Last night, Thursday, I attended a hastily called neighborhood meeting regarding the Music City Convention Center. According to Dianne Hunter (she's the woman on the far left next to the wall) she wanted "to get the clear hard facts not filtered through the media." To get those 'clear hard facts' she had a friend hook her up with Terry Clements one of seven lobbyists for the Nashville Convention & Visitor's Bureau (CVB) and she invited Council Lady Karen Bennett (District 8 Inglewood) to a small meeting in a local restaurant.
At 6:49 pm on Wednesday evening a note was posted to a neighborhood listserv providing minimal notice to the community of the meeting to be held 23 hours later. Bennett responded with a note early the following afternoon stating:
"I was contacted several weeks ago by Ms. Hunter wishing to speak with me and bring a couple of her friends with her concerning the Convention Center. I told her I would be happy to speak with her but until we have the financing portion of the package that there was really no way of having an informed conversation."Hunter apologized at the end of the meeting for the miscommunication and the poor choice of the venue. She stated that she had asked a few people to attend and told the restaurant manager there would be between 12 and 15 people. Clearly though, considering how the table was set up to seat no more than 10 and the placement of the video screen they didn't expect the twice that number that did show up. It was a terrible venue for anything other than an intimate few who could sit close together since the meeting was in the main portion of an open restaurant with music, chatter, kitchen noise and all hard surfaces.
Councilmen in attendance included Bennett, CM Michael Craddock (District 4-Madison), CM Jim Gotto (District 12 Hermitage), and CM Mike Jameson (District 6-East Nashville) .
There were also two representatives from Nashville Priorities in attendance.
Bennett was allowed to speak first and made it very clear that this was not a meeting she had called. She stated that she was holding her own community meeting on Tuesday, January 12, 6:00 pm at the East Precinct. At that time the all important financial information would be available for the community to evaluate. She also admonished the CVB saying that several of these sorts of one sided meetings were being held across the city that confused constituents about who was hosting these meetings and put councilmen in a difficult spot. This tactic needed to end.
Clement began his PowerPoint presentation, which was not viewable by a full third of those in attendance, by stating that 'if you don't travel much you may not know the power of the Nashville brand'. I'll admit it came across as talking down to those of us who haven't had the opportunity to travel as extensively as he had. It came across as "We're the professionals who know this subject. You're unsophisticated. Trust us." Not a good start.
He went on to say Nashville had lost over 300 meeting by not having a larger facility. He stated the Music City Convention Center (MCC) will compete for 70% of the convention market. Glaringly obvious to me was that being in the competition doesn't equal money in the bank from winning. He did say that Mayor Dean had given them permission to start selling space not even yet approved and that if we didn't build the facility there were penalties that would have to be paid to those convention clients. Clement stated they had pre-sold 227,000 hotel rooms over 8 years, had 22 clients on board, denied that anyone was getting any space for free (hotel rooms swapped for convention space kinda thing), couldn't say how they determined the room or space rates and didn't know what the break even point was. Great, they put the cart before the horse to ensure that taxpayers have additional incentives to approve the MCC. I have little patience with this tactic.
Clement was very careful to say visitor taxes will 'primarily' fund the MCC but his slide omitted the word 'primarily'. Also careful to emphasize that property taxes will not fund the center. If he mentioned sales taxes I didn't hear it.
Another slide said the center had been 'vetted for 11 years' which is false. It's been talked about for more than a decade but never fully vetted. We're still waiting on solid numbers. Clement himself stated "the financial package is not complete yet. Hopefully, in November."
The PowerPoint was filled with pretty renderings of the facility, there was a lot of talk about the LEED roof, the proposed roundabout, urban vitality, and jobs that would be created. Of course when Clement was asked what the average salary of an MCC employee would be he had no idea.
Jameson and I both asked for a copy of the PowerPoint but Clements avoided promising a copy saying he thought it might be too large to email.
While there were several very polite questions and even a few from Hunter who seemed mostly concerned about the LEED aspects and traffic I did go a bit 'town hall' on Clement. I started by stating that I didn't think government belonged in the convention business at all. I continued by pointing out that our federal government was putting us into debt for $1.5 Trillion dollars, that the state government was only too happy to throw money away, and now, during economic hard times (and I provided a personal example) taxpayers were supposed to co-sign for more debt? How was this facility going to benefit my family and my neighborhood? Clement had already mentioned Nashville's stormwater problems and I reminded him of that expense, that our police and fire needed equipment and raises and that the sales tax monies, that fund public schools, were on the line for this MCC. Why should I support this over those other and more vital government services?
He couldn't answer. He was professionally polite and attentive but there is no way you can make a case for the MCC getting in line ahead of the family grocery bill, public safety or public schools. He was wise to not even try. I dearly hope the Council understands that 'build it and they will come' was fine for a Hollywood movie but it's not the way to run a city.