Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Making a year-end donation to the Nashville Symphony

I have a long-standing practice of donating any Google Ad revenue checks from this blog to worthwhile local non-profits who give so much back to the community. Past causes I've donated to include: Fisk University, Buena Vista Enhanced Option School, Cumberland River Compact, Second Harvest Food Bank, 88.1 WFSK FM, North Nashville Flood Relief Group, Nashville Jazz Workshop, Friends of Nashville Farmers' Market, and the Cheatham Place Kids Christmas Party.

The travails of a significant source of cultural exposure to music not called "country" prompted my latest donation. A letter I just put in the mail:





December 31, 2013

Nashville Symphony
One Symphony Place
Nashville, TN 37201-2031

Dear Symphony Staff:
Thanks to the patronage of advertisements by readers of my community blog, “Enclave:  Nashville North-by-Northwest,” I am happy to pass on $200 that I recently received from Google Ads to the Nashville Symphony as designated gifts. I have pledged to use advertising profits to support community organizations, particularly those in and near the urban core.
In donating I affirm the Nashville Symphony’s mission “to achieving the highest standard for excellence in musical performance and educational programs, while engaging the community, enriching audiences and shaping cultural life.” This gift is also intended as acknowledgement of the strides that your organization made in the face of daunting challenges in 2013.
In that spirit, I ask that you please divide this donation evenly:
·       $100 should go to the musicians' union, which last August ratified a 15% pay cut to help save the symphony's important role in the community
·       $100 should go to the symphony's education programs for youth, children and public school students because of the potential to enrich the cultural growth of future generations
I trust that this money will help in some small way fulfill your mission to make our community a better place to live, to work, and to visit by enhancing what you do.  And so, I am pleased to be able to give back to my local community.  I also hope that you will consider my donation as a vote of confidence in your worthwhile efforts along with an expression of best wishes for 2014.
Warm regards,

Michael Byrd


If any worthy organization deserves to have a new year better than 2013 it is the Nashville Symphony. Bank of America almost took them under but by summer they were saved from bankruptcy. Unfortunately, the jobs of food service workers who probably needed those paychecks were lost. Other staff had their salaries cut.

For their part the musicians voted against their own interest: they voluntarily took a cut in pay to help the symphony keep plugging. Often, and especially in conservative states like Tennessee, unions are smeared as selfish and destructive. Very rarely are they celebrated when they vote to reduce their own paychecks to help out their employers. Such sacrifice is a service to our local community, and it ought to humble the rest of us, since musicians have to pay their bills too. With this modest donation I celebrate the sacrifice of the musicians.

I also celebrate the important role that music plays the public education of Nashville's children. I am happy to support this project.

I hope you will join me in feeling encouraged to remember the Nashville Symphony when you decide to donate. And thank you for clicking on the ads in 2013. It made this donation possible.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 27, 2013

When it comes to building minor league ballparks, "politicians will promise anything", says story on FBI probe into ballpark financing

Reading this report on the business of minor league ballpark construction gives me pause to wonder what kind of racket Nashville might be getting itself into with the "public-private partnership" at Sulphur Dell. Bloomberg shares the historical context within which the ballpark bubble has emerged:


From 1993 to 2003, at least 86 minor-league baseball stadiums collectively costing almost $1.5 billion opened in the U.S. and Canada with at least partial public funding, according to public documents and local news reports. It was the biggest boom in the more than 100-year history of minor-league baseball, almost 60 percent more than the number that opened in the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt used ballpark construction to create jobs during the Great Depression.

Almost $1.3 billion of the funding for the construction was backed by taxpayers, according to the documents and reports. The average price of the stadiums almost doubled to $21.5 million in the last six years of the boom, from $12 million in the first five years.

The price rose as localities dueled for teams that follow the profits generated by new stadiums, said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who studies stadium financing. To get taxpayer support, politicians too often make promises that don't come to fruition, leaving localities to cover debt payments and maintenance costs that sap funds that could be spent on parks, schools, or police, he said.

"If taxpayers are supporting a stadium because they believe it'll help their city socially and culturally, then fine," Zimbalist said. "If they're doing it because they've been sold a bill of goods that it'll be a boost to the economy, then no, it's not a good expenditure of funds."


That part about FDR needs a caveat: his administration was building ballparks as public works projects to create jobs, and it was federally funded and more accountable to constituents than businesses would have been. Today's "public-private partnerships" operate with little accountability to taxpayers because while public wealth may transfer to private businesses, the latter are not directly answerable to voters. When government goes wrong we can kick the bums out. When big business chooses not to live up to bargains, those of us affected by their failure have little power to stop them. These partnerships give politicians deniability since they can point fingers at private corporations for not realizing their own promises to their constituents.

Ballparks built nowadays rise within a vicious circle of unfettered irresponsibility and unchecked greed.

