It’s finally opening.
What started as primarily surface parking lots and a concept at the Metro Council is now an imposing, monolithic structure that encompasses three city blocks. It’s the result of Nashville’s largest-ever public investment.
But for all the size, the Music City Center, which is slated to open this weekend, also exhibits a noticeable amount of finesse. A $2 million budget for art allowed for unique touches throughout the building. The cavernous convention space, which is about as long as an aircraft carrier, contrasts to a top-level ballroom space that is made to resemble the inside of a guitar.
“One of the things I always was interested in was not seeing a box,” Dean told reporters after leading a media tour of the facility last week. “And by not having a box, I meant for the entire building. You see a lot of convention centers that have a lot of nice fronts, facades, and then they just turn into sort of a square. This building is not that.”
That’s evident in the pop-out lobby that emerges from the front of the building — dubbed “the whale” by the construction team — and features no square angles on the inside. Or the 14-acre undulating roof — designed both to represent the rolling hills of Tennessee and make the building more environmentally sustainable — that includes a 4-acre green portion composed of 14 different types of vegetation.
“This building is right in the center of our city,” Dean said. “It’s observable from a variety of buildings, from the interstate. It was important that it be something special.”
Even as the building prepares to open its doors to the public, debate still brews about the MCC’s viability in what some call an oversaturated convention center market. But standing in the belly of a building that will loom large in his legacy whether it’s a boom or a bust, Dean was all optimism.
“We’re ahead of schedule,” he said. “We’ll be fine. This is going to be a big success.”
Dean, and MCC officials, said the center allows Nashville to compete for more conventions with more attendees. There are already some “firmly booked” through 2026. And as for the hotel tax revenues that will be a vital part of paying off the debt on the building, Dean said that money has been there, and will continue to be.
“Nashville, before this center opens, has been setting hotel records for occupancy,” he said. “We have been setting records for collection of hotel-motel tax for several years now. Even during the recession. People want to come to this city.”
Sitting in close vicinity to Lower Broadway, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Bridgestone Arena and more, the MCC, according to Dean, is perfectly located to succeed in a city that is already successful.
“We’re going to do very well,” he said. “We’ve been doing well. We’re not asking the building to suddenly make Nashville a popular place to come to. It already is.”
Whether the building turns out to be a symbol of Nashville’s ascendancy or a hollow monument to a city that was late to the party, the true assessment will likely come after Dean leaves the mayor’s office.
Until then, all that’s certain is it’s finally opening. You can’t miss it.
Here’s a look at how we arrived here:
After discussion — and for some council members, dissension — the Metro Council approved funding for the Music City Center by a 29-9 vote on Jan. 10, 2010. But a key part of the vote to approve the MCC was the expectation that the old Nashville Convention Center would be repurposed into the Nashville Medical Trade Center, later known as the Med Mart.
As the Music City Center went up, plans for the Med Mart went the opposite direction. Dallas-based Market Center Management originally announced development of the Med Mart, which would have been a potentially lucrative marketplace and showroom for health care products, to open in 2013. A groundbreaking was scheduled in 2012.
Instead, Market Center Management struggled to find tenants for the Med Mart and they officially folded the plan in October 2012.
While Dean has insisted that the projects were always separate from each other, several council members have expressed concern that one happened without the other.
“I think the ability of the city to cover the debt service on the convention center was marginal,” Councilman Jason Holleman told The City Paper in October 2012. “And to me, if the Med Mart project was made possible as a result of vacating the convention center space, then I thought the project could work. But without that, I had and continue to have concerns about our ability to cover the debt service without relying on the fallback funding sources, such as non-tax revenues.”
The other controversy surrounding the Music City Center stemmed from the acquisition of land owned by Tower Investments. The city originally claimed the 6.6-acre parcel by eminent domain for $14.8 million.
But Tower Investments sued the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, claiming that the amount undervalued the land by $15 million. MDHA won an early ruling in Davidson County Circuit Court, but later a jury awarded Tower $30 million for the property.
An appeals court ruling on May 1 confirmed the validity of the jury trial. The land acquisition snafu officially put the Music City Center over budget.
Due to the size of the $415 million MCC construction budget, the Convention Center Authority faced intense scrutiny over the companies contracted for the construction.
The Music City Center was the site of several labor-related protests and demonstrations during its three-year build. Several local trade unions rallied in 2011 to protest the lack of local union workers at the construction site.
MCC spokeswoman Holly McCall told The City Paper in 2011 that roughly 50 percent of the workforce at the time was made up of local union members.
That wasn’t enough for some labor activists. Martin “Red” Patterson, the business manager for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 369, filed an open records request asking for payroll documents, including addresses, of workers on the MCC site.
The Convention Center Authority responded by sending Patterson payroll papers with address information redacted. Patterson and the union sued in Davidson County Chancery Court for the full records. Chancellor Carol McCoy ruled in the union’s favor, but the authority appealed.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals also sided with Patterson and the union, issuing an opinion in January 2013. Deborah Godwin, the union’s Memphis-based attorney, told The City Paper that the Convention Center Authority is appealing to the Tennessee Supreme Court and hasn’t turned over any records.
The hope was that the Music City Center would help spur downtown development. One of the key moments came when the Metro Council approved in 2010 a public-private financing plan to build the Omni Hotel in 2010. The plan calls for more than $125 million in public financing, which will mostly come from a special hotel and tourist-based tax.
The Omni Hotel and the Country Music Hall of Fame reached an agreement later that year to create a seamless transition between the two structures. The hall is adding exhibit space and will operate an 800-seat theater adjacent to the Omni.
Other development around the MCC has cropped up. First Baptist Church reached an agreement to sell land at the corner of Eighth and Demonbreun for $11 million in February. The church said the area would be the future home to a Marriott hotel. Atlanta-based North Point Hospitality Group has already announced plans for two downtown Marriott hotels.
The Music City Center has also spurred the relocation of the Metro Nashville Police Department’s Central Precinct. The Central Precinct is scheduled to move from Bridgestone Arena to a new building near the Korean Veterans Boulevard Roundabout south of the Music City Center.