Tuesday, March 01, 2011

"The Anatomy of the Sulphur Dell Sales Pitch" or "How Ballparks Become More Important Than Museums"

I am a huge baseball fan. I love the history. I love the game.

I have been to many Sounds games in the last 20 years. We were Sounds season ticket holders at one point. One of my prized possessions is a homerun ball hit out of Greer Stadium by Prince Fielder. Nelson Cruz's record-setting Major League extra-base hits in the 2010 playoffs reminded me of how he hit the league-winning homerun in 2005 as a Sound.

I participated in riverfront development community charrettes on locating a baseball field in places like the thermal plant site and the East Bank. I eventually grudgingly endorsed the ill-fated plan for the Sounds to move to a mixed-use development at the thermal site based on what seemed to be a minimal maintenance cost to Metro while keeping baseball in Nashville.

Quite logically this might lead you to believe that I would be a natural fit for a "Friends of Sulphur Dell" (whose main purpose is to, in the words of founder Jason Powell, recruit "champions" to promote a ballpark for the Sounds on the historic site). If that is the case, think again. I am a fan, but I do not forget that building a baseball field pretty much amounts to politics not to be treated blindly or uncritically.

I grew up in a Major League town. I've seen the positives and the negatives enough to know that the halcyon dreams pitched to sell stadiums rarely deliver to the degree they say they will. Owners usually get their pound of flesh at the expense of municipal governments and elected officials usually hitch their wagon to the dream of gravy trains and pro-league popularity. It doesn't usually matter who else may be harmed in the process.

When Salemtown leaders asked me about the stadium proposal given my sports interests, I was plain in describing some of the risks involved and the questions that would need to be answered to my satisfaction as a Salemtown resident first and fan second. The association seemed to share some of my concerns and they asked me to be their representative to Jason's new mission, even though I knew I would not fit in as one of Jason's "champs."

As far as I know, FOSD has held one meeting for North End neighborhood leaders: last April 17. At least that was the only one I was invited to as one of the Salemtown reps. For a long time I listened to the rah-rah on a stadium, economic development, and increased property values without saying a word. When I finally got my turn to speak I repeated Salemtown's questions about traffic, infrastructure demands, and growth, as well as the impact of those on developing a sustainable, pedestrian community.

Jason seemed to respond with an interest in having those questions addressed as soon as possible. I agreed to work with CM Erica Gilmore and the Nashville Civic Design Center to sponsor some community meetings on the issue.

After a considerable delay because of the May flood and then some e-mails to NCDC officials that went unanswered, I found out last fall that a couple of pro-stadium FOSD leaders had already met with NCDC Director Gary Gaston without any reference to holding community meetings. When Mr. Gaston finally got back to me he showed little interest in having community meetings and wrote that architecture students were already working on ballpark concepts for Sulphur Dell and other places, and that the community could attend a reception for the showing of those drawings. That showing has yet to happen.

In the meantime, Nashville City Paper Metro beat reporter Joey Garrison wrote several stories in 2010 that included references to Sulphur Dell as a possible site for the baseball stadium. His last one focused on Jason Powell's group and described it as "grassroots" without any substantiation. Garrison wrote the piece from a position sympathetic to FOSD and without reference to any other questions that were being asked in the neighborhoods.

In my opinion  FOSD's stance could not be called grassroots in the sense that support bubbled up from the community. The expressed intention has always been to gather stadium supporters first, convince neighbors that building the stadium would be good for our economic development second, and allow community feedback to influence the agenda somewhere lower down the list. That is more grass-fertilizing than grassroots.

This episode is chocked full of irony. One is that Hope Gardens is coming off a tough community meeting with Free at Last Bail Bonding, which is locating one of their facilities on Jefferson Street, thus increasing some residents' concerns. Shoot-from-the-hip, no-questions-asked commitments to economic development is risky. Another irony is that the Nashville Civic Design Center is fresh off developing a master plan for the Fairgrounds that was disregarded and laughed at by appointed leaders, but not by the community. Gary Gaston seems to have soldiered on with a top-down model of bringing in architects to market to the community rather than consulting the community first. A final irony is that Joey Garrison is branded as knowing "all the moving parts in the Sounds stadium discussion," but he has generally ignored the community discussion about this as well as any possible impact on local neighborhoods. Either Garrison is not paying attention to all of the moving parts or the community parts do not matter to him as much as the major players' parts.