Within that circle, Nashville is actually behind the curve given the historical context. In coming late to the crap shoot has Hizzoner opened us up to undue risk? The Mayor's Office went all in, hawking the ballpark myths of economic growth to what is impugned as a decaying Jefferson Street corridor. He is making more promises that cannot be sustained. He is out of office in a couple of years and will not be held responsible for any aftermath.

But according to Bloomberg the costs eclipse the promises of growth:

Of the 86 stadiums built from 1993 to 2003, at least 26 used taxpayer funding to pay for debt service and maintenance when elected officials said they wouldn't, failed to meet economic-development projections or lost the teams that said they would play there, the documents and news reports show.

The 26 collectively cost $490 million, with 90 percent of that backed by taxpayers.

Almost a third of all new minor league stadiums built over a decade failed to pay the debt service as promised, did not spur economic growth or lost the teams they were built for even as almost all of the projects were subsidized by taxpayers. There is a distinct chance, then, that one or more of these problems could visit the heavily subsidized Sulphur Dell ballpark. That would be calamitous for Jefferson Street and bad for Nashville.

But few here seem interested in talking about the risks, which would inevitably require us to also talk about ways to shelter ourselves against the risks, which provokes powerful people like Jerry Maynard to cry that we scare ball clubs and developers off. Asking realistic questions about counting the cost of our behavior is labeled as "negativity"; but only labeled as such by irresponsible people.

Minor league money pit watchdogged at Preserve Ramapo
If you are fearless and open to cautionary tales about publicly subsidized ballparks, you should read the rest of this sobering Christmas Day report on the New York minor league town that bought the promises, replicated the major league experience with a minor league park and then watched their credit rating cut and a crisis ensue, which prompted the FBI investigation into the mess.

It may represent an extreme scenario, but it is obviously within the realm of possibility for any minor league town, along with other probabilities of risk short of any extreme.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

This is what the ballpark architects have in mind for baseball in the North Capitol area?

Days ago the state signed off on the preliminary designs presented for a new Sulphur Dell ballpark for the Nashville Sounds. The architects' gift to the Jefferson Street corridor:

Sulphur Dell as the architects see it


These concepts for a new ballpark strike me as vintage-rest-stop. 1950s-style modernist flat top roofs bolstered by geometrically spartan metal poles: I recall such shelters along highways providing rustic rest for weary automobile drivers in the wonder years of my childhood.


Get your kicks


On the road


Keep on truckin'


Nevertheless, the Sulphur Dell design does not make me feel nostalgic. Some things from our past should not be revived.

If the ballpark design does not strike you as a hangover of the glory days of Route 66 and automobile road trips, then it may well convey a certain prêt-à-carport:



The sheltered car look


Rather than communicating the history of baseball at Sulphur Dell, the preliminary design seems deliberately introduced at odds with that history. It looks more like a stripped and spartan homage to modernist car culture, which I guess seems appropriate, since the Mayor has introduced no plans for moving people safely around Sulphur Dell except in their own cars. If the preliminary designs have nothing to do with car culture, then I have no idea at what the architects are driving, given that it is not a recognizable baseball aesthetic.

And how does the design remotely fit with the downtown and North Nashville community plans?

Double standard: public meetings for east-west solicit community input; public meetings for North Nashville do not

Do I make too much of the unequal expectations between North Nashville and wealthier sections east-west?

I call attention to the primary difference in recent public meeting announcements for the Mayor's proposed bus rapid transit project ("the Amp") and for the Mayor's proposed ballpark project.

The public meetings announcement for the Amp that went out just before Christmas, weeks in advance of mid-January meetings, explicitly invites, practically welcomes "input" across four different meetings for the benefit of affected east-west communities:




In contrast, the announcement for the hastily arranged public meeting for the Sulphur Dell ballpark proposal was issued less than one week beforehand, and it makes no mention of public input, treating those few constituents who showed up during the Thanksgiving break as empty receptacles into which foregone plan and budget explanations would be poured:





Metro's prejudice against participatory democracy and actual community planning in North Nashville is clear to me from these announcements. Minimizing or ignoring it does not make it vanish.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Farm report on the Nashville Sounds' parent club does not sound promising in spite of our newly subsidized ballpark project

Uh-oh:

time will tell if Milwaukee decides to extend its agreement with the Sounds after a highly contentious negotiation session in 2013 ....

[The Sounds and the Brewers] entered into a working agreement in 2005 [after the Brewers were "jilted" by Indianapolis's minor league club due to the question of the Brewers not providing "top quality prospects"] and mutually agreed to continue the partnership through the 2014 season.

As Nashville opens the doors to the new stadium, other Major League clubs looking to find a new affiliate could step up.

And given the track record of Milwaukee’s stadium battle with Nashville, there are multiple reasons whether or not both teams will continue beyond 2014.

