In the debate over the fairgrounds proposal and the administration’s proposed creation of the Expo Center at Hickory Hollow, I have noticed a troubling phenomenon among those who oppose the project. This movement is exemplified in Mike Byrd’s blog post of tonight:
What has Hickory Hollow owner CBL done for Nashville that would warrant Metro government bailing their lackluster mall management out by subsidizing the Fairgrounds Expo in the old Dillard’s building and by leasing space for a controversial public community center and a government health clinic?
What I am seeing is a trend toward casting Hickory Hollow and CBL in a negative light in the desire to oppose what many (including myself) see as a problematic proposal.
Look, I know as well as anyone about how “troubled” Hickory Hollow is. I’ve sat with mall management (sometimes serving as an ad hoc counselor to their frustrations) as they have tried to creatively buck the national trend regarding enclosed malls and bring that place back to life. Certainly the recent revelations that James Weaver, chair of the Fair Board, serves as a lobbyist for CBL creates an impression of unethical collusion that isn’t helpful. I have little doubt that CBL was a donor to Mayor Dean, for they have a large presence in the Nashville market (owning Rivergate and Cools Springs as well) and Dean was clearly supportive of developers in his push for economic development. It’s easy to develop conspiracy theories by which CBL is “pushing” the administration to “bail out their lackluster mall.”
And yet the shifting of blame from where it belongs (da Mayor) to CBL is neither fair to that company nor reflects the reality of what Hickory Hollow is facing, and scolds the “lack luster mall management” for trying to do the creative things that will turn the mall around.
There is general agreement throughout the development world that enclosed malls such as Hickory Hollow and Bellevue are dinosaurs. Yes Green Hills and Cool Springs thrive, but in the context of affluence with both representing a “high end” retailing concept. Rivergate struggled for a while and is doing okay, but there has not been as much competition along the I-65 corridor as was developed along Hickory Hollow’s I-24 corridor from The Boro. The only trend nationally for the survival and rebound of spaces such as Hickory Hollow is the conversion from strictly retail space to multi-use facilities, such as what we’ve seen at One Hundred Oaks with the Vanderbilt partnership. Mall managers have been working hard to try to identify tenants that fall outside of the “traditional” retail segment while at the same time doing all they could to appeal to new retail clients. Given the current economic conditions in which retail in general is struggling that has been a long row to hoe, and so they are looking for any options that will help diversify the space.
While they are looking, the other fact is that leaders in Antioch (such as Councilman Coleman) have been looking to expand services in Antioch. Antioch as an area is a city unto itself of over 50,000 people. And yet, it’s an area with only almost no public parks, a library branch that was built to accommodate half the population, and a growing population of working folks who need additional city services. Given the nature of situation it was logical that these leaders and council folk (including some who currently oppose the fairground project) would look for ways of connecting the empty space at Hickory Hollow with some of the needs for public services. The connection between the mall and the current proposals may have been finalized in some smoke filled room in the Mayor’s office, but it’s birth was in community meetings and private conversations with people trying to think creatively about how to revitalize an area that was largely perceived as dying.
CBL is doing what CBL is supposed to be doing – looking for tenants for their property. It’s their job, and we shouldn’t fault them for it. And while I have problems with the notion of leasing property for the Expo Center, I can’t fault CBL for their square footage rates don’t represent an exorbitant fleecing of the city’s money. They are a publicly held corporation with a privately held piece of property trying to make a profit off that property. Their motivations are the same as any company – to make their business thrive, and from their perspective the project as proposed helps in their need to transition Hickory Hollow into a multiuse space.
The danger in refocusing the conversation on CBL is that it fails to keep the spotlight on an administration that hates being presented with alternative options or visions, seeing those as attacks on their grand plan for the city. The administration has been unwilling to be in serious conversation with those who have different visions, and is seemingly unable to compromise once it draws an arbitrary line in the sand. This administration is making threats to an entire segment of the city, saying that either this neighborhood supports every aspect of our plan, or you will get nothing at all. This puts local businesses in a difficult position for they know that there are parts of the plan (the community center and library in particular) that are much less controversial and would help put the Mall on a better footing helping their businesses, but feel unable to speak to the other parts of the proposal for fear of losing the good parts. Refocusing the blame on CBL and Antioch ultimately takes the Mayor off the hook if the proposal giving him the ability to point the finger at the folks in Antioch as say, “It’s all their fault” rather than admitting his own failings.