Stadium supporters spin Sulphur Dell as a place to which fans would drive, park and then walk to patronize restaurants on Jefferson Street. The gateway to Jefferson Street at Rosa Parks is hardly pedestrian friendly as it is. It's an auto crossroads, and its four corners currently have paved parking lots, and two of the four anchor gas stations. The recently approved North Nashville plan calls for making this corridor denser and more pedestrian-friendly, yet for 72 evenings/afternoons each summer a new stadium--short on assurances or calming measures--would bring traffic patterns that rival the work-day Downtown rush/crunch on Rosa Parks (which is a state highway). Stadium supporters refuse to acknowledge the contradiction.

But at least one person who says he attended old Sulphur Dell games as a kid responds to Joey Garrison's reporting by recalling parking problems that some of us are warning now:
Parking at Sulfur Dell was an issue back in the late 1950's early 1960's and it's far worse of an issue today. I think those considering the old Sulfur Dell site needs to go to the newspaper archives and read about all the issues with this site prior to getting their hopes up on building a field of dreams unless you want to bulldoze Farmers Market, the Memorial area and streets up for a baseball park and parking.
For all of nostalgic homage that we are now seeing at The City Paper, their sense of historical accuracy or realism seems lacking. Parenthetically, let us also recall that not too many years ago it was The City Paper that was trying to rebrand Sulphur Dell to "The Market District" to signify trendier real estate. The reportage there may be pushed along in whatever direction prevailing winds blow.

Anyone who has attended Nashville Sounds games knows that Greer Stadium is a pedestrian desert: you park and walk to Greer, but the area around it is like a dead zone. No restaurants. No pubs. No retail. Most things fans demand are contained within the stadium, which begs the question: if the Sounds provided these amenities at a new Sulphur Dell site, why would there be any need for fans to walk a couple of blocks to patronize Jeff St. or Germantown businesses? If I can buy a Yazoo pint before the game at a restaurant overlooking rightfield, why bother to walk to City House and have one? More importantly, how come Friends of Sulphur Dell are not demanding guarantees from Metro that the neighborhoods around a new ballpark will not blight like those around Greer have?

The other unexplored challenge at hand is to remain vigilant that North Nashville will not come up on the short end of the stick when being used as a bargaining chip between Metro government and business special interests that are too big to fail to get what they want. North Nashville has historically been treated as an illegitimate bastard child that either gets used or dumped on.

None of us who live in the North End should want the Mayor's Office taking a position on Sulphur Dell that is not genuine and used instead to leverage more favorable concessions from the Sounds ownership in order to end up at the thermal site, in the North Gulch or on the East Bank. Otherwise, all of these lures of economic development will evaporate like plans for the 2010 groundbreaking at Jeff St and Rosa Parks of the Museum of African American Music, Art and Culture. The City Paper stopped reporting on that Bicentennial Mall development about the time they started ratcheting up Sulphur Dell. Why is a museum any less important than a ballpark?

I am a baseball fan who could support minor league baseball near my neighborhood, but a lot of conditions have to be met for me to do so. One of the most important conditions is that the concerns of my neighbors have to be heard and heeded at this stage of the planning process rather than being managed as afterthoughts.


  1. If they build the Sounds Stadium at Sulfur Dell, I'm going to rent one of those new apartments off of Jefferson and Fifth. Sounds + Museum of African American Music, Art, Culture ='s thriving progressive neighborhood. There is going to me plenty of things to do and new people to meet in the Germantown and Salemtown neighborhoods if the stadium is built in that area. It will surely be a very lively and exciting area of Nashville. The Germantown and Salemtown area could potentially be the next Broadway or Second Ave especially during the spring and summer when the Sounds are playing.

  2. For starters, I too, am a baseball. I grew up in St. Louis and have lived in Nasvhille since 1981. I'd say you can guess who my favorite team is.
    I'd like to stress one point: the most successful 'growth' in Nasville has been organic. If you look at The 12th South District, East Nashville and to some extent The Gulch you find areas that were not created by past mayors, committees nor out of town consultants but be entrepreneurs who found opportunities for a variety of reasons. These reasons include evolving neighborhoods, changing demographics, affordable rents, etc. That said, I don't buy the notion that a new baseball stadium will spur development. So, I'd be looking for a location that already has some synergies in place that help spur game attendance. The other choice: a location where the stadium can successfully stand on its own. I don't think the Dean or past administrations have demonstrated the ability 'pick the right spot.' To be honest, it's a tough call. But to tell us, "Hey, we can justify spending this money because it will spur growth," is disingenuous and more like fortune telling. And especially so if the endeavor does not succeed financially. Maybe we don't need to rush to build a new stadium. Going back to my organic growth point, it could be that the fruit ain't quite ripe enough to pick.