It has awful writing, but am I reading the report correctly? We could have a new ballpark in 2015 but no major league affiliate to play in it? Apparently gambling is actually allowed in professional baseball.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

North Gulch gets HCA. West End now has Karl's Bad Cavern

Not too long ago the Hope Gardens neighborhood association went ballistic when Mayor Karl Dean's Music City Center project sent the Greyhound bus terminal packing to an old car dealership in the North Gulch (south of Hope Gardens). In the beginning it was not clear whether the move would be permanent (it eventually turned out not to be) so zealots came out of the woodwork criticizing CM Erica Gilmore for failing to raise more of a stink over the Mayor's plan. One of these critics, who would go on to be a "co-founder" of Friends of Sulphur Dell confided to me in 2010 that he was among of group of people looking for a challenger to run against Ms. Gilmore in 2011 (she won re-election easily).

These same people seemed very quiet to me when in 2011 the North Gulch area was considered as a potential minor league ballpark site, along with Sulphur Dell and the East Bank. Hope Gardens went all in on Sulphur Dell, even though it was not apparent that the North Gulch was any less advantageous, any less walkable for them. In retrospect, I believe it was because the Mayor had already signaled his plans for baseball to return to the Dell, although I see that it is now for much less than historical reasons.

Jump to today where we learn, on the heels of approval of Sulphur Dell as the ballpark site, the latest plan that the North Gulch is going to be used to save the HCA, whose West End Summit plan for two towers and a hotel seemed to have sunk below the surface of the water gathering once again at the bottom of a Midtown crater. The timing of these announcements is looking domino-like: the Sulphur Dell news itself came on the heels of the Mayor's announcement that the Riverfront would be used for something other than a ballpark. This seems to have "grand design" written all over it. However, I wonder how the folk in Hope Gardens are feeling about the new North Gulch plan. I assume that they are relieved that it is not the Greyhound bus terminal they once worried about being stuck with.

Karl's Bad Cavern (formerly the West End Summit site)
And then, there is Midtown. Back in 2012, Karl Dean embraced the West End Summit as if it were his own child:

Slated at an astounding $900,000 million, the project is one of the largest commercial developments in the area's history and is expected to double its current workforce of 1000 within five years, making it also one of the largest economic development projects in the area.

"HCA could have gone out of state for these headquarters but instead chose to grow jobs here in Nashville," said Mayor Karl Dean at an interview. "This project speaks volumes about the vitality of our West End corridor, the talent of our workforce and the vibrancy of our city."

The Mayor's Office issued a statement yesterday that said nothing of what he now thinks of the "vitality of the West End corridor", and it frankly sounds like a relieved, "Whew!"

"We appreciate that HCA is committed to keeping this $200 million investment, the 2,000 jobs and these two headquarters in Davidson County .... HCA has been a great partner throughout this process, and we look forward to working with them as they move forward."

But you can bet that the move of this troubled project to the Gulch (not to mention building an amphitheater for Martha Ingram on the Riverfront) likely had a lot to do with the ballpark ending up at Sulphur Dell. Even with a cavern still sitting on West End, our Mayor is an acknowledged real estate maximizer.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A glaring omission in Karl Dean's usual spiel about his priorities

I have blogged this Mayor since the beginning of his short but happy political life.

The constant refrain from him from launch has been: 1) public safety, 2) fully-funded public schools and 3) economic development. In 2007 in his first meeting as Mayor with neighborhood leaders Karl Dean doubled down on schools and safety as his primary means of addressing neighborhood concerns.

The Mayor has been willing to shutter and curtail other services to keep those three talking points in play. They are the fodder of both of his campaigns for Mayor.

The Mayor has proposed and launched the most expensive capital campaigns in Nashville history, principally serving business special interests, realizing his commitment to economic development. He has also articulated his ambitions to transfer public wealth to corporate pockets through privatization and tax breaks for the wealthy.

Entertaining visitors: good. Educating kids: bad.
Now that he has the term-limited security of not having to run for re-election as Mayor what is he jettisoning? Everything but his economic development plank:

We protected funding for schools and public safety .... However, that does not mean we can afford or should continue the sizeable year over year increases we’ve given the schools in previous budgets.

Note nary a murmur about the excesses of economic development. So, the Mayor, after six years in office, intends to start evaluating how much public education and our safety are costing Nashville even as the excesses of pandering to the business crowd seem more obscene.

How come Hizzoner refuses to reevaluate how much his wanton and promiscuous economic development policies are costing us?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Karl Dean bent on closing public schools

In an analysis of education reformer and recent Nashville transplant Michelle Rhee, Nicholas Lemann traces the business model behind this "reform movement":

education reform proposes to take apart the main structures of schooling in America—a network of districted public schools and a unionized teaching corps. It proposes, as an urgently necessary national project, to replace them with a school system governed by metrics, choice, incentive compensation, and personnel reductions. It is roughly the same prescription that activist investors would apply to an industrial corporation of the same vintage as the education system

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has expressed admiration of Ms. Rhee in the past. The dovetail of his own budget priorities and the proclivity of reformers for corporatist flip of public education was made clear yesterday in Mayor Dean's speech to the Chamber of Commerce.

