Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Convention center land purchase a step away

By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • May 20, 2009 Mayor Karl Dean's convention center plan took another important step Tuesday as the Metro Council showed strong interest in buying land for the project before knowing how it would pay for construction. The council voted 33-3 on the second of three required votes for a proposal to borrow $75 million to buy 15.87 acres south of Broadway. A final vote is expected June 2. "Tonight we stand on the brink of progress and moving forward," Councilman Sam Coleman of Antioch said before the vote. Dean's administration has said the city needs to start buying land now to get the convention center built by 2013, when three large meetings are booked. But the mayor doesn't plan to bring a construction-financing plan to the council for another few months. Councilman Robert Duvall, who represents another part of Antioch, said his constituents are overwhelmingly opposed to buying land before knowing how the city would pay for the facility. Duvall, Michael Craddock and Eric Crafton voted against acquiring the land; Emily Evans, Jason Holleman, Mike Jameson and Carter Todd abstained. Todd is a senior executive at Nashville-based Gaylord Entertainment, which operates Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center here. The downtown convention center is expected to cost $595 million. Parking facilities would cost an additional $40 million. Metro plans to pay off its construction debt for those buildings with a series of taxes and fees aimed at tourists. A convention center hotel could cost an additional $300 million. The mix of public and private financing for that building is still being determined. Crafton tried to amend the land acquisition proposal to force the city to hold off on buying land until it has a guaranteed maximum price for construction of the convention hall. But Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling said waiting for a guaranteed maximum price would set the project back six months. Crafton was more successful with an amendment calling for a "transparency Web site" detailing revenues for the project and expenses during the "pre-development" and land acquisition stages. The council approved that change, 35-4. Dean's administration and the Metro Development and Housing Agency, which is spearheading the convention center project, have until Aug. 1 to get the Web site up and running. The city has spent $9 million on pre-development activities such as architectural designs.

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