Friday, May 06, 2011

Ready to buy that Sulphur Dell ballpark idea? Nashville's neighbor to the north has a cautionary tale about new ballparks

Besides getting his open space plan back on track recently, another reason Mayor Karl Dean is paying part-timer and former Bredesenista Jim Fyke $60,000 is to recreate the appearance of progress on a proposed baseball field. Hence, this week's news from Southcomm's Field-of-Dreams reporter Joey Garrison that Mr. Fyke is leading a feasibility study that will explore possible sites in Riverfront Park, in SoBro, on the East Bank, and finally, at Sulphur Dell in the North End.

Word on the street is that the Mayor's Office is inclined toward Sulphur Dell and has been instrumental in fostering support in council and among some neighborhood leaders for it. Still unknown is whether Karl Dean's rumored support for the Sulphur Dell option is authentic or is a tactical position designed to leverage Nashville Sounds ownership either to make concessions or to quit pursuit of a new ballpark altogether. I'm hearing that the old thermal site at Riverfront is off the table because of preferences of wealthy donors for an amphitheater there.

According to Garrison's reporting the feasibility study is supposed to look at impact on the neighborhoods (which is more than the cheer-leading neighborhood groups like the ones from Hope Gardens and Harrison Lofts) have suggested we consider. Traffic impact analyses are also called for, but no mention of mass transit is made. This is another factor that those of us who could live close to a stadium should keep an eye on. It is particularly bothersome that ballpark chatter continues in the wake of an announcement to build a light rail corridor across East and West Nashville without reference to service to North Nashville. One has only to look at the unsustainable asphalt wasteland around Greer to fear the impact of unabated vehicular traffic on game evenings around the Bicentennial Mall environs.

But unanswered questions are not the only obstacle to a new ballpark. Compounding the prospect of large capital projects is the stark reality that Nashville is already in hock to two existing pro sports facilities and a huge convention center construction project. For those who would gloss over the risks of financially backing a fourth capital project in fits of "civic design," journalist Charles Maldonado has a firm dose of long-term reality that term-limited Mayor's do not have to live down:

Paying off the debt on those bond issues will have cost Metro more than $1.8 billion between when they were first issued and 2043, when the convention center debt is scheduled to be put to rest. Only $310 million of that — which will be Metro’s total debt service costs for the two LP Field bonds — was approved in a popular vote.

Meanwhile, Metro’s faced tens of millions of dollars in budget shortfalls every year for the past couple of years. Last year saw the Health Department cut 5 percent. The general government’s budget called for the elimination of 250 full-time positions. Public safety cuts were set at only $800,000, but that followed $8.3 million in cuts the year before. At the beginning of the past decade, Public Works’ budget was more than $90 million. That went down to $66 million last year. Federal grants, mostly, account for its rebound to $81 million this year. And even as it saw a $13 million increase in its budget, the school board privatized its custodial services, reducing wages for hundreds of janitors.

Credit: Zombie matryoshka art
It is almost as if we would be making a choice between the luxury of a new ballpark and the Metro services on which we rely for our quality of life, especially since those services would be obligated to cover any future shortfalls in convention center construction. I read the findings and see these special projects as zombie matryoshka deals: nested, multi-layered menaces to otherwise straightforward Metro budget priorities.

The other thing to underscore in Maldonado's report is that there is no one in the entire umbrella of Metro governance gathering and tabulating the numbers that might confirm or deny claims about the positive impact of these major capital builds that serve narrow special interests. He searched and probed but could find no one enlisted to verify the promises made about football and hockey venues or the Music City Center. Friends of Sulphur Dell and election-year-ebullient CMs Jerry Maynard and Erica Gilmore are making wishful claims they cannot support: that the economic impact for our North End neighborhoods and for North Nashville in general justifies the risks involved. It's easy to exaggerate the benefits when no one will be around to hold you accountable for your promises.

But there are independent analysts who are interested in accounting for the proposed successes and the abject failures of these facilities. We do not have to wander too far outside of Middle Tennessee to find one. David Sirota, who confronts his own monster in the form of the "vampire squid," explains how a new stadium deal, captained by Goldman Sachs (remember Goldman? They are the primary financiers of Nashville's new convention center at a cost of $5.5 million) is taking down one of our Kentucky neighbors:

Louisville's major problem was its desperate need for a new arena. That's when the bank swooped in with a "financing strategy" to build the stadium, which then supposedly led to "a vibrant downtown scene, where new businesses are opening, existing businesses are expanding and local restaurants are hiring more employees."

The ad exposes the bailed-out bank's secret fears and goals. Tarnished by SEC charges of stock fraud, Senate committee allegations of misconduct and widespread revelations about its shady business practices, Goldman wants to reassure current and potential clients that it's a straight shooter. In the Vanity Fair fable, Goldman thus casts itself as the altruistic hero, expecting readers to never Google "KFC Yum! Center," much less visit a place like Louisville, to verify the fairy tale.

It's a safe public relations wager -- but not without risk. For if you do bother to click around the Internet, you'll inevitably find that the Louisville metro area is anything but a "vibrant" picture of job growth. Today, it is suffering from an 11 percent unemployment rate -- much higher than the national rate. It's also facing a $22 million budget shortfall ....

As a result, Louisville's already-strapped government "may be on the hook for an extra $3.3 million beginning in 2012."

That's because, as Goldman admits on its website, the deal was funded by a massive commitment of public revenues from taxpayers. If the arena isn't generating tax receipts committed to funding this $200-million-plus "Tax Incremental Financing" scheme, then taxpayers have to come up with that public money from somewhere else -- most likely, from cuts to social services or from tax hikes.

That part about a city needing to come up with public money to pay for the capital project dreams of bankers hits close to home. Louisville's experience should make us a little more cautious and considerate. I'm not saying we should consider a new ballpark with fear and trembling (although there are perfectly reasonable people who do). However, an ambivalent and stoic slow-walk would be worth our while.


  1. There is a reason we call minor league baseball the "minor leagues."

    We don't need a new baseball stadium.

    Dean should tackle some real problems.

  2. I roll my eyes whenever "traffic impact" is mentioned in big projects. I'm sooo tired of that "consideration." Let's drop it. Pro or con for anything, traffic is gonna be here. And on things like a new ball park, traffic is only temporary (during games). It is such a lame point.

  3. Traffic in your neighborhood for 74 home games is a valid point. The sounds have 74 this year. 62 at night.
    74 home games = 1/5th of the year. I would say that qualifies as "impact" on a neighborhood.

    Revamp Greer stadium at the current site. Take a portion of the savings and revamp the Fairgrounds.

    This whole tear it down because it needs upgrading does nothing but put tax payers in deeper debt and makes the developers more money.

    Renew, don't destroy!

  4. No matter what you build or where you build it, you will have traffic, Herr Smiley.

    I beleive in keeping the current ballpark. I think it is a great location.

    But people always whine about traffic. Ten years ago, I cud make a left on Belmont during rush hour within 30 seconds. Now, I can't.

    I don.t use it to back my arguments, like Megan Barry does or SNAP as a reason to shut down the track.

    So don't use traffic as a reason to stop a project. You're brighter than that. Same with you, Mr. Enclave.