He intends to close public schools and he is letting the Chamber carry that water for him:


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Council approves the Mayor's nearly-obligation-free deal for the Nashville Sounds tonight

O$$ie wins. Will North Nashville?

Passing Sulphur Dell: the ends of getting a new ballpark do not justify the means used to steamroll democracy

The Mayor's plan for a new ballpark at old Sulphur Dell will pass tonight. It will pass because most bills pass on third and final reading.

More significantly, it will pass because council considered it without proper public vetting given the timing of the holidays and the abject paucity of community meetings. It will pass because the council only pushed negotiations with the Sounds owner to the slightest degree before potential plan opponents began falling like dominoes.

Despite my past support for the Sounds and their previous plan for a new ballpark, I will not be able to lend my support to passage of this plan because of how a few council members (even my own), enabled by the Mayor, ran roughshod over a proper public process of involving all stakeholders, including those of us who live here, in the decision for building at Sulphur Dell.

We have seen other cases where the local community was ignored in the name of the Mayor's ambitious capital projects that usually suit his cronies more than our communities. We saw it in the West Nashville police precinct, which was catastrophically flooded in 2010, just as neighbors warned him beforehand that it would be. We saw it in the State Fairgrounds unpleasantness, which turned into a populist blow to the Mayor's muscle-flexing and clearly defined his take-no-prisoners style of governing.

There was simply not enough time or energy during the holidays to slow this particular project down in order to give people a chance to respond to it. Likewise, so little has been said about the details, and advise-and-consent is practically impossible.

Finally, I believe that the Sounds owner has said some things publicly during this affair that should make those of us who will be his team's new neighbors concerned about how they will treat us in the future. More on that later.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Drawing diddly-squat from the Sulphur Dell deal

The Nashville Scene's editor, Steve Cavendish, explains why the perceptions that the Sulphur Dell deal are good for North Nashville and for our city are just plain wrong:

And let's be clear ... it's not a very good deal. In the absolute best case scenario, the city is spending at least three times the total value of the baseball club on a new park and banking on tax money from adjacent developments to limit the city's losses to just a few hundred thousand dollars per year. Would we spend $3 billion on a Titans stadium with the franchise only worth $1B? ....

Spending tens of millions of dollars should, at a bare minimum, be about the city not losing money. If the Sounds can't make money, that's the team's problem, not the taxpayers. And if Nashville is subsidizing the deal so that Frank Ward and his New York ownership group can make their money that way, well, that's not really what the city is here for, is it? ....

The [council] representatives from North Nashville, long ignored by the Dean administration in favor of flashier projects elsewhere, are behind the project 100 percent. And I get that. It still doesn't make it a great deal for North Nashville. And since it's costing the city money, it's not going to translate into any more transit, housing, services or anything else for that part of the city.

Again this deal smells of desperation when our city should be negotiating with ball club owners from a position of strength. We do seem to be giving too much away and putting ourselves on the hook with so little of the Sounds' skin in the game.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

My post-game wrap on the Sulphur Dell second reading

Emotions were certainly running high at last night's Metro Council public hearing on the Mayor's deal cut with the state and two developers, including the wealthy owner of the Nashville Sounds. If you had asked me beforehand where I thought the emotional outpouring would have come I would have bet my entire concession-stand outlay--including my beer money--that it would have been from the gallery, not from the floor of the council itself.

But the fireworks that have gone off during some public hearings--like those that ignited during the debate over the state fairgrounds plan a few years ago--never appeared from the gallery. Most of those who spoke on the question spoke in favor of the ballpark, but most of those seemed to be business interests that the Mayor's Office would have encouraged to come out. Only two association representatives (Buena Vista and Hope Gardens) from the affected neighborhoods spoke in favor. I did not see anyone from either Germantown or Salemtown associations at the podium.

CM Jerry Maynard previously characterized supporters of Sulphur Dell as a movement, which sounds dramatically populist. But where were they all on the most important night that citizens could theoretically have influence in speaking out? The booster group Friends of Sulphur Dell seems more like a gaggle of Facebook friends linking news stories than it does a movement organized for social change, but I was shocked that they did not pack the gallery with their red shirts. I saw a couple of rows of them toward the back, but even fewer at the podium. I kept waiting for dozens of them to start streaming in through the council doors from the mezzanine after Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors invited them to speak, but they never showed.

I fully expected that those speaking against the ballpark bill would be disorganized and ragtag, and not because people did not have questions about the development. Few showed up to speak against the ballpark. My expectations were already low because Mayor Karl Dean strategically pulled off a coup. For years he downplayed his support of Sulphur Dell, and he deked a couple of reporters, who wrote serious stories on Friends of Sulphur Dell. He kept his powder dry for the big push against the community planning process by announcing the ballpark plan with Thanksgiving approaching and demanding that his council stewards shrink the approval process. The genius of this was that any organized opposition, like that he faced on the Fairgrounds, had no chance to get on its feet. It was a brilliant tactical move that assured that anyone with questions or criticism would be picked off base before they had a chance to steal the deal. Opponents never stood a chance.

