Now that the $585 million Music City Center is poised for construction, Gaylord Entertainment Co. and Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce leaders plan to sit down, reconcile some differences, and leave behind some ill feelings — so they say.
But stakes are bound to escalate for Gaylord, which has unabashedly opposed relying on public dollars to bankroll a hotel to accompany the new convention center, one of several financing schemes Mayor Karl Dean has talked about in recent months.
Meanwhile, the entertainment giant — among the largest corporate citizens here — is considering how to expand its business, including the possible return of a theme park.
The tension between Gaylord and the chamber was codified last week, when a letter from Gaylord CEO Colin Reed arrived at the chamber’s downtown office. Officials there interpreted it as a statement that the company was terminating its membership, although Gaylord spokesman Tom Ingram characterized the letter as a simple expression of “concern” about its relationship with the chamber.
The implications are significant. On the surface, Gaylord’s $20,000 membership fee and perhaps a $40,000 donation toward the chamber’s Partnership 2010 program, an initiative that seeks to promote public-private development in Middle Tennessee, are at stake.
‘Broader’ than the convention center
Bigger, however, are questions about the future of the company that holds a number of Nashville’s iconic properties, including the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, Wildhorse Saloon, the former Opryland Themepark, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center and Opry Mills shopping mall.
Gaylord employs 4,000 people and is the city’s second-largest taxpayer behind the Nashville Electric Service. The absence of such a significant entity from the chamber’s list of 2,500 business partners seems puzzling at best.
Conventional wisdom suggests Gaylord’s “concern” stems from the business community’s overwhelming support of Dean’s $585 million convention center, which received the go-ahead from the Metro Council last week. Gaylord, which in 2007 announced plans for a $400 million convention center expansion of its own, has long been a presumed opponent of the Music City Center, having donated $8,500 to Nashville’s Priorities, a citizen-led group that lobbied to defeat the project.
Ingram rejected the notion that bitterness over the Music City Center inspired the letter.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with the convention center. It’s much broader than that,” he said, without elaborating.
“[Gaylord’s] position all along has been to understand and not oppose the mayor’s ambition to build a convention center,” Ingram said. “But when that proposal included a city-owned hotel of a size that would have been competitive with private hotels in the community, they raised a flag about that.”
Dean has vowed to seal a deal for a hotel within a year that would work in tandem with Music City Center. Experts have said it would need to have between 750 and 1,000 rooms, which could cost $300 million. The mayor’s hope, he said, is to attract private interest despite current weak markets. Most observers believe a public-private deal for the hotel is the likeliest option, but details of such a partnership haven’t emerged.
Ingram said Gaylord understands that a hotel is a necessary component to ensure the convention center’s viability. “As long as that hotel is privately funded or largely privately funded, Gaylord doesn’t have an issue with it,” he said.
Leading up to last week’s vote, some billed the convention center controversy as a proxy battle between a corporate heavyweight and Metro government being waged by two PR giants: former Tennessee Deputy Gov. Dave Cooley, who works on behalf of the Music City Center Coalition and declined to comment for this story, versus Ingram, who served as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander until May.
“Gaylord’s been consistent in its message,” Ingram said. “From the first meetings we had with the mayor and his representatives, there’s been a clear understanding about where Gaylord was and about what we were doing and not doing. Outside of that, all around us there were all kinds of rumors, gossip, innuendo and, frankly, personal attacks.”
Bridges on fire but not burned
But some Music City Center proponents said Gaylord engaged in a calculated lobbying assault, especially in recent months, and sought to derail the entire project. These same people said Gaylord’s standing is now at best uncertain, especially considering Metro two years ago approved a deal to provide the company $80 million in revenues collected by a new tourism and development zone.
“We had a number of conversations with Gaylord while the Metro Council was considering the convention center proposal,” Dean told The City Paper. “And going forward, I expect we’ll continue to have a good working relationship with them. Gaylord is an important part of our tourism industry — both downtown and at Opryland.”
Most seem to be focused on what’s ahead.
Reed and chamber CEO Ralph Schulz — who served as vice chair of the Music City Center Coalition when it was formed under former Mayor Bill Purcell — plan to meet as early as this week, a gathering Schulz calls “an opportunity to hear what Gaylord’s concerns are.”
“Gaylord is an important corporate citizen,” Schulz told The City Paper. “It’s important to have them involved in the community issues that the chamber are a part of. I would hope that the outcome is that we can remain engaged with each other.”
For Gaylord’s part, Ingram said he would like to see a “very candid, frank discussion between the principals of both organizations.”
Asked if that would mean Gaylord leaves the meeting a chamber member, Ingram said, “If you’re partners, you’re partners; if you’re not, you’re not.”
Recasting the future?
With its convention center expansion on hold, pending a reassessment of that market, Gaylord might be looking in other directions.
Some have speculated that the company could be eyeing a reinvigorated theme park in the near future, a possibility Ingram didn’t deny.
“Gaylord would like to, on its own initiative and in concert with city, do anything it can to encourage more tourism in the Nashville community,” Ingram said. “Whether that’s a theme park or it’s something else is all part of a thoughtful, deliberate process that’s going on.”
Gaylord opened the Opryland Themepark in 1972. It offered visitors shows, games and roller coasters like the “Wabash Cannonball” and the “Screamin’ Delta Demon.” The company closed the park in 1997, much to the chagrin of a large sector of the city. In its place came Opry Mills, the mammoth-sized shopping center.