Karl Dean has established the high value of his opinion on controversial issues to the city of Nashville. When Eric Crafton was stirring up the English Only issue a year ago, many politicos around town predicted that Mayor Dean would oppose the referendum.
With his background as Metro’s director of law, Dean saw the shaky legal ground on which English Only stood. But he also understood the non-tangible effect English Only would have on Nashville and how the city would be perceived worldwide.
While conventional wisdom said Dean would oppose English Only, there were also whispers that his opposition would be subdued. People were unsure of the support English Only would have across town and, if anything, the sense was it would pass. Would Dean invest himself and spend political capital on an issue that might ultimately find him on the losing side?
Turns out Dean was an eloquent and outspoken critic of English Only. He called it wrong, divisive and said it sent the wrong message about Nashville. And Dean did so on television ads, e-mail newsletters, not to mention national television interviews.
Throughout the special election process, Dean never turned down an interview request and he never watered down his vocal opposition. In the end, Dean was the leader of a broad coalition that handily defeated Crafton’s English Only referendum.
May Town Center is not the English Only special election, but its impact on the city is potentially far greater and certainly more tangible. In a best case scenario, the $4 billion development for rural Bells Bend brings a headlining corporate campus, thousands of jobs and becomes a mega-million-dollar economic engine for Metro.
At worse, it serves as a wrecking ball for the picturesque rolling hills of Bells Bend and becomes a mass transit nightmare for Davidson County’s western half.
Where is Dean on May Town Center? The real answer is no one knows. I asked him that very question before the proposal was on public hearing last month at the Planning Commission.
Dean replied: “If I was just picking how I’d want to see the city grow, it would be with existing infrastructure, commit ourselves pretty strong to downtown.”
I asked if that was a cryptic way of saying that trading hundreds of acres of unmolested green space for a sliver of Cool Springs in Davidson County was a bad idea. His answer?
“I’m not trying to be cryptic,” Dean said. “The only reason people ask about May Town is because it’s so big. If you ask me philosophically the way I think the city should grow, I think downtown is important, you know, take advantage of the urban core. [There are] old malls that need to be reused, older areas that have existing infrastructure is how we should do it.
“I’m not saying I’m against it… let the process work.”
The mayor’s right about one thing. The only reason people ask him about May Town is because it’s so big and so are the ramifications for the city he runs. Dean takes his service to Nashville seriously, there’s no doubting that.
But instead of weighing in on the largest proposed mixed-use development in Davidson County history, Dean is leading a coalition of interested parties who choose only to be candid in off-the-record conversations.
The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce is run by a pretty sharp guy in Ralph Schulz and has served the county well in steering business in county. Like Dean, the chamber has stayed mum. So too has the one Nashville-area organization which would seem to be naturally opposed to May Town Center. The Downtown Partnership is the advocacy group for downtown residents and businesses. Downtown surely stands to lose some business if May Town gets the green light.
Yet, director Tom Turner said the organization has no official stance because the proposal isn’t for downtown.
Perhaps Dean, the Chamber, and the Downtown Partnership believe it is inappropriate to oppose a development large enough to use the word “billion” and not ask directly for local money.
But there is a group of city leaders who have decided opposing May Town Center is worthwhile. Every Council member from a West Nashville district (save Crafton), downtown Councilman Mike Jameson, at-large Councilwoman Megan Barry, former Councilman David Briley, environmental consultant Barry Sulkin and many others openly oppose May Town Center.
Their opposition has been drowned out by Dean’s silence, though, which has left the rest of us wondering what the mayor really thinks.
Rau covers Metro government for The City Paper. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org