Back when the Music City Center was nothing but a mere gleam in the eye of an ambitious mayor, occasionally someone would ask a pesky question about what was to be done with the existing convention center.
During what was characterized as a “battle” over the eventual construction of the $585 million MCC — it wasn’t so much a fight as a prolonged and predictable capitulation by the Metro Council to the will of Karl Dean — someone had the bright idea to turn the old convention center into a medical trade center, breathing new life and continued usefulness into a civic project we were told was past its prime and no longer useful.
There was a boisterous press conference laying out plans for this one-of-a-kind project that was actually third of its kind — both Cleveland and New York already had similar centers in the planning process.
Architects were chosen, operators were named. And every so often, press releases would hit reporters’ inboxes announcing a lease at this Med Mart by a company no reporter had ever heard of.
This adaptive reuse of the convention center placated the concerns of those who noted, rightly, that Metro had an agreement with the Renaissance Hotel to operate some sort of convention facility in what is, more or less, the hotel’s basement.
Meanwhile, nothing ever really got going at the Med Mart, and the project was eventually scrapped, having served its purpose as a MacGuffin to keep the bigger plot line — the construction of the massive box behind the arena — advancing.
In the movies, those MacGuffins can be quietly discarded once they’ve done their duty, but real life is a trickier place, and that paperwork which so explicitly laid out Metro’s duty to the Renaissance had not disappeared.
Worry not, friends, the Mayor’s Office found a solution. To keep the city out of a pickle, it hammered out a deal to give the hotel rent-free use of the existing convention center’s ballroom and meeting space, plus a 20-year room-block agreement for conventions at the MCC.
Surprising no one, this deal was approved unanimously by the Metro Council, this time not so much an expression of their continued submission to the will of the executive branch as an expression of their collective desire to stay out of the judicial branch.
It’s done and dusted, and that’s all well and good, but it does raise a question — ultimately a moot one — about whether Metro was ever really fully committed to the trade center idea in the first place or if it was just a useful idea meant to keep the city out of court and haranguing council members’ uncomfortable questions at bay.
Nashville is, no-doubt, a health care center — in for-profit hospital operations, insurance, ancillary industries and tech and research sectors — and the easy logic is that if a medical trade center is going to work anywhere, it’ll work here.
But there was, seemingly, no market for the idea. In a post-Affordable Care Act era when health care spending is a safe investment, the proposed center somehow couldn’t fetch enough pre-leasing activity to justify construction.
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s center is trucking along smartly and just last month filled its space with the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society — which was to be Nashville’s anchor tenant. And Cleveland doesn’t even have an hour-long drama on network TV — just a formulaic sitcom on cable.
One takeaway is that, perhaps, Cleveland wanted it more and more wisely positioned itself into the nascent med-center market.
Another is that Nashville was never fully committed to the idea in the first place — that the Mayor’s Office simply needed something, anything, to sweep away those intransigent obstacles standing between it and its shiny new toy.