Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Nashville convention center groups take fight to the public

Calls, Twitter try to sway opinion By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • November 25, 2009 Bellevue resident Jim Pfeiffer was surprised and annoyed by a midafternoon phone call he received last week. The caller claimed to be working on a survey about Nashville's downtown convention center proposal but kept saying taxes would go up if the $585 million facility were built, said Pfeiffer, a businessman who supports the proposal. "I said, 'I don't know that,' " Pfeiffer said. "I said, 'This isn't much of an opinion poll, is it?' It was just a push poll. You could tell it was scripted. It reminded me of something we'd sit down in Shoney's and write up in three minutes." The convention center opposition group Nashville's Priorities acknowledges that it's behind the calls, but denies it is running a misleading poll and disputed Pfeiffer's account. This much is clear: The final battle over the convention center is fully engaged. With a financing plan due from Mayor Karl Dean next week and a final Metro Council vote tentatively scheduled for Jan. 19, both sides of the debate are trying to influence public opinion and, by extension, the council. Ron Samuels, chairman of the Music City Center Coalition, said his group will keep doing the traditional things it's been doing for some time: speaking to neighborhood and community groups and talking to council members about the importance of the project. But the coalition could use other communication techniques as well. "If it's necessary to do advertising, I'm sure we'll find some money and go about that," Samuels said. Nashville's Priorities has been using new media like Twitter and YouTube to draw attention to problems in the convention business, highlight previous council deliberations and point to various Dean administration statements on the topic. The group's president, Kevin Sharp, said it also has been advertising in print and online media and is planning a direct mail campaign. It also might go on the radio but won't try to pay for TV ads. "It just depends on what we need to do and can afford to do," he said. 'Not pushing anything' Sharp, an attorney, acknowledged paying for a survey about the convention center project but denied that it was a push poll designed to influence the results with leading questions. Sharp said he wants to see if the opposition that he is hearing from "everybody" he talks to is widespread. "We're not pushing anything," he said. "We'll see where the numbers are. But my sense is that I'm right." Nashville's Priorities, which has been raising questions about the convention center plan since September, hired an out-of-town contractor to make the calls. Sharp said the callers have been asking Davidson County voters who say they support the project if they would still favor it "if there was a pledge of taxes" and if it would put education funding at risk. Metro officials have said the city probably would have to pledge non-tax revenues from the general fund to make up any shortfalls in the visitor taxes and fees that are supposed to pay for the project. They've also said they don't expect any shortfalls, however. Critics have said that if non-tax revenues were tapped, the city would have to raise property taxes to keep funding city services at the same levels. The critics also have said they're worried about a provision in state law that would let Metro use revenue from any source to help its convention center authority pay debts or cover operating expenses. That could put sales tax dollars for schools at risk, they say. Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling has said sales tax revenues wouldn't be used to pay for the convention center. Misrepresentation? Samuels, president of Avenue Bank, said Nashville's Priorities was misrepresenting the facts. "We are disappointed that Nashville's Priorities has resorted to a massive campaign to spread misinformation about the proposed new convention center," he said in a written statement. "What they are saying is simply not true. Taxes will not be increased to pay for this project. Tax revenue will not be diverted from our schools. What they are doing is deceitful and inappropriate." Nashville's Priorities received $8,500 earlier this year from Gaylord Entertainment Co., which owns Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Donelson. Sharp, a veteran of Democratic political campaigns, declined to say what the poll would cost or talk about the organization's finances or fundraising. "There's nothing sinister here," he said. "This is about as straight up as it gets."

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