Who should manage the proposed new convention center and its attached public-private hotel, which will have a combined price tag approaching $1 billion?
Should it be the Metro Development and Housing Agency, which is embroiled in controversy because of media reports about overspending on communications for the proposed project, but has managed every major public development in Nashville’s history?
Or should it be a new nine-member board of citizen volunteers, appointed by the mayor and approved by Council?
That’s the question Metro Council will answer at a special meeting Friday at 4:30 p.m., when it reconsiders legislation to create the new Convention Center Authority.
It seems Council already has made up its mind and, citing the need for more oversight, will vote overwhelming to authorize the creating of the authority.
However, one member of the citizen volunteer board that oversees over $500 million in managed assets thinks Council is making a mistake and should allow MDHA to keep the keys to the car until development is complete.
Steve North sits on the Sports Authority board, which manages the Sommet Center and LP Field. Pointing out that the Sports Authority has a total staff of two employees, North said a volunteer board is not well enough equipped manage complicated deals or act as landlord for billion-dollar facilities.
Last year when the Sports Authority considered amendments to the Predators’ Sommet Center lease agreement, North served as the fly in the ointment and voted against the changes, which gave new local owners $7.4 annually from Metro.
“Here are the dangers that I see in this kind of authority, and this is only from my experience with the Sports Authority,” North said. “There is a real question on the Sports Authority as to whether the authority is a managing landlord that is expected to scrutinize and make decisions with regard to the management of these lease holding interests. Or is it simply a shell that was created to hold a technical title and basically rubber-stamp decisions made by the various departments of the Metro government and there’s a real conflict as to whether that is the case.”
North pointed out that MDHA has managed the development of LP Field, Sommet Center, the current convention center, the downtown public library, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, and every other major Metro project.
North cautioned Council against a knee-jerk reaction to the controversy surrounding invoices turned in by McNeely, Pigott & Fox, and urged the legislative body to seek oversight without handing the reins to a nine-member board of volunteers.
“They’re going to get great people, honest, hard-working, intelligent people,” North predicted of how the Convention Center Authority would be comprised. “But they won’t be experts in acting as landlords for $1 billion worth of property.”
North suggested the Convention Center Authority be granted a significant and independent staff, without influence from the administration. Although North said increased oversight was a benefit, he pointed out the Sports Authority has similar requirements, which he believes aren’t met properly.
“We are supposed to conduct audits of the Sommet Center every year,” North said. “But we don’t have an auditor. We don’t have accountants. We don’t have the ability to do that.”
The Mayor Karl Dean administration admitted it sped up the timeline of putting the Convention Center Authority in place to oversee development of the proposed $635 million Music City Center. Although the plan was always for the nine-member board to oversee the project, the timeline was moved up after it was revealed the PR firm billed Metro for $458,000 on a contract that was originally for just $75,000.
District 6 Councilman Mike Jameson, who used a procedural maneuver to force reconsidering the authorizing legislation, believes the process for creating the authority has moved too fast.
Jameson issued 12 questions for the administration to answer by the end of the week, and said Wednesday it was his expectation that answers be provided.