Red-shirt October
But the timeline and the relative obscurity of the process also may have kept authentic proponents at home, if there are really a large number of proponents out there. I do not believe there are. I'm still convinced that the "movement" under the Sulphur Dell bill is more astroturf than grassroots, and the fact that the red shirts did not show up en mass seems a huge blow to any pretension that the ballpark is a popular cause right now. I understand why run-of-the-mill supporters might not have known about the public hearing in time to respond, but when the red-shirts did not show up in droves it represented a late inning whiff as some council members at least needed the cover of community support even though the Mayor does not.

So, the public hearing portion was not nearly as momentous as it could have been for the Sulphur Dell bill. The real fireworks, the raw emotion was expressed by bill supporters who did not seem convinced during most of the post-hearing debate that they had the votes to pass the Mayor's plan. In fact they seemed desperate in lashing out and lecturing other council members about how they should vote on a concept, a proposition that they treated as fait accompli.

The first CM to make an appeal to emotion was Ronnie Steine, who characterized any legislative regulation of mixed-use ballpark development as a betrayal of trust and a "slap at integrity" (I tend to take Steine's habitual moralistic lectures to the council with a grain of salt given that he was caught stealing and lying in 2002 while Vice Mayor). Apparently, the CM did not get the memo that this is a dispassionate business agreement between competing interests. Some of those interests are the affected communities themselves who do not enjoy the privilege of sitting at the negotiating table when the Mayor, the State, the Sounds, and the developers meet. We rely on the council to represent us. Apparently, CM Steine would rather represent the Nashville Sounds, whom he also seemed to defend as having the right to cash in on past philanthropy in Nashville by getting a ballpark from Metro at minimal risk. Maybe charity is not its own reward after all.

There was also melodramatic CM Jerry Maynard, who claimed not to be resorting to hyperbole when he resorted to hyperbole: any attempt to regulate or otherwise mitigate the risk of a massive transfer of public wealth to private developers would "kill the deal" for a new ballpark. Not necessarily known for keeping a poker face or staying stoic in tense situations, CM Maynard not only appealed to fear and panic, but he practically tipped developers to our signs. Much of baseball is built on deception. CM Maynard showed no grasp of that fact. We rely on CMs to stand up for us, to represent us in these negotiating process. He totally abdicated to developers, who had to be very pleased with his frantic performance. What is worse, he insinuated that the role of the council is simply to rubber stamp the Mayor's decisions without any recourse to the community's informed consent. Why did we elect him if he is simply going to be a bat boy for the Mayor's Office?

CM Erica Gilmore seemed visibly shaken by finance questions on the council, and she lashed out at those who loved baseball, but who questioned the terms of the development outside the ballpark. She called their love of baseball "a strange kind of love". Oddly enough not a week ago at the community meeting CM Gilmore organized, I listened to Rich Riebeling say that the question of a ballpark should be kept separate from the question of ownership's stake in the development outside the ballpark. But last night she lumped baseball with everything else in the plan. And after losing her composure, CM Gilmore said that she had never brought up fiduciary responsibility or questioned the use of taxpayer money on past projects. Is that supposed to be a badge of honor or a moment of candor where she let slip that service on the council is more about trading favors and abdicating oversight of our resources than it is representing constituents?

One of the most effective agents in major league baseball is Scott Boras. He plays the long game, getting the most return for the players he represents against baseball owners who are wealthy enough to pay just about anything to anyone. The citizens of Nashville needed a few Scott Borases on the council to represent us in this decision. We needed CMs who would stick negotiations out, call ownership and mayoral bluffs, test how far to go in order to get the best finance deal from the Sounds (whose decisions at this point are down to Sulphur Dell and nothing else short of packing up and finding another city waiting around to hand them a ballpark). These CMs did not serve us well by gushing about how the Sounds are like loved vital family members we could not lose.

That is no way to do business. And it's not good baseball.

None of these council supporters of the Mayor's plan put forth any effort to be a Boras-style negotiator for us. They impulsively bashed those who did not simply go along and they ushered developers to a sense of relief that they would dominate this deal. And this deal, which only requires one more council reading, is utter domination without any protections for the community.


Here is the video from yesterday's entire council business meeting (public hearing on the Phillips-Jackson/ballpark bill starts after 41:00):

I am Erica Gilmore's constituent, too

I was not going to go into great detail about my pointed exchange with CM Erica Gilmore before last Saturday morning's hastily called community meeting on her Sulphur Dell proposal. I was going to leave it at mentioning her dissatisfaction with my online criticism of her initiatives. But then--during her comments last night on an amendment to the bill that would have required the Nashville Sounds to pay a fee every year that their promised development did not develop--she went and said this via TV broadcast:

All I can focus on is that some of my constituents have sent me email saying, "Why now are we putting a $750,000 clause on it, and we have not done it in the past with all the different things. Aren't we taxpayers as well? Don't we have a fiduciary responsibility in the past?" And they're concerned that with this particular bill ... it's happening at this time.

