Symphony is one group behind push for riverfront amphitheater

Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 9:00pm
p08Thermal Plant _MG_9848 Jude Ferrara.jpg
Photo by Jude Ferrara

Long before Mayor Karl Dean indicated his preference for a music venue rather than a ballpark to occupy the 11-acre former thermal plant site on the west bank of the Cumberland River, several entities had been making their pitch for an amphitheater, or some variation of one, to be built on the highly coveted grounds.

To date, sources in three spheres — Metro government, real estate and the entertainment industry — have confirmed to The City Paper that as many as four groups have spoken with the mayor’s office about building a new music destination downtown that could fill a gap left when Starwood Amphitheater in Antioch closed its doors three years ago.

The most intriguing entity that has approached the mayor’s office is the Nashville Symphony, manager of both the city’s 83-member orchestra and the $123.5 million Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which opened four years ago and is scheduled to reopen in January after sustaining serious damage during the May flood.

“Many people have contacted us about the thermal site,” Dean said, before confirming that he’s “talked to folks from the symphony.”

Alan Valentine, CEO of the Nashville Symphony, called the thermal site an “ideal site” for an “outdoor summer home” for the orchestra. He characterized past conversations with the mayor’s office on the topic as “casual” and “cordial,” adding: “Nobody made promises about anything, and it’s still just an idea.”

That the symphony — which has support from Nashville philanthropist Martha Ingram, who chairs the Nashville Symphony Association — would have an interest in an amphitheater in downtown Nashville makes sense. Not only does the symphony currently lack an outside concert venue but geographically, the symphony center is situated just a few blocks from the thermal site.

“It’s something that I think is very important to our future,” Valentine said of an outdoor venue, stressing that’s the case whether it’s at the thermal site or somewhere else.

“If you look at the operations of, say, the Cleveland Orchestra with the Blossom Music Center, or the Boston Symphony with Tanglewood, or the Chicago Symphony with Ravinia, the list goes on and on and on,” Valentine continued. “The key difference is they have these summer outdoor series that provide a tremendous amount of revenue to help support the operation, and we don’t have that luxury.”

Valentine was quick to point out that the symphony is not the first entity to suggest building a music venue on the thermal site. “There were developers even after the original ballpark idea fell apart,” he said. “Some of those same developers proposed an amphitheater for the site. That kind of sparked our imagination.”

Asked whether the symphony would be willing to fund the construction of a new facility on the Metro-owned thermal site, Valentine said, “We’re hopeful it happens without the symphony paying for it. We don’t have the resources to do that.”

Skyline signature
The broad idea of a music venue on the riverfront property never really went away after 2007, when the Metro Council chose not to follow through with Mayor Bill Purcell’s proposed amphitheater. But in the past year, interest among potential tenants has picked up, a sign that the redevelopment of the thermal site — if not on Dean’s immediate priority list — is certainly on the radar of others.

Most observers believe a new amphitheater in downtown Nashville would not be reserved solely for the symphony; it would likely cater to other musical acts that have skipped Nashville on tours in the past due to the absence of a midsize venue. That’s where an artist management company could come into play. According to multiple sources privy to the discussion, at least one such agency has approached Metro about a new downtown venue.

Dean said whatever is built on the thermal site — which he pointed out is one of the most visible spots in the city — should be a skyline signature, include a green component and preserve open space.

“Whatever’s there I think needs to say something about our city,” he said. “I think we ought to be thinking big. ...

“An amphitheater would fit in as something on that site that would accomplish a lot of different goals,” Dean continued. “We need an outside music venue. We need to enhance our ability to have large music events downtown.”

Dean and his administration currently have other items on their plate, many of them development-related. Among them is reaching final Metro Council approval for a financing plan to pay for a new $250 million Omni hotel to anchor the forthcoming Music City Center. The mayor has also rolled out a revamped capital-spending plan, which includes major projects at Hickory Hollow Mall in Antioch and the Peterbilt site in Madison, as well as plans to create a 40-acre park at the fairgrounds property.

There’s also the matter of continuing flood-recovery efforts.

Dean said he feels “no time constraint” to finalize something for the thermal site.

“For something to happen there, it’s going to take a realistic financing plan, having access to the money to get it done and an agreement that I’m comfortable with,” Dean said. “There is nothing directly in the pipeline right now that we’re about to announce.”

