As the Metro Council prepares to vote on a new convention center, it’s time to stop the politically charged theorizing — and accomplish a long-term goal for Nashville. It’s time to get off the soapboxes and see the forest, not the trees. It’s time to ignore the politicized attacks and give voice to the hospitality industry, which provides significant economic benefits to our community.
A new convention center will maximize the potential of Nashville, an internationally known destination, to generate revenues for the benefit of all. We can fund the project with bonds paid back with taxes from visitors. This financing funded our existing convention center 20 years ago — at no cost to Nashvillians.
These are facts. They are being obscured by a special-interest group that has come together at the 11th hour to try to convince us that Nashville has millions of dollars to spend and has chosen to spend it on a convention center instead of other options.
Nashville has many important issues. Mayor Karl Dean is working diligently to address these and doing a great job for our citizens. Unlike other projects, the convention center is self-funded. Our industry will bear the responsibility for the funding by taxing itself. Each year, visitors generate more than $100 million in revenues toward education, public safety and other priorities.
By law, funds from the $2 hotel occupancy tax can only build the Music City Center. Opponents ask: “If you had a billion dollars to spend on Nashville, what would you buy?” implying that the revenue for the convention center can be used for other projects. This is misleading and untrue, first because the project will not cost $1 billion, and secondly because the revenue generated can only be designated for this purpose.
I have been one of many — including members of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, Chamber of Commerce and three mayoral administrations — who for 11 years have been working to bring a project of this magnitude and importance to fruition.
We have studied what has worked in the past, what we can expect in the future and how all can benefit. Every source used to determine the feasibility of a convention center has returned with a favorable report that we can in fact support this moderately sized center. Meetings keep us afloat even during tough times. Throughout the lean years of the early 1990s, when tourism taxes were down, we never borrowed from the Metro general fund.
The words “convention center” sound huge, but the size of the Music City Center is appropriate. We will attract larger meetings — but will not be mortgaging our future with a center too large for Nashville.
We are a moderately priced, central destination with the enviable Music City brand, which includes our reputation for service and hospitality. We attract music fans, and people who enjoy sports, the arts and culture.
We need to drive our own demand, as have our primary competitors such as San Antonio, Austin and Indianapolis. Today,
we have an antiquated center smaller than Chattanooga and Memphis, which puts us
at a competitive disadvantage.
Ultimately, Nashville will have the best of both worlds. Although we are not a resort destination, we have a world-class resort, Gaylord Opryland. For groups that want to be under one roof, this is a great option. But don’t forget: Gaylord is a private corporation, beholden to stockholders. Many conventions want to be located downtown, giving attendees hotel options and entertainment. Our center is public, beholden to no one, but beneficial to everyone. Money we bring into the city helps pay for schools, sidewalks, our quality of life.
Gaylord has built hotels in very competitive cities, such as Washington, D.C., and Orlando, Fla. Their effort to derail a convention center in our city is frustrating and disappointing. In 1996, Nashville entered a non-compete with Gaylord guaranteeing the convention center would not expand until 2006, while Opryland expanded. While other cities Nashville’s size, such as Indianapolis and Austin, enlarged their centers, Nashville stood in deference to Gaylord. Now that this administration seeks to build a new convention center, Gaylord is funding an opposition campaign out of self-interest.
That’s a shame. There’s room in Nashville for everyone to grow, and we have a unique brand to ensure it will happen.
We have a proven way, in a tough economy, to generate new jobs and revenue that will help achieve a host of Nashville’s priorities. But we must act. It has taken over 10 years to get this far. If we don’t move forward with a convention center now, we will lose the opportunity for at least another decade. Our brand, our city and our citizens will suffer as a result. Building Music City Center is not a leap of faith. It is the next natural step. We need to take it.
Irwin Fisher is a vice president at Loews Hotels and former chairman of the Metro Convention Center Commission.