Thursday, November 20, 2014

The new ballpark blows its $65,000,000 Metro budget and the casualties include our future services from Public Works and Metro Water

First Tennessee Park wants you to marvel in the glory of their beige bricks
as the ballpark construction budget hits a wall.
[screenshot from their Instagram account]

Last year Mayor Karl Dean, with a big assist from my very own council member Erica Gilmore, ramrodded the plan for First Tennessee Park through the compliant Metro Council with little or no discussion and minimal chances for community feedback. When it was suggested that the developer/owner Frank Ward be held liable for any budget overages beyond the $65,000,000 budget, CM Jerry Maynard called it "a poison pill", supporters wrote in letters not to stipulate such a responsibility on poor, cash-strapped Mr. Ward. The compliant council--with the enthusiastic support of 2015 mayoral candidate Megan Barry--absolved the Nashville Sounds club from any responsibility for cost overages.

And just like that, the mayor and the Metro Council encumbered the Metro budget for any obligation beyond the $65,000,000 of expense planned for project construction.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost for us, even those who so blindly hopped on the bandwagon without a second thought or a single misgiving. You see, the council stuck us with the bill.

The Mayor's Office admitted to the Tennessean that it will have to spend $5,000,00 more on the ballpark due to water lines, electric lines, and paving along its properties. Mind you, this is Metro government. They have all of the information on water lines, electric lines, and paving. They are people who are supposed to be able to see this sort of thing coming. You cannot convince me that they did not know. Either they kept themselves willfully ignorant or they considered anything over $65,000,000 as bad PR in the days leading up to the big council vote.

Ever since my family moved to Salemtown 10 years ago, we've known that the area has 100 year old water and sewer lines underground. Every time a development goes up here that knowledge is reiterated. Some developers have balked at the price of upgrading the antiquated infrastructure here. This is not some big unknown. If we knew that fact, if others knew that fact, does Metro Nashville (and more importantly Metro Planning, which informed the ballpark plan) have any excuse for not knowing that when it came time to proposing a budget?

Gilmore: refused to slow
the plan down to talk
things through
Of course, there are many who would have supported this plan sight unseen were the proposal $70,000,000 or $75,000,000 or $80,000,000 regardless of the damage to funding the delivery of the Metro services we actually rely on every day. The idea of community planning, of involving stakeholders in big capital projects in the process, is lost on these people. And I'm not sure that they understand the connection between increased expenses to pay for this luxury and the loss of income to sustain our basic services.

It is such foolishness, because that is exactly what Hizzoner's budget busters are going to cost us; delivery of services because the money is going to come out of other Metro departments; Metro Public Works, Metro Water, and Metro IT (Metro Water is already raided annually to pay off the Tennessee Titans' football stadium). Keep this mind: it will be bad form to criticize the failure of these taxed departments to deliver services in the future if you made no effort to slow down Erica Gilmore in 2013 when she brought this project to full approval less than three months even against the protests of her constituents that we need more time and community involvement.

Others of us were waving red flags about this plan and its unanswered questions as soon as the first community meeting ended. We warned that something like this could happen to put our services at risk. And, by golly, we were right. The Mayor's Office plans to raid other services that our tax dollars pay for. And here is not a thing we can do about it now. After all, Courthouse logic would say, "We've already committed so much money to this. We need to bite the bullet and see it through. Compared to $65 million, $5 million is chump change." And you know what? We, the citizens of Nashville, are the chumps. This was an open-ended confidence game from jump.

Playing Nashville like a dollar store guitar.
It is amazing to me that Rich Riebeling, the mayor's finance director, can claim with a straight face that he already watched the budget overages of the new convention center. So, he expected them in the ballpark plan. He said nothing about expecting the same kind of overages in the community meeting he at the Farmers' Market. And if he had the same realism regarding the ballpark, why did he fail to provide some cushion in his initial cost estimates? The only thing that I can figure is that he failed because he was just as willing to risk the future delivery of Metro services on First Tennessee Park as he was on Music City Center for the sake of wealthy developers.

