Mayor Karl Dean’s administration is poised to bring in an outside firm to study whether and where to build a minor league baseball stadium, signaling a first step in the process of finding a new home for the Nashville Sounds. It also sets the stage for what could be a signature second-term project for Dean — if he’s re-elected this fall.
Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling told The City Paper last week that city government wouldn’t issue a request for proposals for the site-selection and feasibility study for another month or two. The bidding process and actual hiring of a firm — which could include an engineering, architecture or sports consulting company — would stretch well into the summer. Such a study is a long, exhaustive endeavor that would presumably include a series of community meetings and other efforts to solicit pubic input.
Recommendations would follow.
That chronology, though speculative, seems to align with the outlook of Sounds representatives, who are under the impression that the ballpark won’t be atop Dean’s to-do list until after this August and September’s Metro elections. They’re assuming Dean would be re-elected to a second term, with underdog challenger Councilman Michael Craddock the mayor’s only declared opponent thus far. The Sounds say they’re comfortable with the timeframe.
“Everybody, the administration and the Sounds leadership, have decided that it’s really going to be after the election before they get to refocus on this again,” said attorney Tom White, legal counsel and lobbyist for the Sounds.
New York-based MFP Management is embarking on its third season as owners of the Sounds since purchasing the team in late 2008. From day one, the group has been clear about its desire for a new downtown ballpark to replace dilapidated Greer Stadium. Sounds owners, led by Frank Ward, ramped up their stadium pitch last winter, hiring White, a veteran real estate attorney, and public relations specialist John Seigenthaler Jr. to oversee the efforts.
But for that entire period of time, the mayor’s office has been occupied with other matters. First was selling the Metro Council on Dean’s $585 million Music City Center. A few months later, a 1,000-year flood overwhelmed the city. Next came finalizing a public-private financing deal for a hotel to anchor the new convention center. Most recently was Dean’s stalled push to redevelop the Metro-owned fairgrounds, an effort that concluded with the council’s decision to stave off the demolition of the
“We’re at a juncture right now where we have basically discussed all of the above [issues] with the city administration,” White said. “And we basically had a consensus with them that right now is not the right time to prioritize [a new ballpark], but it clearly is a — what we’ve been told — a ‘high priority’ early in the next administration.”
Asked whether the election date was a benchmark on negotiations with the Sounds, Riebeling, one of Dean’s top aides, downplayed it.
“Elections are artificial dates,” he said. “That’s a fact. I can’t avoid it. But the process needs to be … we need to have an analysis of potential sites, and that’s what we’re going to start on.”
Tapping an outside firm is supposed to allow a third-party to objectively evaluate the need for a new stadium and recommend the optimal location to construct one. But once the process commences, stakeholders will already have their preferences.
Sounds owners are hoping to build a new stadium at the 11-acre former thermal plant site, which sits on the west bank of the Cumberland River and is a stone’s throw from the honky-tonks of Lower Broadway. Previous Sounds owners had an agreement with Metro to construct a ballpark anchored by mixed-use ancillary development on the site, but the deal fell apart.
“We welcome an independent study of the best place to build a new ballpark in Nashville,” Ward, principal Sounds owner, said in a written statement to The City Paper. “We have always made it clear we think the thermal site is the best location.”
But Dean has openly discussed his interest in plotting a stadium north of the state Capitol, on state-owned land that years ago served as the home of Nashville’s old ballpark, Sulphur Dell. As far as the thermal plant site is concerned, Dean has maintained that whatever is eventually there should make a statement about Nashville. He has said an outdoor music venue could achieve that goal. Among entities that have approached the mayor’s office about an amphitheater at the thermal plant site are the Nashville Symphony Center and Red Light Management, a company that manages musical artists like Dave Matthews Band.
Constructing a stadium at Sulphur Dell has piqued the interest of others, too. In fact, there’s already a movement behind the idea, something not found in other sites bandied about (including the thermal plant site, property at the intersection of 11th Avenue North and Charlotte Avenue, the East Bank of the Cumberland, and land near Music City Center).
Jason Powell, president of the Hope Gardens Neighborhood Association, which includes residents who live in a neighborhood nearby the Nashville Farmers’ Market, is part of a group that calls itself “Friends of Sulphur Dell.” Still in its infancy, the organization is debating whether it will remain a grassroots effort or eventually evolve into a lobbying arm, Powell said.
For now, Powell and other group members — nearby residents and businesses, among others — have been pitching the idea around the community. He said his community organization and nearby Germantown, Buena Vista and other neighborhoods are just a few of the groups supportive of reviving baseball at Sulphur Dell.
“The historical context of having a baseball park at the birthplace of baseball here in Nashville is definitely appealing,” he said. “We also think from an economic development standpoint, if the community embraces and supports a project like this, Sulphur Dell would really help spur development and interest in that surrounding area.”
On that second point, Powell alluded to the Farmers’ Market, new condominiums and other buildings that have arrived in the area, adding that a new ballpark and mixed-use component could continue to accelerate growth north of the central business district.
The push for Sulphur Dell also enjoys the support of some Metro Council members, including At-large Councilman Jerry Maynard, who has joined the “Friends of Sulphur Dell” cause.
“We have not invested in the brick and mortar north of Charlotte [Avenue] like we’ve done in SoBro, like we’ve done in other areas of the town,” Maynard said. “This is a great chance for Metro government to show its support for economic development for all of Davidson County.”
Through its own initiative, working outside of Metro and separate from the Sounds organization, the Nashville Civic Design Center has been exploring what a stadium could look like at two locations: the so-called “North Gulch,” near 11th and Charlotte, and at Sulphur Dell. University of Tennessee College of Architecture students recently teamed up with the design center and produced designs for both sites. The group is set to display the renderings in early April.
“It’s pretty compelling as a way to redevelop that area between Germantown and downtown, where there’s a lot of parking lots [owned by] the state,” NCDC design director Gary Gaston said of Sulphur Dell. “Another benefit of that site or the Gulch site is that we’re not just throwing another big-box thing down in the lower part of downtown, but we’re using [the ballpark] as a development tool to really reinvigorate an area.”