constituents in his Antioch district support the project.
Meanwhile, Jameson, who lives in East Nashville, says he senses that “the average guy on the street is at best skeptical of this.”
Even Metro Councilman Rip Ryman, a supporter, says public input to the Council is overwhelmingly opposed.
Between now and the final January vote, many Council members are scheduled to hold community meetings to bring the case to their constituents to measure support.
The City Paper has confirmed at least five such meetings, most to be held jointly by several members.
And then there is a Jan. 11 public hearing at the Council.
“Obviously, I want to vote how my community wants me to on specifically this issue,” said Metro Councilwoman Karen Bennett, who’ll be co-hosting a Jan. 12 gathering in East Nashville. “For them to make an informed decision, they need to hear both sides of the issue.”
By that point, Council members hope the constant lobbying and vote counting won’t seal the project’s fate. But for his part, Jameson’s not so sure.
“Right now there’s a ton of psychological warfare by the proponents with just the votes counts, and that’s being used wrongly to influence the vote on the 19th.”