  3. Anoymous, Lower Broad, 2nd Ave and Printers Alley are hot because every night there is something going on. Primarily, it's the clubs, honky tonks and restaurants. When there are concerts at the arena, shows at the Ryman or riverfront, then things heat up even more. I don't think that part of town can be duplicated anywhere in Nashville. Going back to my argument that organic growth (free market, for lack of a better term) is the best approach to things, the stadium will not be key. It's would simply be a part of and more of a beneficiary of what is already happening in the Germantown area. The real question is what will happen in this area even if there were no stadium there. That said, it could be a good location. But the stadium won't make or break it. Pieces of a puzzle need to fit. Finding that fit is the challenge.

  4. I would add, that going to a Preds game or Ryman concert often means people saying, "We can make a night of it. We'll hit the game, then Lower Broad."

    The Lower Broad aspect helps "spur" some people into buying that Preds game or Ryman ticket.

    Is Sulpher Dell close enough to downtown to be part of the "package?"

    Is a stadium at the thermal plant too close to downtown? (Think parking... in relation to the kind of person who goes to minor league ball. Predators are based on season ticket holders. The fans expect and will deal with parking issues. Minor league baseball fans are different. They are not hardcore, but more into a 'baseball nite.' If it is a pain to take the kids aand costs a lot to park, a lot of baseball fans who go to Greer will not go downtown. So think of the 'end user' aspect.)

    These are the organic aspects I have been speaking of. I'm not offering an answer. Just things to think about.

  5. The historical aspect of Sulper Dell shoud have nothing to do with it being a possible site. Like Barner says, the practical concerns are what really matters. Dean is just using the historical aspect for PR. Since he has no regard for the history and potential of the fairgrounds, why is he using the history aspect for a new stadium? Because it means money for those who builds it. Tearing down the raceway and fairgrounds means more money for him to pass around than a renovation. If Waltrip and Curb get to invest in the fairgrounds, it means Dean is not able to insure his friends the money that would come from a total redevelopment. If Dean truly had a vision for Nashville, he wouldn't be asking outsiders to decide where to put a stadium. Or what to do with the fairgrounds. I mistakenly voted for this guy. And what dissapoints me most is not his ideas, but his methods which are under the table and heavy-handed. He literally has no respect for his constituients. He is turning into a first-class fool.

  6. I heard today that Dean wants to tear down Municipal Auditorium. Yes, it's old and funky. But it is still a venue. The Nashville Roller Girls roller derby team just moved their bouts there because they outgrew the 1100 person seating at the fairgrounds. Without the fairgrounds, this entrepreneurial endeavor would probably not have been able to get off the ground. Last year at municipal auditorium, they had 3,000 fans per bout. This year they expect 4,500 per bout.
    What is Dean thinking? I am absolutely disgusted. I am pro convention center, but I thought Dean would balance it with other interests - the interests of our citizens. He is tearing down every venue that is available to regular citizens. The guy just wants some 'Crystal City.' He has lost his mind. When will Metro Council wake up? Megan Barry. You have lost my vote and more importantly, my confidence in you to lead. I am SO disappointed in you. Dean is destroying our city. And he thinks a minor league baseball stadium is the answer? Dean, you suck. So does Jim Hester, your short, fat, loud-mouthed and stupid advisor who used to be a man of the people. Now, he just sucks your d**k.

  7. I interrupt this discussion to remind readers of blog manners. While I referee comments on Enclave I rarely disapprove them here unless they cross lines toward extreme prejudice or promote criminal behavior (the exception is spam commenting, which always gets the boot).

    The last comment regarding Mr. Hester is inappropriate in my book, but I approved it because Mr. Barner signs his name and is willing to be held accountable by others. However, I did consider disallowing it very carefully. If it had been made anonymously, I wouldn't have let it through my filter.

    Mr. Boyer: while I did approve your comment, I would encourage you to take the high road and focus on the issues and avoid what strike me as wild, unfocused attacks on persons. Many of us are frustrated with the Mayor's Office like you are but also shrink from needless ad hominem. I'm not threatening to censor you. I'm only making a gentle appeal to avoid the kinds of comments made in your last sentence above.

  8. Hester is a close, personal friend of mine. I have known him for fifteen years. I slightly regret this comment, but several days ago at Fido's, he introduced me to a Dean staff-member. He said, "This is Boyer. Mr. race-way. He's lost his mind." Then he laughted.

    At one of the "big council meetings," he also said to Megan Barry, "He's lost his mind."

    When debating whether or not to post my comment, I thought about what Hester said to me in the coffee shop. As far as I'm concerned, he took the first shot across the bow.

    And for the record, he's become quite a punk since Dean was elected. He has lost his moral compass.

    (I know my comments can be over the top at times. As the former publisher of InReview newspaper, I have no problem with you editing or not posting my comments).

  9. BTW,
    Mayor Dean owns a pet duck.