Earlier today I sat in a meeting in which the head of a local chamber of commerce and our city’s economic development head lectured me on supporting the Music City Center (MCC) project. Of course I wasn’t surprised that they were supporting the project, nor their interpretation of the data upon which their belief was founded. However I found my temperature rising when part of their lecture seemed to focus on the motives of those who oppose the project, implying that there is some sort of flawed or tainted agenda behind those who would question their pet concern, and a lack of imagination on why someone might not think the MCC is a good thing.
Listen guys, I know that you think that the opposition to the MCC is driven by the evil empire of Gaylord, but the fact is that there are many of us out here who DO question the project not out of some sort of political agenda or competitive motive, but simply because we aren’t certain it’s the right thing at this time. We aren’t running for mayor. We don’t see this impacting our business. No, our opposition rests in a different interpretation of the data you offer, an interpretation that sees this as a risky proposition in the long run.
This isn’t simply a knee jerk reaction to change. I agree completely that our current convention center is outdated and too small. Yes, there is probably a need for something new in one form or another, although I think that need grows smaller as the trade show business implodes in the new economy. Of course, that is a subjective judgment, just as your hope for the future of the trade show and convention business is mostly a subjective judgment. We differ on how we read the data, and ultimately one of us will be proved right and the other wrong. The only difference is that if I am wrong we won’t have spent billions of dollars on a monstrosity that we underutilize. Sure, if I am wrong we will lose some economic opportunity along the way, but maybe we could plow half of the proposed cost of the center into economic development throughout the city so that economic opportunity is offered to all parts of the city.
So let’s get off our high horses and admit that all of this is an informed guess. This could be a $585 million dollar economic bonanza, or a $585 million dollar bust. It depends on how you read the data and discernment is in the eye of the beholder.
Ultimately though, for me, this is a question of priorities. It is difficult for me to imagine spending $585 million dollars at a time of economic decline when we are barely funding current services. We have a police department that has roughly the same number of officers as Boston, but services a geographic area many times larger. We have a public hospital that was underfunded this year by $1.5 million dollars in a time when economic distress is leading to increase rates of indigent care. Our social services as a whole have been cut, and cut, and cut, and let’s not even talk about education spending. We are a city that is trying to build a world class convention center on the backs of citizens receiving subpar services.
“Oh, oh, oh!!” I hear some saying. “The money for the center isn’t coming out of our taxes and won’t lead to cuts in services. These are funds that can ONLY be used for tourism. The MCC has nothing to do with the operating budget and city services.”
I suppose that is true in a legal sense, but it is a bit disingenuous. The “user-free” and tourism related taxes are currently dedicated toward tourism, but several of them could be directed toward other purposes by a simple vote of the council, and the fact is that some $14 million dollars of those moneys is being diverted from existing responsibilities such as payments to the Nashville Predators and will have to be assumed by the same pool of funds that feed existing city services. Those funds will have to come from somewhere, and my fear is that the hospital, parks, and library will be in for a hard time next year. We don’t really know how this shortfall will be dealt with, for our director of finance seems unwilling to answer speculative questions that don’t involve revenue projects for the MCC.
And that is part of my problem with this entire conversation – the unwillingness to take seriously the valid concerns of others who are nervous about the financial future of this project. You are asking us to be responsible for the largest building project in the history of Nashville. While this may not include tax revenues at this time, we are still holding the bag if your assumptions are wrong, and so we have a right to question those assumptions. And yet, when questioned, it has seemed like you think these questions are meaningless and not worthy of your time. I feel like I am dealing with a bunch of 14 year olds who immediately go on the defensive when questioned about the most innocuous thing. This project will be with us for a long time. It’s not unreasonable to get into the minutia to make sure we all feel comfortable with this expense.
So Ralph and Alexia, yes there are some of us opposed to the MCC. We have differences of opinion. We have differences of philosophy. We probably have difference visions of what our city should be.
But we aren’t in the pockets of the evil Gaylord. We simply have some questions, and you haven’t gained our trust yet.
And it’s hard to co-sign on a $585 million dollar loan when you don’t trust your partners.