In a debate-style forum which ranged from informative to contentious, the nation’s leading expert on the public convention center business and the president of Nashville’s convention and visitors bureau went toe-to-toe at the Steve and Judy Turner Recital Hall on Vanderbilt’s campus on Sunday.
University of Texas at San Antonio professor Dr. Heywood Sanders argued that convention business is such a small fraction of the Nashville tourism industry that the proposed $635 million that would be used for Music City Center would be better spent elsewhere.
Sanders pointed out that Nashville sees nearly 11 million tourists come through annually, but the latest projections for Music City Center show it would only bring in between 200,000 and 300,000 hotel room nights per year, according to the request for proposal issued by Metro last year.
Sanders argued that the nation is engaged in a sort of convention center arms race, with cities competing with each other to build more and more convention space. Since 1999, space has increased nationally by 36 percent, but demand has remained flat, Sanders said.
That leads cities to offer huge discounts to attract convention business, which then undermines the downtown hotel industry.
“It’s the same reality we see when car dealers have too many cars and department stores have merchandise that’s not moving — there’s a sale,” Sanders said. “That increasingly means convention centers are offerin sales and events are going to where the deals are.”
Butch Spyridon, the president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, argued that the Nashville convention business is thriving and competing well against other destination cities like Toronto and Orlando.
Spyridon pointed out that the current downtown convention center paid off its bonds on time and was funded by the visitors, who generated the revenues to pay back the debt issued more than 20 years ago. Spyridon did not mention that Metro provides the center an annual operating subsidy of just over $1 million, which comes out of the general fund.
Despite working to sell a new convention center, which hasn’t even received the green light yet, Spyridon pointed out more than 200,000 room nights are already booked for Music City Center.
“Nashville is not basing our proposal simply on academic studies and consultants,” Spyridon argued. “We’re basing it on our own experience and success.”
The open forum got testy at various points as Spyridon and Sanders sparred over the value of convention center business to the tourism engine that generated $4 billion for Nashville.
Sanders said he hoped Nashville’s convention center project worked, but pointed out other cities with new centers have not seen the success they hoped.
Boston, for instance, has achieved less than half the room nights predicted by the feasibility study used to support developing a new center, he said. The feasibility study was done by Johnson Consulting, which conducted the same study for the Music City Center project.
At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry, who spearheaded the forum, said it accomplished what its sponsors envisioned.
“It was absolutely what I wanted,” Barry said. “It was two advocates who came with passionate ideas about where they stand, giving their opinions to the citizens of Nashville, who can then make up their own minds about where they want to stand.”
Metro Council will vote for a bill on third reading concerning the land acquisition phase of the project at its Tuesday meeting.