The shock of learning that she does do email, particularly some email more than others prompts me to share the rest of the story from last Saturday.

Ms. Gilmore did not respond to the emails I sent her articulating several concerns I have with the constricted timeline for approval of a new ballpark. She had a chance on Saturday to address my concerns face-to-face about flooding, parking, and other potential problems that a new ballpark might create. She did not do so.

Instead, she insisted that she left a voice mail message for me a couple of days after receiving my email. I told her that I had been having problems with my voice mail but my email account still seemed to be working and she could have responded there.

She replied face-to-face that she does not "do email" because of the high volume of email she receives on various issues.

Last night I found out that not only does she do email, but she even publicizes email from constituents who are supporters of the Mayor's timelines when doing so serves her own interests.

So, I basically gather from this that if I want my views acknowledged, let alone represented, by a council member whom I voted for in the last election, I have to agree with her views on these questions.

In the end I agree with her comment above: it appears that all she can focus on are the emails of some of her constituents.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

There is some latent hostility in the takeover of the community planning process

“This is a poison pill,” Councilman Jerry Maynard said, using a corporate term typically applied to measures that discourage hostile takeovers.

--The Tennessean covering CM Maynard's attack on stronger regulations
on Sulphur Dell ballpark developers

Sulphur Dell may be the dream, but economic development is an illusion

There is consensus between the professional researchers who study pro sports venues and economic development: there is no proven connection between the two. The pros acknowledge the facts. The costs of publicly subsidized stadiums usually offset or counteract any benefits. Studies show no evidence of positive effects when comparing metro areas with pro sports teams to those without teams. There is no connection to greater employment. Likewise, there is no observable link to increases in income levels. In some cases the value of real estate in public parks rises faster than that under stadiums.

So, support a new ballpark if you want one, but please do not spread the malarky that sports venues are economic boons to the cities that subsidize them.

Usually, when someone tells you that investing public dollars in building a ballpark for a pro team constitutes a "huge" benefit because they create economic development and private investment, they cannot back up those claims with independent data from reliable research. They will spout potentialities incessantly to a beguiled and bewildered news media, but they cannot back up their talking points with evidence or examples.

Baltimore: no neighborhood rebirth
Camden Yards, considered the prototype for all contemporary urban and urban-like ballparks, has had a long track record (almost 25 years) by which to judge whether the neighborhoods around it have enjoyed windfalls. In Baltimore, the ballpark has not been the boon it was predicted to be:

Camden Yards also launched a trend of placing stadiums in the middle of cities in an attempt at redevelopment, as public officials nationwide mistook its appeal as a sports venue for success as a development catalyst, said Tim Chapin, chairman of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University. In fact, he said, the widespread belief that Camden Yards launched a rebirth in downtown Baltimore isn’t true.

“While it expanded the tourist bubble to the west, it didn’t wholesale save the downtown economy or prop up very poor neighborhoods not too far from downtown,” Chapin said.

If the iconic ballpark of the last quarter century did not have a dramatic effect in empowering poor communities in Baltimore, it is reasonable to conclude that a ballpark built in 2014 in Nashville will not have the economic impact the wishful thinkers at Friends of Sulphur Dell intend for us to believe.

On the contrary, if Baltimore's tourism bubble expanded, it is fair to assume that Sulphur Dell could have an impact more in line with that of the new Music City Convention Center. It might be more of a revenue source for Nashville's fat tourism industry than for the neighborhoods of Salemtown, Germantown, Buena Vista and Hope Gardens.

Atlanta: no urban renewal
Baltimore is not the only place where questions are recently raised about the economic fables of sports venues. Atlanta's continuing problems with its sports teams and their facilities have observers wondering about the difference they really made:

A new sports venue presents no guarantee of urban renewal. If you doubt that, look at the scarred neighborhoods surrounding the Georgia Dome and Turner Field. That’s why the contention by [Mayor Kasim] Reed…that a new Falcons stadium will turn around the area comes off as such bunk. If the city really wanted to commit millions to develop new businesses and mixed-use development around the Georgia Dome, it could have done so without a new football stadium.

Likewise, if Nashville cared about its northern neighborhoods, it would spend more money on them with or without the Nashville Sounds ball club and mixed-use developments. It is bad faith to preach economic investment made by local government under the auspices of helping neighborhoods when the benefits disproportionately go to wealthy developers and ball clubs.

This is not to say that there is absolutely no economic potential for Sulphur Dell. One observer concedes that major league ballparks cannot be justified on the basis of hypothetical economic benefits, but he does maintain that small ballparks could economically justify their existence:

Certain types of teams and facilities can produce gains in regional income (albeit small ones: about $67 to about $117 per capita). This contradicts “the vast majority of academic research” on big-league sports, which “has found nonpositive effects on income...employment...sales tax revenues...and spending.”

