The Nashville convention center just celebrated its 20th birthday and with that it is time to look towards the future and the plans for the new downtown convention center. Before we do that I want to tell you a few things that you may not know about the current convention center. The convention center opened its doors on January 31st, 1987, but that was 10 years after the Nashville Hotel/Motel Association requested the Tourism Commission to recommend building the darn thing to the Metropolitan Council. A three year study ensued which did not yield any direct results until a Chattanooga developer offered to build a hotel in conjunction with the convention center. Two years later a plan was finally approved and a year after that construction began.
Since it’s prolonged beginning, the convention center has truly helped refined downtown Nashville, more than you might realize. In fact, in the last 10 years alone, the convention center has contributed more than $910 million dollars to the downtown economy and served more than 3.5 million people. How about them apples?!? Did you also know that you never paid a dime to have it here? That’s right, In May 2006, the original 20-year construction bonds were paid in full from the hotel tax collections that allowed construction to begin. The citizens of Nashville never had to contribute a penny to the operation or debt service for the facility.
BUT, what else don’t you know? Did you know that our convention center is currently ranked 115th in the nation or that we have lost an estimated 240 conventions since 1999 due to our size limitations? What could that lost business have meant for our city? Well, I’ll tell you:
1) The new convention center will create an estimated 36,000 jobs
2) It will produce $10 million each year for Metro Schools
3) It will generate $65 million in new state and local tax revenues per year
4) It will generate $700 million in direct visitor spending per year
5) There will be no sales or property tax increase to pay for construction
So what does that tell us about the future of our current convention center?
It says to me that it’s time to build a bigger and better facility that will perform as well or better than our last convention center and the economic studies have come to the same conclusion. In February 2006, the Music City Center Coalition unanimously recommended construction of a 1.2 million square foot state-of-the-art facility with 375,000 square feet of exhibition space and two ballrooms. It will position Nashville to attract more than 70% of the meetings market. Estimated land acquisition and construction cost was $455 million, with a return on investment of $700 million per year. However, the longer we wait to built it, the more it will cost and you know that eventually we will have to build it.
But wait, what kind of facility do we really want? This is the question that we all need to consider at this point. The convention center will be built, it’s just a matter of how big and what else comes with the package. Here are my suggestions: We need retail, retail, and more retail for our current and future downtown residents. We need a proper grocery store, drug store, and other essential city services in order to truly become inhabitants of downtown and to be able to ditch our cars for weeks at a time. We need more downtown Nashville commercial real estate! Why wouldn’t the developers make the convention center larger, the space is there in Sobro, and add on several street front retail spaces to sell or lease to national, regional, and local retailers? There will be plenty of residents in the downtown core by 2010 and in-turn, plenty of demand for commercial space.
So my next question is…why stop there? Why can’t we master plan the entire several block radius into a more pedestrian friendly outdoor centric space that includes a few parks, fountains, reflecting pools and other points of interest. Why can’t we redesign the traffic flow to allow for perimeter parking like the national parks in Washington DC? The answer is we can. We can if the Civic Design Center, the Downtown Partnership, and the Music City Center Coalition get together with the Metro Planning department and put some ink on paper. Now is the time to redefine the Sobro and Riverfront areas. Now is the time to plan for a downtown Nashville baseball stadium. Now is the time for Nashville to ask its citizens for their input. Now is the time for Nashville.
And finally, everyone listens to my rant and then asks, “So what happens to the old convention center? Do you want it sitting there empty? Won’t this be a huge waste of money and time?” These are my favorite questions and I usually ask this question back: If you were a big developer, like a national guy, and you saw an entire city block come available in the downtown core of the 26th largest city in the United States, would you be interested? The answer is always “yes”. It does not matter what they build (office building, condo tower, indoor mall), the fact remains, they will build.
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