Political observers, wary of ulterior motives and intentional misdirection, are always on the lookout for a nasty curve. But sometimes a good fastball is all it takes.
After unveiling the financial details little more than two weeks ago, Mayor Karl Dean's administration means to secure approval for the proposed Nashville Sounds ballpark at Sulphur Dell before the end of the year. The ball is definitely in play. The Metro Council has advanced legislation pertaining to financing the project on the first of three required votes, and the state Building Commission has approved the necessary land transfer with the city.
But At-Large Councilman Charlie Tygard set the stage for a rare bit of council drama last week when he suggested the project was moving too fast for the public and even the council to catch. (Or hit, perhaps? These baseball metaphors go awry quickly.) Just before the Metro Council's procedural first vote on the proposal, Tygard — one of the body's senior members, and one who's often been a stickler about the body's traditions since he was first elected more than 20 years ago — took the unusual step of requesting to defer the trio of bills on first reading.
Tygard's motion, which would have delayed consideration of the stadium financing for two meetings, was defeated. But it did manage to get some support. Even among those who voted to advance the legislation — in keeping with standard procedure to move the bills into the committee system — some seconded his basic question: Why the rush?
The mayor answered that exact question earlier this month. Dean told reporters there were three reasons the project had been put on the fast track — the first, he said, being to secure low interest rates before they can rise again. The second was to accommodate Embrey Development Corp., whose previously planned development will be moved (and has been delayed) by the stadium plans. The third, and last, was to make sure the ballpark is ready for the Sounds' opening day in 2015.
But as it turns out, there are 5 million more reasons the runners are being waved home.
Among the revenue sources the Dean administration plans to put toward the $65 million in debt — from purchasing the land and building the stadium — is $750,000 in projected annual property tax. This would come from a $50 million development the Sounds hope to build along Third Avenue. The team has signaled its intent to follow through with those plans, but it has no contractual obligation to do so.
Sounds owner Frank Ward tells the Scene he has an option to buy the land for that development for $5 million by Dec. 31. If the stadium deal isn't approved by that date, however, he won't make the purchase.
"So there's a timing issue there," he says. "Would I buy the land without a stadium being there? No."
Ward says he's already extended the contract twice. Administration officials say they're confident he will proceed with the private development, citing (frequently) his background in real estate. But Ward insists that keeping the project on track affects all the parties involved.
"There are a lot of balls in the air, and to all of a sudden let's call timeout, I think, would have drastic effects on everything that's trying to be accomplished," he says.
Asked about concerns that the public might not have time to weigh in on the project, Ward balks.
"I prefer to stay out of the politics," he says.
Of course, if you spend years working with the mayor's office to devise a new stadium deal, and insist that the deal be approved quickly by elected officials, aren't you already in the politics?
"To tell you the truth, I don't know," Ward says, with a laugh. "Am I in it intentionally? To be honest with you, no, I am not."
In any case, the politics don't seem likely to change much. Tygard's motion received a few supportive "ayes," but does he think there are enough slow things down?
"No," Tygard says. "I think the train's already left the station, as I told one council member [who asked] 'How do we derail this?' I said, 'My advice to you is get off the track, because you're going to get run over.' "
Although his effort to delay the process has led some Metro players to suggest he's bent on opposing the ballpark, Tygard insists that's not the case.
"I'm willing to vote for this if I can get my questions answered," Tygard says. "I have voted for Bridgestone Arena, I've been outspoken on the convention center. I am not scared to vote for big-ticket items."
After last week's council meeting, Tygard says Councilwoman Erica Gilmore — who represents the area north of downtown where the stadium will be built — offered to put together a public meeting. Tygard took her up on the offer, although the timing of the meeting may only accentuate concerns about pushing the project through during the holiday season. It will be held at 9 a.m. Nov. 30 — the Saturday after Thanksgiving — at Goodwill Industries on Herman Street.
Tygard's absence at two ballpark briefings earlier this month has drawn criticism from some of his council colleagues. But he says he will be at the public meeting. As of this writing, Gilmore says she's still working to see which Metro officials will be able to join them.
After that, the proposal heads back to the council (which will hold a public hearing of its own) for two more votes. All signs point to approval, with some earnest but relatively inconsequential opposition. Councilman Josh Stites calls the process "one of the most unsavory" the council has been a part of in the past few years. Like Tygard, he says resistance to the ASAP pace of the project is not rooted in "anti-progress" or "anti-ballpark" sentiment.
"The administration has talked about this in some form or another for about seven years," he says. "Now, after seven years, we've come down to, without a doubt, the three busiest weeks of the year, and it's got to be passed right now or the deal's not going to work. The whole deal is going to fall apart. And yet they had all this time to file legislation earlier, they had all this time to talk to the council about it — and they chose not to.
"And they chose not to because they don't have to," he adds. "They've got their votes, I'm sure."