You’ll pretty much have to take Agha’s word that her conclusions are solid .... But Agha, whose data set included “all of the teams that played minor league baseball between 1980 and 2006,” offers some plausible reasons smaller franchises might confer benefits larger ones do not.

For instance: “Teams can theoretically...generate substantial new spending by out-of-area residents or discourage residents from spending outside the local economy. Both of these are more likely to occur in geographically isolated metro areas.” (That’s bad news for Richmond, which lies just a short hop from Charlottesville, Hampton Roads, D.C. and Baltimore.)

What also might help? Using the stadium for unrelated events, such as marching-band competitions. Coordinated marketing by diverse civic groups. And team stability, which can build community identification.

Assuming Nashville is isolated from other Metro areas enough to keep private revenues here, then we can justify the building of a minor league park like Sulphur Dell at private expense. However, even the modest benefits rising from minor league venues do not justify the investment of public tax dollars in private enterprise. Again, there is practically no deviation by pro sports researchers on that point.

So, just because other cities decide to jump off that cliff, should Nashville? I would say: not without contractual commitments from developers and club owners.

The bottom line is that ballparks are more likely to hurt, rather than help local economies. This is widely acknowledged by the researchers who do not have a dog in the fight even as ballpark boosters repeat "economic investment" like a mantra; as if saying it over and over again makes it true.

Just try and talk to boosters about the costs of tax increment financing for sports teams. They would rather don t-shirts and wax romantic about a sport they may or may not even like. One ballpark bill sponsor thought so much of Sulphur Dell's baseball history that she misspelled its name a couple of times in her press release. It is all window dressing for the transfer of money from public coffers to private wallets with meager returns for the common good.

So don't support a new Sulphur Dell because you assume it will be a catalyst of growth in North Nashville. There is no hard evidence that it can do that.

Support it for other reasons: you believe that anything is better than parking lots, you want to walk to baseball games, history matters more to you than the money, you consider it an expression of urbanism and a chance to foster smart growth and complete streets, or whatever else matters to you. But don't perpetuate the urban myths of growth, not unless you can convince the Metro Council to add regulations and restrictions on developers and club ownership that guarantee intentional and planned economic investment in public, neighborhood infrastructure.

We need a guaranteed return on tax dollar investments given the high risk of subsidizing ballparks. Misplacing faith in private developers is no guarantee.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Friends of Sulphur Dell founder tells news media that Jefferson St has "more than enough capacity" to handle more traffic than it already has

Pedestrians need friends, too.
Apparently the founder of the Friends of Sulphur Dell has already conducted his own traffic studies on car-congested, pedestrian-unfriendly Jefferson Street, and he draws his own conclusions about the impact of a new ballpark:

Other supports [sic] say Jefferson Street has more than enough capacity to handle the crowds. "We're also talking about off-peak hours for the most part," said Brian Heuser, a founder member of the Friends of Sulphur Dell. "It's a concern, but the overwhelming benefit here certainly outweighs the traffic concerns," he added.

But for some, a quickly approaching Dec. 31 deadline brings more reason for pause. "They may not have enough time to really complete a study to get a full look at what type of traffic really comes through this corridor," [Bill] Pittenger said. "I do think it is being overlooked."

Mr. Heuser's response to the news media does North Nashville a disservice. In any other part of Nashville, neighborhood leaders demand traffic impact studies on major thoroughfares be done before huge projects are approved. Why speculate about something he knows nothing about? The intellectually honest position is to say that we need to be thoughtful about this process and give it enough time so that the results of independent studies catch up with and inform our emotions for or against it.

I could just as easily resort to speculation the opposite way: assume for the sake of argument that Jefferson has "off-peak" hours (whatever "off-peak" means to Mr. Heuser). Traffic arriving on Jefferson St for ballgames and other ballpark events would extend peak traffic hours so that there would rarely be any break in traffic. Then Jefferson St becomes Nashville's latest version Hillsboro Road in Green Hills or Gallatin Pike at Rivergate Mall. Do we really need that kind of congestion during all waking hours of the day and night along this corridor?

But why can't we be more intellectually honest and demand a traffic study before jumping to conclusions? With Mr. Heuser's unabashed, uncritical, unrestrained boosterism we will never be able to leverage a complete streets project that would make Jeff St a corridor that works for walkable neighborhoods as well as for minor league baseball fans. As it is we cannot even leverage honest answers on the impact of a new ballpark.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

A dispatch from last Saturday's ersatz community meeting on a Sulphur Dell ballpark

Why is everybody in this town so damned pissed off all the time? What's there to yell about?
-- Developer during a community meeting, Treme (HBO, Season 4, Episode 1)


The juxtaposition between the community meeting portrayed on the HBO Series about post-Katrina New Orleans on Sunday night and the community meeting actually held in Hope Gardens the previous Saturday morning on the Mayor's proposed ballpark could not have been more stark. When Treme's community meeting scene opens venture capitalist/developer Nelson Hidalgo is sitting at the back of a crowd itself angered by the proposed closing of live music venues to make way for a new jazz center. A local resident is standing and shouting at a panel of planners against having what "rightfully" belongs to the neighborhood "gentrified" instead of "rejuvenated". That's when the developer leans over to another character wanting to know why a project that raises people's property values pisses those same people off.

