Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Mayor tries to sell Metro Council on convention center
Dean says facility would bring jobs, urges land buy By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • April 14, 2009 Mayor Karl Dean took his pitch for a new, $595 million downtown convention center back to the Metro Council on Monday, arguing that "current economic conditions only further underscore the need for this facility." Dean, who asked the council to authorize land acquisition south of Broadway, said construction of the 1.2-million-square-foot facility and an attached hotel would create thousands of jobs and get Nashville back in the thick of the convention industry. He said the city has lost 297 conventions because of the size of its existing facility. "This project will act as our own local stimulus package," the mayor said during an eight-minute address to a joint meeting of two council committees. But some council members said they were worried about the timing and language of Dean's proposal, which stopped well short of including a construction financing plan for the convention center and $40 million worth of parking facilities. Some wondered if they were being asked to approve so much preliminary activity that they wouldn't be able to say no to starting construction later this year. Councilman Jerry Maynard, who represents the entire city, asked if the council could deal with the convention center after completing the Metro budget in June. He acknowledged, however, that a colleague had told him the council can "walk and chew gum at the same time." Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling said waiting several months to authorize land acquisition could create costly delays in construction. Dean hopes to open the facility by January 2013, a year when two conventions are already booked. As a crowd of hospitality industry representatives packed the council chamber, Riebeling said the administration's request to the council was "pretty straightforward." "We're not asking you to complete the whole project or fund the whole project (now)," he said. It was the incremental nature of the process that concerned Councilman Mike Jameson, whose district includes the convention center site. Jameson said he worried that council approval of relatively small steps in the process, like land acquisition, could "preordain" the eventual big decision of whether to build. Jameson also noted that a resolution filed by the administration for council approval says the council "has determined that it is in the public interest to construct a new convention center and related facilities." Riebeling noted that the council voted unanimously last year to fund convention center designs and other "pre-development" work. But he said he was open to changing the language. Slow buildup praised In his opening remarks, Dean said the slow buildup makes sense financially and "will ensure this council and the entire city is involved every step of the way." Councilman Ronnie Steine said he appreciated that approach. He said it would have been easy for Dean's administration to drown the council in reams of data and expect approval on a short deadline. "This is being slowly built up in a way that can gather support," Steine said. "They're not taking the easy way out." Steine said he was impressed by the conservative financial projections in Dean's plan. The city's financial advisers on the project said revenues from a series of dedicated, tourist-targeting revenue sources would easily pay off the debt the city would take on to build the convention center. "It's a viable project," said Wayne Placide, managing director of Dallas-based First Southwest Co., which is helping the city put together a financing package. City officials and architects also showed new designs for the proposed facility, talked about tourism's impact on the city and touted their success at pre-selling more than 100,000 hotel room nights based on the promise of a building that isn't anywhere close to existing yet. The mayor, meanwhile, appealed to council members whose constituents are hurting in a recession. "What they must understand — what I'm asking this council to understand — is that this facility is a vital economic development tool for our city that our citizens won't have to pay for but will greatly benefit from, both during its construction and after," Dean said.
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