The Mayor's Office rationalizes the overage by setting the economic growth ceiling even higher. The sky is the limit for these guys and no expense can be spared for Frank Ward, even though many of us understand that everything has limits. Unforgiving limits. Like those causing Metro Nashville Public Schools to teach some children in frigid portable buildings. See how it is? A minor league baseball owner lives high on the Music City hog because he is already rich while some of Nashville's kids shiver while trying to learn math or science.

Beyond the ballpark dreamers, will it truly be a boon for our North Nashville neighborhoods? We know it will be for Mr. Ward. One spellbound real estate journo relates the owner's plan for thousands of feet of restaurant and bar space to the "symbiotic relationships" retail space has will new ballparks around the country. The flip side of that symbiosis is that in other cities the restaurants and bars that already existed in surrounding neighborhoods are reduced to survival mode.

For all of these rationalizations that local businesses will prosper due to Metro Nashville dropping more bling on Mr. Ward's ballpark, residential and retail, one unwavering truth remains. Frank Ward will be competing with the businesses along Jefferson Street. He will try to pull customers into his complex to spend more in order to backload his government subsidized income. We are bankrolling his competitive advantage. It is that way with all professional team owners in this age. But don't take my word for it. Sports economist Victor Matheson makes the case:

Teams aren’t in the business of making sure to generate a lot of money for the local bar across the street .... They’re in the business of selling you the $11 beer ... once you’re inside the stadium.

In the end, Karl Dean and Rich Riebeling and Jerry Maynard and Erica Gilmore and Megan Barry and every other stadium supporter are hawking a bill of goods and a gallon of snake oil to justify spending tens of millions for what is nothing more than corporate welfare to keep a very wealthy real estate kingpin from pleading poverty and moving the team out of Nashville. As if we don't hear everyday how Nashville is such a hot commodity that people choose to stay without being bought and paid for. As long as we swallow the myth that rich big shots require our tax dollars we will simply look the other way as these budget busting overages continue to roll in.

We can choose to bury our heads in the sand under the pretense of supporting the local team and North Nashville, but how long can we afford to keep doing that?

 Play ball, Megan Barry?  Pay bills!

Advocate for short term rental property owners: " outweigh council members who try to protect neighborhoods"

I received an email blast from an organizer of short term rental property owners who oppose regulations of their industry. By way of introduction, short term rental properties provide lodging options for tourists outside of the hotel industry and B&Bs. The number of rental options in residential areas has exploded in the last 5 years throughout the city in part because they are not regulated and they are tax-free.

The letter is stunning for its candor:

There will be another Community Meeting about the STRP Bill at the Martin Professional Development Center at 2400 Fairfax Avenue on Monday, November 24 at 5:30.

Likely topics of discussion: the companion bill introduced last night, insurance, property value, neighborhood compatibility. The most effective participation at this meeting will be people who can speak positively about the short term rental experience in the context of neighborhood culture. There may be some new voices added to this conversation who object to the concept "in their backyard."

It is critical to get this bill passed. Until we do, we are all in a very uncomfortable position. Who knows how many people will get tax letters next month? Deciding how to handle this has been excruciating since we have received different (almost opposite) pieces of advice from multiple professionals. The conundrum of applying for a business license (which you are supposed to have in order to pay these taxes) with a residential address is a huge obstacle. The fact that codes says one thing and finance says another when we call metro makes knowing what to do difficult. The hosts that I have discussed this with are not fighting the tax, but unsure how to proceed in this very ambiguous situation in order to protect themselves from penalties.

As one host eloquently articulated at our meeting last night before council, we must appeal to those council members who want to see the tax revenue added to the coffers. We need those people to outweigh the council members who are trying to protect neighborhoods. I am frequently the loudest voice on this topic, but I think this need to protect the culture of the neighborhood is misplaced. I think it comes from people who do not understand that short term rentals are operating in their neighborhoods right now, and they are not even aware of it.

We also need to consider getting some trusted neighbors who are not hosts to write in favor of this bill. I am more than happy to compose a sample message for us to offer to those people that we know are happy to have us.Often, people are willing to send a letter of support, but they don't have time to write it. If any one would like this message, let me know. I plan to work on it after I hear what people say at the next community meeting.