Saturday's meeting in Hope Gardens was attended largely by Metro Council members and Metro government insiders, but I would characterize the community turn-out as anemic relative to other community meetings I attended over the years. There was no shouting from the floor. There were no off-the-cuff questions raised from those in attendance. Instead, CM Erica Gilmore circulated question forms that were filled out and passed to three of the four presidents of local neighborhood associations (the three that had already declared unqualified and unquestioned support for a new ballpark). There was PowerPoint. There were baseball metaphors. It was all monitored and controlled.

Don't misunderstand me. I had a sharp exchange before the meeting started with CM Gilmore who is not happy with my online criticism her recent projects. And then after the meeting was over I was bull-rushed by a free-range rude council member. But the meeting itself was sedate, polished and banal.

During our conversation, CM Gilmore acknowledged that she had gotten the questions I have raised previously in email correspondence, and she encouraged me to write them down on her yellow slips of paper for the presidents to ask. I told her that I was not going to rewrite any questions there because I considered the meeting a circus designed to generate an appearance of community engagement without having to deal with the real messiness of the democratic process. It came across as a filtered farce requiring no accountability to North Nashvillians, many of whom resent being left out of the planning process most of the time.

She has my questions already. I have yet to get her answers. Saturday's meeting was meant to dress the windows.

So the contrast between the realistic meeting I saw portrayed in fiction on Sunday night and the concocted community meeting actually held the Saturday previous was unmistakable.

I came away Saturday morning with growing perception that there is so much about this proposal that we do not know. It was generally the same presentation that was made in October at the Farmers Market. My impression was that most of the same people there on Saturday were at the October meeting. That would make sense given the ridiculous timing of both meetings.

Would the unknown agreements and hidden agendas likely driving a plan introduced less than a month ago cause popular backlash if information did get out over time? The Mayor's supporters are not taking the chance by extending the planning process out past mid-December. They are ramming this through. I hear ballpark supporters talk of having to show up for council's public hearing. I am not sure anyone else can slow it down at this point. The community and concerns are boxed out.

However, there were a few new developments that I did learn about Saturday, some of them prompted by questions from the floor (which were generally good, but not nearly as good or as many as the ones I heard during the October Q&A):

  • Architects and planners had not considered pedestrian access across Rosa Parks Boulevard in the initial proposal. The question about Rosa Parks came from the floor. Finance Director Rich Riebeling admitted that they had not looked at Rosa Parks in the the original plan, but that they would. The architect present nodded his head and quickly started jotting notes. They did say that they do have access plans for Jefferson St, although they were not specific about what exactly they were going to do to make it safe for pedestrians (it is an acknowledged death trap).
  • MDHA funds are available to help finance the ballpark. Presenters did not disclose what those funds are currently being used for or the impact elsewhere of freeing them up to pay for a ballpark. I have said it before: MDHA is a shadow government, and we may never get any accountability as to how those funds are deployed and distributed.
  • The architect acknowledged concerns about flooding and said that we should consider the ballpark a "retention pond" in any future flood. While he told the gathering that his team is very well aware of the flooding in the ballpark area, he gave no specifics on how much more or less water the ballpark might contain than the flood plain currently holds. This continues to be a big question in my mind. I will not feel safe unless the "retention pond" holds at least as much as the vacant land does now.
  • Mr. Riebeling acknowledged growing concerns about parking in Germantown. He repeated the same wishful thinking that if developers orient the park towards downtown and build a parking garage, then ballpark patrons would be more likely to stay out of the neighborhoods. He did add that if after construction parking begins to be a problem in Germantown, then reserved residential parking would be an option this administration would pursue. Unless CM Gilmore has a change-of-heart, she would seem to be at odds with Mr. Riebeling on this point.
  • Mr. Riebeling said that both private developers (including Nashville Sounds owners) will make major announcements in the coming week about their contributions to the project.
  • The Sounds ballclub remained as conspicuously absent from this meeting as they have been from every other meeting regarding a ballpark that Metro would build for their benefit. We now have a context for that cop-out: the owner equates minimal public exposure with staying out of politics. I see their evasion (or is it neglect?) as the extension of politics by other means (with apologies to Carl von Clausewitz). 
  • Mr. Riebeling said that Metro is pursuing the private-public partnership because he is not aware of any other city with a stadium where it is not being done. Maybe he should do some more homework, because there are cities where such a partnership does not play.

Joint council committees are expected to discuss this plan early in the coming week. Little time left for any yelling. That likely suits the developers just fine.