Long before Mayor Karl Dean indicated his preference for a music venue rather than a ballpark to occupy the 11-acre former thermal plant site on the west bank of the Cumberland River, several entities had been making their pitch for an amphitheater, or some variation of one, to be built on the highly coveted grounds.
To date, sources in three spheres — Metro government, real estate and the entertainment industry — have confirmed to The City Paper that as many as four groups have spoken with the mayor’s office about building a new music destination downtown that could fill a gap left when Starwood Amphitheater in Antioch closed its doors three years ago.
The most intriguing entity that has approached the mayor’s office is the Nashville Symphony, manager of both the city’s 83-member orchestra and the $123.5 million Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which opened four years ago and is scheduled to reopen in January after sustaining serious damage during the May flood.
“Many people have contacted us about the thermal site,” Dean said, before confirming that he’s “talked to folks from the symphony.”
Alan Valentine, CEO of the Nashville Symphony, called the thermal site an “ideal site” for an “outdoor summer home” for the orchestra. He characterized past conversations with the mayor’s office on the topic as “casual” and “cordial,” adding: “Nobody made promises about anything, and it’s still just an idea.”
That the symphony — which has support from Nashville philanthropist Martha Ingram, who chairs the Nashville Symphony Association — would have an interest in an amphitheater in downtown Nashville makes sense. Not only does the symphony currently lack an outside concert venue but geographically, the symphony center is situated just a few blocks from the thermal site.
“It’s something that I think is very important to our future,” Valentine said of an outdoor venue, stressing that’s the case whether it’s at the thermal site or somewhere else.
“If you look at the operations of, say, the Cleveland Orchestra with the Blossom Music Center, or the Boston Symphony with Tanglewood, or the Chicago Symphony with Ravinia, the list goes on and on and on,” Valentine continued. “The key difference is they have these summer outdoor series that provide a tremendous amount of revenue to help support the operation, and we don’t have that luxury.”
Valentine was quick to point out that the symphony is not the first entity to suggest building a music venue on the thermal site. “There were developers even after the original ballpark idea fell apart,” he said. “Some of those same developers proposed an amphitheater for the site. That kind of sparked our imagination.”
Asked whether the symphony would be willing to fund the construction of a new facility on the Metro-owned thermal site, Valentine said, “We’re hopeful it happens without the symphony paying for it. We don’t have the resources to do that.”
The broad idea of a music venue on the riverfront property never really went away after 2007, when the Metro Council chose not to follow through with Mayor Bill Purcell’s proposed amphitheater. But in the past year, interest among potential tenants has picked up, a sign that the redevelopment of the thermal site — if not on Dean’s immediate priority list — is certainly on the radar of others.
Most observers believe a new amphitheater in downtown Nashville would not be reserved solely for the symphony; it would likely cater to other musical acts that have skipped Nashville on tours in the past due to the absence of a midsize venue. That’s where an artist management company could come into play. According to multiple sources privy to the discussion, at least one such agency has approached Metro about a new downtown venue.
Dean said whatever is built on the thermal site — which he pointed out is one of the most visible spots in the city — should be a skyline signature, include a green component and preserve open space.
“Whatever’s there I think needs to say something about our city,” he said. “I think we ought to be thinking big. ...
“An amphitheater would fit in as something on that site that would accomplish a lot of different goals,” Dean continued. “We need an outside music venue. We need to enhance our ability to have large music events downtown.”
Dean and his administration currently have other items on their plate, many of them development-related. Among them is reaching final Metro Council approval for a financing plan to pay for a new $250 million Omni hotel to anchor the forthcoming Music City Center. The mayor has also rolled out a revamped capital-spending plan, which includes major projects at Hickory Hollow Mall in Antioch and the Peterbilt site in Madison, as well as plans to create a 40-acre park at the fairgrounds property.
There’s also the matter of continuing flood-recovery efforts.
Dean said he feels “no time constraint” to finalize something for the thermal site.
“For something to happen there, it’s going to take a realistic financing plan, having access to the money to get it done and an agreement that I’m comfortable with,” Dean said. “There is nothing directly in the pipeline right now that we’re about to announce.”
Baseball at Sulphur Dell?
Butch Spryridon, president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, was part of a group of downtown stakeholders and others who pushed for Purcell’s amphitheater in 2007. Three years later, he still has positive things to say about the idea.
“It’s true to the [city’s] brand,” Spyridon said. “It provides some extra and much-needed green space to downtown. And I think with a right size … between the Ryman, TPAC, symphony hall size and the arena size, there’s a niche. We do miss a lot of touring shows in that mid-size.”
Dean’s Music City Business Council has tapped Tony Conway, a 40-year veteran in the music business, to organize and lead a subcommittee examining whether a new downtown amphitheater is needed. He said he expects the report to take three to four months to complete.
Valentine said the symphony is “anxious to see what comes out of that study.”
The mayor seems to favor a music venue on the thermal site, which could put a damper on the hopes of the Nashville Sounds’ ownership group. Last week, the team’s Triple-A affiliation with Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers was renewed through 2012.
In a column published in The City Paper last week, Sounds co-owner Frank Ward outlined the team’s position, arguing that the thermal site is the “most feasible location” for a new downtown stadium. Ward suggested a new ballpark be a mixed-use facility that could also be used for music events.
Though the Sounds’ position has been made clear, Dean seems to favor the site of Nashville’s old baseball park, Sulphur Dell, situated northeast of the state Capitol until it was torn down in the 1960s.
The state currently owns the property.
Asked by The City Paper for his preference for the thermal site, Dean seemed to reveal his cards.
“I’m not ready to say right now,” he began, “but I think I’m very interested in baseball in Sulphur Dell, if that’s an answer.”