With a final Metro Council vote on land acquisition for a new downtown convention center coming up next week, there’s quite a bit of momentum right now behind the project, and among its supporters there’s quite a bit of excitement.
What there isn’t, unfortunately, is much of a serious and substantive debate about whether this massive public investment — more than $600 million by current estimates — is a good thing for Nashville’s future.
Political and business leaders backing the Music City Center project are out there talking up its potential economic benefits for tourism, jobs, and downtown development. That’s all well and good, but a campaign to generate enthusiasm and win support is not the same as a robust debate on the merits of the thing — not just as an engine of tourism, but as a strategy for civic and economic development in the city’s core.
That’s why several Metro Council colleagues and I, along with the vice mayor, are sponsoring a free public forum from 2-4 p.m. Sunday afternoon at the Steve and Judy Turner Recital Hall at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. Parking is also free.
Butch Spyridon, an advocate for the project who heads the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, has agreed to participate.
The forum will also feature Professor Heywood Sanders of the University of Texas at San Antonio, a leading expert on urban development whose published work is highly critical of the analysis and policy making that leads many cities to expand convention centers. His 2005 report for the Washington-based Brookings Institution, “Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy,” is frequently cited in convention center controversies (the report is online at http://doiop.com/sanders ).
Sanders is coming to Nashville and to the forum on Sunday to share his perspective, and to share a “stage” of sorts with Butch Spyridon, for a spirited discussion of the pros and cons of the Music City Center project.
Some backers of the project have asserted that we’ve had enough discussion — several years’ worth — and it’s time to get on with it. But the reality is that we’ve had a lot more inevitability than inquiry.
Is a new convention center the best use of public resources? Are optimistic projections about its economic viability and impact realistic? Perhaps Sunday’s forum will help focus our attention on these and other crucial questions about this important project.
Regardless of which side you’re on in this debate, Sunday’s event promises to provide important public discourse on Nashville’s future.
Barry is a member at-large of the Metro Council.