Monday, June 1, 2009

Nashville convention center debate turns testy

Metro Council votes Tuesday on $75M land acquisition deal By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • June 1, 2009 Nashville needs to take a deep breath — and a good, hard look in the mirror — before committing more than $600 million to a new convention center, a Texas-based critic of convention center expansions said Sunday. But the project's chief advocate for the past 10 years said Music City already knows what it's capable of and that its revenue sources will easily support the city's debt on the facility. Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, faced off in an 85-minute debate sponsored by 22 Metro Council members, The Tennessean and other media and community groups. The topic: Should Metro government build a new, 1.2 million-square-foot convention center south of Broadway, as Mayor Karl Dean has said it must do to compete more forcefully for tourism dollars? Council members will vote Tuesday on Dean's plan to borrow $75 million for land acquisition, though a construction financing plan is still months away. They said they wanted genuine dialogue, easily available for public consumption, about the merits of the biggest building proposal in city history. And they got it, though the exchange at Vanderbilt University was sometimes heated and full of testy interruptions. Spyridon was often more hostile than hospitable to this particular visitor, accusing Sanders of "killing" a convention center hotel proposal in San Antonio and repeatedly referring to his "not from here" status. Spyridon didn't back off in an interview, saying Sanders "likes to ride in on a white horse and tell you how stupid you are." "He was brought in to try to derail this project," Spyridon added. "There's no other reason for him to be here." Sanders said in turn that the discussion should have been more substantive. "I can understand local boosterism and cheerleading, but there's a point at which you need to do some serious, rational discourse on this," he said. Supply/demand issues Sanders, who has studied cities' approaches to adding convention space for more than a decade, argues that the demand for space doesn't meet the supply across the United States. Relatively stagnant meeting numbers in recent years have failed to fill a "glut" of meeting space, forcing some cities to offer incentives to book their facilities, he said. He also said some of the cities falling short of expectations were advised by consultants now advising Metro officials. And every city that he challenges thinks it's unique, he said. Sanders especially questioned a task force's assertion in 2006 that a new convention center would generate 1 million new visitors a year and $700 million annually in new spending. Ralph Schulz, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, said after the debate that just one-third of those new visitors would be actual convention-goers; the rest would be people making return visits, bringing their families and attending corporate meetings and other events inspired by their convention experience. Spyridon, who has led the visitors bureau since 1991, said Nashville has consistently bounced back from downturns in the tourism market, with convention and meeting business always leading the way, despite a small and outdated downtown convention center. "If you were to draw up a scenario for a city to succeed in the convention market, Nashville is the city you'd create," he said. "We have sold this destination on the merits of the destination." Spyridon also said the city has already booked 12 groups and 202,000 hotel room nights for the proposed center. He said the revenue numbers the project is based on are extremely conservative. "We've only just begun," he said. Results were unclear Whether the discussion changed any minds is hard to say. Each side had its partisans in the crowd of about 300 people, which moderator Pat Nolan had to ask to quiet down at one point. Daniel Lewis, a teacher and chairman of the Libertarian Party of Nashville and Davidson County, said most convention centers operate at a loss and need government subsidies. "I would be against this in good economic times," Lewis said. "But given the state of the economy, it's just a totally terrible idea." But George Gruhn, owner of Gruhn Guitars on Lower Broadway, near the existing convention hall, said Nashville is attractive to convention groups because most of the country can drive here in a day. "Conventions succeed brilliantly here because people want to come," Gruhn said. When asked if he felt the Metro Council members who set up the debate were trying to kill the convention center plan by bringing in Sanders, Spyridon said he didn't want to go that far. "I will say they want to delay and further deliberate," he said. "How much more dialogue can you have?" But several council members said the discussion was long overdue. "I felt it was very important to either get the city of Nashville excited and fired up or see if this is a good idea or not," Councilwoman Anna Page said. She paused, then added, "Fired up one way or the other."

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