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.