Actually, I'm starting to become aware of homes in my neighborhood that are being used for short term rentals. Whether it occurs to the organizer or not, I am more concerned with not knowing that there are unregulated short term rentals in my neighborhood.

I certainly hope that neighborhood associations who are concerned about the untrammeled growth of short term rental properties in their communities are watchdogging this process. They need to make sure that their quality of life is protected by Metro government, which tends to cave to any money-making enterprise.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The gang of three and their weak tea

The last time we saw the 3 mayoral candidates--Charles Robert Bone, Jeremy Kane and Megan Barry--together in North Nashville it was 3 months ago for the town hall meeting held in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. In August and then in September I pointed out that none of three had said anything meaningful about how to deal with either the militarization of police or the problem of police brutality in predominantly African American neighborhoods.

I'm not aware of any promises or policy proposals that any of these candidates made on the subject in October. Now, after 100 days, on the eve of a grand jury decision on the shooting, with Missouri in a declared state of emergency and protests planned around the nation (including Chattanooga), these candidates made a second appearance in North Nashville this week. Nothing has changed. They still offer scant insight regarding what they are willing to do to deter a Ferguson from happening in Nashville.

Not only did they fail to address the question again, but their solutions for equality of prosperity leave something to be desired:

Bone, who spoke first, said investment and attention on downtown Nashville isn’t being felt in all neighborhoods, even just five miles from the city’s core, where the forum took place.

“In many respects, we sit 50 miles away,” said Bone, an attorney. “As a city, I think we should have the obligation to keep our foot on the gas, but at the same time to be very intentional about taking the investment and that prosperity that some of us are seeing and pushing it out to communities like Bordeaux and North Nashville.”

Barry...was unequivocal about the state of the city: “There’s a lot of work still to do.” She briefly spoke about economic investment, education, social justice and transit.

“Neighborhoods are what knit all of this together,” Barry said. “I will make sure the neighborhoods we cherish exist even though all that economic development is coming.”

Taking only a slightly different approach, LEAD Academy charter school founder Kane used his time on the microphone to recount his family’s involvement in underserved neighborhoods.

He said that while the candidates agreed on Nashville’s needs, the difference would be the solutions they pursue. He said he has the track record in the school he founded and in his community service.

He said he wants to make sure the city’s reputation for nonprofit giving, entrepreneurship and strong faith improves all places.

What each of these candidates is offering North Nashville is not bold. It is weak tea for our edification. The vision for governing our communities must be larger than the trickle down strategies of Mr. Bone. The next mayor has to do more than merely make sure that neighborhoods "exist" amidst exclusive prosperity, as CM Barry suggests. Mr. Kane's claims that philanthropy and entrepreneurship are answers to preventing the destructive side of economic growth seem short-sighted, paternalistic and unsound.

These are all just the extension of Mayor Karl Dean's policies and practices, which have not been good for North Nashville. No less significantly, they still do not offer anything to address police militarization and brutality, which are issues that continue to be important and unresolved to North Nashville residents. Do these candidates really understand their audience when they come into our community? They all seem more at home in West Nashville.

The gang of three minimize the disjuncture of Metro Nashville's financial investments in big business downtown and the shrinking resources for services to neighborhoods outside of the Courthouse sphere of opulence. Many of our communities are dislocated from the rising wealth focused on the tourism, hospitality and entertainment industries. Unchecked economic growth, leveraged by self-serving developers, tends to cause untrammeled gentrification of North Nashville neighborhoods, driving folks of more modest income out while dismantling diversity.

With that kind of dislocation, police may be more prone to mobilize to protect the movers and shakers if movements appear to protest the injustices. With whom will Metro Police identify in neighborhoods bypassed by subsidized wealth? What kind of patience and forbearance will cops show for people who orbit far and away from the inner bands of Music City influence?

We can be sure that Metro Nashville will protect its huge investments in Nashville's wealthiest private enterprises. Local government cannot afford to lose its corporate welfare wager. Will the police follow suit? How they will treat the 99% as well as dissenters remains open to question. But let us be crystal clear: they have the firepower to suppress popular dissent, especially non-violent civil disobedience, if they choose to; they have a militarized arsenal suited for urban warfare if necessary.

