Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Nashvillians get their say before final convention center vote
By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • January 12, 2010 An overflow crowd of Nashville residents packed the Metro Council chambers Monday night in hopes of convincing their elected representatives to make the right decision about building a $585 million convention center, offering competing visions of the city's future. About 40 people spoke during a Metro Council public hearing that gave each side 40 minutes to make its case. Convention center supporters said Nashville needs to leverage its Music City brand and build a facility that can accommodate larger groups and generate more tax revenue. "Give us the tools to work with," said businessman Francis Guess, a member of the Convention & Visitors Bureau's board. Critics countered that the convention business is dying and said Mayor Karl Dean's administration was relying on forecasts that aren't reliable. Several of them called for a public vote, which the opposition group Nashville's Priorities has been pushing for since mid-December. "This is a bad business deal," strategic planner Jody Lentz said. The hearing capped a day of convention center events as the council prepared for its final vote on the matter on Jan. 19. Dean spoke passionately for the project in two settings. The mayor told about 200 people at a Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce briefing and an estimated 750 at a rally in front of the Metro Courthouse that the city can't afford not to build the convention center. He said taxpayers would receive benefits, not burdens. "We need more money for schools, police and parks," Dean told the crowd in the Public Square. "The only way to do that is to expand our tax base." Speaking to the chamber group at the Doubletree Hotel a couple of blocks from the courthouse, Dean said the project was about more than one building. "I'm talking about building, I think, one of the greatest cities in this country," he said. Both sides represented Protesters from the Service Employees International Union stood to the side of the crowd at the rally, which was organized by the pro-convention center Music City Center Coalition. With one of Dean's security guards keeping an eye on the union protesters from the courthouse steps as the mayor spoke, they held signs saying, "I Believe Public Schools Will Get Shortchanged" and "No Blank Check." But they were outnumbered by coalition members and other boosters, who held signs reading "MCC Means Jobs!" and "Economic Development Is Nashville's Priority." The supporters' chants could be heard through the windows as two council committees held their final informational sessions before voting on the project Thursday. Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling and several financing and feasibility consultants talked about the project's merits and defended it from council criticisms. Several council members questioned the revenue projections made by HVS Consulting, which has said sufficient demand exists to pay for the project. Metro would use visitor taxes and fees to pay off about $40 million a year in construction debt through the year 2043, but it would pledge certain general fund revenues as a backup if the tourist dollars fell short. Councilman Jim Gotto pressed the financing team for a point at which the general fund would be touched. Riebeling and the consultants said they didn't expect the revenues to fall short but noted that if they did, Metro would be able to tap reserve funds of at least $40 million before turning to the general fund. Hearing is peaceful The public hearing was civil, with both sides trying to organize their arguments and keep individual comments brief. Ernest Campbell, who spoke during the opponents' sections, said the convention center would only add to a downtown that's already "flawed." "To the vast majority of Davidson Countians, downtown is irrelevant," he said. But Jesse Goldstein, president of TomKats Inc., which operates the Loveless Café on Highway 100, said the facility would help spread the benefits of tourism throughout the county. "We're not just talking about one building downtown," Goldstein said. Council members learn Several undecided council members said they learned from some of the citizens who spoke. "They're our boss," said Councilman Jerry Maynard. "There were good points on both sides. I'm glad I didn't make up my mind before today." Councilman Frank Harrison said he hoped Nashville residents would trust the council to make the best decision, but he has been hearing a lot of people say they don't. "It saddens me that people don't think we're going to rely on truthful information," Harrison said. "That's certainly not the case with me."
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