Baseball at Sulphur Dell?
Butch Spryridon, president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, was part of a group of downtown stakeholders and others who pushed for Purcell’s amphitheater in 2007. Three years later, he still has positive things to say about the idea.

“It’s true to the [city’s] brand,” Spyridon said. “It provides some extra and much-needed green space to downtown. And I think with a right size … between the Ryman, TPAC, symphony hall size and the arena size, there’s a niche. We do miss a lot of touring shows in that mid-size.”

Dean’s Music City Business Council has tapped Tony Conway, a 40-year veteran in the music business, to organize and lead a subcommittee examining whether a new downtown amphitheater is needed. He said he expects the report to take three to four months to complete.

Valentine said the symphony is “anxious to see what comes out of that study.”

The mayor seems to favor a music venue on the thermal site, which could put a damper on the hopes of the Nashville Sounds’ ownership group. Last week, the team’s Triple-A affiliation with Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers was renewed through 2012.

In a column published in The City Paper last week, Sounds co-owner Frank Ward outlined the team’s position, arguing that the thermal site is the “most feasible location” for a new downtown stadium. Ward suggested a new ballpark be a mixed-use facility that could also be used for music events.

Though the Sounds’ position has been made clear, Dean seems to favor the site of Nashville’s old baseball park, Sulphur Dell, situated northeast of the state Capitol until it was torn down in the 1960s.

The state currently owns the property.

Asked by The City Paper for his preference for the thermal site, Dean seemed to reveal his cards.

“I’m not ready to say right now,” he began, “but I think I’m very interested in baseball in Sulphur Dell, if that’s an answer.”

18 Comments on this post:

By: Hotshoe17 on 9/20/10 at 6:28

Stan H.
Whoever closed Starwood was a dumb idea. Now, an Ampitheater on the River would be a great idea!

By: NewYorker1 on 9/20/10 at 8:23

Parking Parking Parking. I REFUSE to pay $20 to $30 bucks to park anywhere. At least in New York you can catch the subway and get off where your event is.

By: titm on 9/20/10 at 8:58

If the Symphony wants this river front amphatheater, then let them pay for it. Tax payer dollars should not be used for this.

By: CountryBoyinCity on 9/20/10 at 9:16

I like the idea of an open air amphitheater at the thermal site. The city skyline as the backdrop for shows would be a major draw.
I also like the sulfur dell location for a new ball park because the fans would face the skyline, so you could see the city over the outfield. If a ball park is at the thermal site it will have to "turn its back" to the city because of the field orientation needed relative to the sun.

By: bluesman3145hotmail on 9/20/10 at 9:16

A first-class music venue would fit well with Nashville and, being music city, we should have the best venue for fans and performers. It just makes sense.

Sulphur Dell would certainly be an excellent location for the Sounds. It has a great history that will go a long way with the community not to mention the easy access to interstates 65/24/40.

I'm not a big fan of using government assets and funds to benefit private business but I also admit that I am not up-to-speed on the financial analysis of this practice. Therefore, if it makes sense for Nashville to invest in these projects (in the form of land, tax credits and cash), to ultimately generate better revenue for our government and nearby businesses, then that's something I would support.

By: xhexx on 9/20/10 at 9:20

Why can't those "mid-sized" touring acts play at Municipal Auditorium? Didn't the Stones play there?

By: on 9/20/10 at 10:08

titm, you and I are in TOTAL agreement. In the first place if these things were such great money-making ideas, there would be rich-entrepeneurs fighting over wanting to build it with their OWN money. Seems like it's always "Screw the Taxpayers, We want this."

By: JeffF on 9/20/10 at 12:28

Government can always be depended upon to make the stupid business decisions that the private sector would never make.

Sure Starwood was not a money maker for the private entity that owned it, but spend millions of dollars of tax money and put the same thing on land that someone else would pay millions of dollars for and I am sure it will make money. Someone in downtown is thinking, "the problem with Starwood was it was in the middle of a field, we need to move it to downtown away from parking, interstate access, and a majority of the population, then it will boom.'

