Consider this the journalistic equivalent of civic scab picking. Or for those who prefer sports metaphors, call it post-game armchair quarterbacking. A curious thing happened a couple of weeks ago — on the night of the Metro Council's momentous (but anti-climactic) vote on a new $585 million convention center. Three lawmakers not inclined toward speechlessness suddenly found their mute buttons, and had nary a word to say. What's more, they weren't just any lawmakers. They were opponents of the proposed concrete icon, cerebral skeptics who for months had been questioning the numbers, the assumptions and the promised outcomes of what city officials had characterized as a critical economic development project.
Instead of standing up, taking their mics and restating their reasons for principled opposition, council members Mike Jameson, Emily Evans and Jason Holleman sat silent, letting colleagues such as Michael Craddock, Robert Duvall and Randy Foster make the case against. The votes, they say, had been locked down and counted well before they were cast — and this is true. (The proposal passed 29-9.) There wasn't much, if anything, that had gone unsaid.
"I'd made up my mind not to speak the week before," Evans says, explaining that she instead opted to post a blog item on the day before the vote outlining her reasoning.
"There was no value in getting up and giving a floor speech," says Holleman, recounting his well-publicized previous comments and the community meeting he held to take his district's temperature. "I don't know if I was ever really planning to say anything on Tuesday night. There was no need to rehash, except for TV time."
They might also have been thinking about what might have been. By the time they gathered in council chambers that night, they'd been back less than 48 hours from a hastily organized trip to Dallas on a state plane with two of Gov. Phil Bredesen's Cabinet members (first reported by The Tennessean's Michael Cass). They, along with colleagues Charlie Tygard and Jerry Maynard — pro-convention center lawmakers who were invited at the request of Mayor Karl Dean's administration — had gone to Texas to meet with Bill Winsor, president and CEO of the company that wants to invest $250 million into the existing convention center. The plan, which remains contingent on pre-leasing and other agreements, would convert the facility into a massive medical trade mart that would serve an international clientele of hospitals and health care companies.
Cass quoted Evans as saying she'd learned "more in those few hours than I had in the previous 12 months about this project."
The piece was a good journalistic get, as we say in the trade. But it ignored a more important question: Had Mayor Dean's administration tied approval of the Music City Center to plans for the medical trade center, might there have been more "Kumbaya" and less unrest? Would the convention center have been widely hailed as a civic asset, instead of the subject of endless hand-wringing — and as such, does it rank as a blown political opportunity?
After all, it would be difficult not to conclude that the proposed 15-story med mart —which would add 1.5 million square feet to the existing convention center, attract between 100,000 and 150,000 additional visitors per year and generate 2,700 jobs — makes the Music City Center a much more appealing prospect. The trade center also falls within the Tourism Development Zone, where a certain portion of sales taxes will be captured to help bankroll the new center.
"Obviously, if you added an additional substantial economic engine to the mix, it would have changed the numbers," says Holleman. "I think I would have supported the project. ... If it happens, the medical mart will likely be a catalyst for relocation of other businesses, whereas I don't think the convention center itself is likely to be a catalyst for other businesses to relocate."
David Osborn, general manager of the Nashville Medical Trade Center, agrees that the big boxes stand to complement one another. But he says his Dallas-based management group — whose principals first traveled to Nashville to present the idea some 15 months ago — never talked with city officials about formally linking the two projects.
"There are a couple of things that would have made that difficult to do," he says. "Ours is private, and theirs is public. So those really deserve separate discussions and are separate projects, but they absolutely are complementary." What's more, the trade center folks were shopping multiple sites in Nashville, not just the existing convention center site.
But Jameson says it would have been far easier to overlook MCC's liabilities had the two been combined. "Unfortunately, we were asked to approve the MCC and then cross our fingers that the med mart would follow," he says. "It didn't need to be structured that way, and we didn't need to incur the risks we've assumed.
"And now, of course, opponents like me are in a weird place. With the passage of the MCC, we've got little choice but to do everything possible to ensure the success of the med mart. It's like when your best friend marries a creep. What else can you do but be supportive?"