As the Metro Council's convention center financing vote approaches, there's little need for white-knuckled anxiety about what will happen. Even if pretty much all concerned weren't predicting between 23 and 29 yes votes among the 40-member body, history may be all the clairvoyance we need.In fact, there's ample procedural precedent for the way Nashville's publicly funded capital projects go down. It works like this:
Step 1: Mayor proposes massive multimillion-dollar concrete icon.
Step 2: Council members — about 15 percent of whom (if that) actually understand how the project would be funded — posture, grandstand and hold town hall meetings, growing more ponderous and circumspect (and available for television interviews) as the final vote approaches.
Step 3: The Metro Council capitulates and approves the project.
(Step 2a, of course, might include mayoral carrot-waving in the direct line of vision of members who seem unable to commit their support. That usually provides all the clarity lawmakers need.) But we're just painting with broad strokes here.
"I don't remember a major capital project a mayor has proposed that the council didn't pass," says Councilman Ronnie Steine, who chairs the body's all-important Budget and Finance Committee and who is an open backer of the $585 million Music City Center project. "There's not one that I can think of."
That in itself is telling. Steine's probably not yet pricing long-term care insurance, but he may well have a few pairs of jeans older than the average Scene staff writer. First elected to the Metro Council in 1991, Steine has nearly 20 years of institutional memory from which to draw.
There have been times in the city's past, he notes, when the council has pared back mayoral tax increase requests and even trimmed costs — as was the case in 1997 with then-Mayor Phil Bredesen's downtown library project. Back then, Steine led the legislative effort to scale back the massive project from $82 million to $72 million.
Former Metro Council member Stewart Clifton's experience goes back even farther than Steine's — to 1987. In 1996, he was among a gaggle of council members — that included SouthComm CEO Chris Ferrell, by the way — who opposed financing for the $292 million football stadium. In the end, his side lost.
And that's the point. When it comes to large-scale capital undertakings, the contrarians always lose. The arena, stadium, existing convention center, downtown library, capital schools funding. The city's populous, sometimes unwieldy and part-time legislative body just has never been in the business of nixing grand legacy projects. It is by its nature an institution that reacts to — and is easily persuaded by — power. Even some of the convention center's staunchest opponents, such as Councilman Mike Jameson, concede as much. And next week's convention center vote promises to be no different.
"There has always been fierce [council] opposition, whether projects are bankrolled with dedicated funding or not," Clifton says. "But I don't think any mayor has failed to win."
In 1995, Clifton objected to an NFL football playpen on the grounds that it would be partially funded with surplus Metro Water Department funds. This time around, though, the former public official is not only a proponent but an active project booster of the new convention center. The chief distinction, he says, is that it would be financed with dedicated revenue streams from hotel-motel and other tourism taxes.
"I'm much more likely to go to the Station Inn and listen to music than to go to the convention center or the arena, but that doesn't mean we don't need both," Clifton says.
What about the apparent public opposition to the project, as evidenced by an independent poll WSMV-Channel 4 recently commissioned? That poll showed that only 25 percent of those who responded supported the convention center. Yet Steine and Clifton both say those results are unlikely to sway the council.
"These things are never particularly popular when they're first proposed," Clifton says, arguing that most respondents probably "don't even know that it's a dedicated funding source that couldn't be used for anything else. I don't really think the polls are going to move anybody."
Then again, the WSMV poll showed that 87 percent of those opposed said that they'd be less likely to re-elect a politician who votes for the convention center. But even if a few Metro Council members do migrate to the no column for fear of voter reprisal, it won't likely change the outcome. Because if the recent history of city government tells us anything, it's that mayors typically get what mayors want.
Did the city's news organizations drop the ball by not following up on the WSMV poll? See Bruce Barry's take online at the Scene's news blog Pith in the Wind by clicking www.nashvillescene.com.