And Ferguson showed that when cops march against protesters a good number of innocent bystanders and local neighborhoods are dealt the unjust collateral damage.

For Nashville's mayoral candidates to continue to fail to address the capacity of Metro Police to exercise different standards in North Nashville neighborhoods than they do elsewhere indicates to me that none of them is truly serious about being mayor of all of Nashville.

Ferguson will stay on our radar. When will it appear on theirs?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Karl Dean wants to be known of late as the kinder and gentler mayor

We shouldn't be shocked that the same Tennessean newspaper that anointed Nashville Mayor Karl Dean back-to-back "Tennessean of the Year" (2010, 2011) published another obsequious editorial this week, penned by Frank Daniels III, celebrating Hizzoner. (An interesting side note: former Tennessean reporter Michael Cass wrote both "Tennessean of the Year" tributes to Mayor Dean; Mr. Cass was recently hired to be the Mayor's speech writer.) Nashville's daily paper has been an unfailing, unflinching advocate of this mayor his entire tenure in the Courthouse.

The editorial provides a rebranding of Hizzoner into a kinder and gentler mayor than he has actually been when attempting to and succeeding in his steamrolls of expensive capital projects that benefit wealthy campaign donors more than common neighborhoods.

Somewhat insulting our intelligence, Mr. Daniels III claims that Mayor Dean lavished "lots of sidewalks" on us, when in reality so many communities outside of downtown languish with no pedestrian access and egress. Some parents still have to walk their kids to school on streets close to dangerous traffic for lack of sidewalks. It was only when he needed council votes for an $18 million downtown luxury sidewalk that Mayor Dean offered to be kinder than usual to other neighborhoods. Otherwise, his spending on community infrastructure relative to his sexier projects has been stingy.

Try to rebrand Karl the Kind as they might, the newspaper cannot convince some of us to forget the original, industrial-strength brand of Mayor's Office that has benignly neglected communities for years.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

North Nashville event this weekend: preservation talk and walk at Beaman Park

Friends of Beaman Park has started a capital campaign to raise funds to stabilize and restore the 100-year-old barn on the Proctor Farm Trailhead in the park. As part of that campaign they are sponsoring a talk (at the park's nature center) followed by a tour of the barn:

Last month the Tennessean interviewed Mr. Grau:

Historical restoration expert and contractor Gary Grau examined the barn on behalf of the friends’ group, finding it in mostly fair condition, with leaks in the roof and damaged support posts, flooring and walls. Past repair attempts introduced materials that didn’t match its original poplar construction.

Grau said the gambrel-style “Dutch barn” roof is of special interest because of its size and its wind-resistant rounded shape.

Restoration makes sense, he said, especially as the number of such barns still standing dwindles. He said the site could be used for events and demonstrations.

“The restored barn should be such that when visitors step inside, they step back in time and are able to visually experience what early primitive farm life looked like,” Grau wrote in his report.

Beaman is one of the more unique parks in Nashville, and so we plan to attend. It is a short drive from Salemtown. We are excited about the restoration project as well as the formal opening of the Proctor Farm Trailhead in the future.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Bells Bend photos: Nashville's vanishing back country

Last week I attended a meeting in Bells Bend and was rewarded with breathtaking views from the home of one of the Bend's protective residents. While I have made many visits to Bells Bend over the years (the agricultural community is less than a 20 minute drive from Salemtown), this was the first time I had ever seen it from this vantage point.

Places like Bells Bend are always targeted by developers and planners for urbanization. Not too long ago developers wanted to put a second downtown on Bells Bend. A Democratic Party insider who currently runs the communication office of a declared candidate for the Mayor's Office supported that plan and impugned the community's culture as "sleepy" and referred to the nonmonetized value of the Bend as "dirt". Thank goodness such foolishness was turned back by a community that organized other neighborhoods to oppose the plan, built a network of farmers and entrepreneurs to provide proactive influence and encouraged Metro planners to consider a different vision.

As I surveyed the view of the undeveloped land between me and the Cumberland River, so close to downtown, I thought it would be a matter of time before the next developer lusted to pave over the natural beauty or some politico foolishly argued that there was nothing in the Bend. We need to be ready to defend the Bend again when they do.