Harkening back to the piece over the weekend. Gaylord did not see the benefit of expanding its conference facilities because it would never see a return on its investment. A good example of the type of analysis done by private companies all the time. Governments on the other hand (including Metro) will look at the same inability to make a return on that particular investment and will decide to make the mistake and do it three times bigger. Even when the figures are there that the "growth" on current convention income is incapable of paying for its own expansion. They will simply tax a large number of unrelated transactions and hope it is enough.

By: JeffF on 9/20/10 at 12:40

Just to make things clear regarding my personal political philosophy:
I am for an amphitheater, built somewhere logical, and with a business plan for making money. Not a loss leader for bringing more people to downtown.
I am for a new baseball stadium, built somewhere logical, and with a business plan for making money. Not a loss leader for bringing more people to downtown.
I am for public transportation, built logically and with the intent of moving as many citizens as possible between their homes, schools, and works. Not one that focuses entirely on getting people to downtown.

By: producer2 on 9/20/10 at 2:48

Based on your philosophy one would then assume you don't want any of the 47,000 people who work downtown given the opportunity to use public transportation to get to their jobs. Hmmm sure makes sense to

By: JeffF on 9/20/10 at 3:08

Nope, they are part of Nashville. Unfortunately for the 700,000+ plus people living and working somewhere other than downtown they are left out with the current downtown focus of public transportation. Unless it makes sense to make decisions that help the few instead of the many.

I am interested in that 47,000 number. Is that the real downtown or area that will see its sales tax go to the convention center without any real indication that Germantown, East Nashville, or West End will see any real benefit from it?

By: miscueiam@hotma... on 9/20/10 at 3:20


there is an amphitheatre down town at the Bicentennial Mall. Why
couldn't it be enlarged?????????

By: producer2 on 9/20/10 at 3:22

I like the fact that you are placing 700,000 in Nashville. Are you a census counter? Maybe you were out of town when all of the articles ran regarding the Mayors of Nashville and surrounding cities being part of a consortium to look at how to bring mass transit to the entire area of Middle Tennessee. Part of that scenario would allow folks who wanted to go to a Titans games or Predators games or just dinner in downtown or Midtown the opportunity to do so via mass transit and not driving into town. The same works in reverse, those who live downtown, midtown, north nashville, east nashville, etc. could find their way to other burbs. I am pretty sure that the train/transit will run in both directions....

By: JeffF on 9/20/10 at 3:47

You were the one who assumed that all 47,000 downtown workers were Nashvillians. I did read those articles and there was no mention of the need to interconnect the areas together. The focus was left out leaving us to assume that trains to downtown and buses to MCC would be the focus once our neighbors had to pay like we do. MTA has been avoiding moving away from the hub-and-spoke system under this leadership.

By: JeffF on 9/20/10 at 3:56

By the way, the Star doesn't run both ways. It moves West in the morning and East in the evening so it is a stretch to assume that any transit plan. There is one token train going the wrong way leaving late morning that has no possibility of taking anyone to work. That is Nashville's version of mass transit, the masses can use it as long as they come to downtown.

By: producer2 on 9/20/10 at 4:06

oh there was mention but as usual you only see what you want to. Let's just move on since there is no sense in discussing with you. If you are so adamant about your position, maybe you should run for office. It might be your only shot...

By: political1iam on 9/20/10 at 4:11

I find JeffF comments about Gaylord's businees decisions as ironic. If I'm not mistaken they closed down a theme park that was profitable and partnered with Mills to open a mall that they took a substanial loss upon. Gaylord has never had the best interests of the city,while the mayor and council is charged with that mandate.

By: JeffF on 9/21/10 at 8:36

I find it difficult to believe that the theme park was profitable based on all the bankruptcies and closures in that industry in the last decade. If Gaylord saw the writing on the wall all those years ago, kudos to them for making the leap away from amusement parks. Unfortunately the decline of enclosed shopping complexes started sometime after that and the partner they chose to work with (MIls) filed bankruptcy a few years ago, thus bringing in the ultra successful (and huge) Simon Properties group as a new partner once they bought out the Mills portfolio.

I am sorry you felt disrespected by the loss of Opryland, but that industry has continued to decline after leaving Nashville. Tourism related businesses as a whole are a terrible place to put money and expect growth.

I am also sorry if you think that the hospitality industry has the best interests of Nashville at heart with its push for taxpayer funding. No business truly has community first as long as it has to report to stockholders and the IRS. At least the other business industries pay employees better than hospitality, the king of poverty wages.