Phil Bredesen built an NFL football stadium and a downtown arena. Bill Purcell stuck to sidewalks and community centers. Karl Dean built a new convention center and a minor league baseball stadium.
Legacies of Nashville's last three mayors were presented that way at a mayoral candidates forum Wednesday. Those vying to be the next mayor then answered a simple question: "What will you build as mayor?"
But rather than reeling off big-ticket projects, a few of the contenders on hand turned their attention more to neighborhoods.
Garrison somewhat framed the focus of the debate around future construction projects. Framing is an interpretative, not an objective move. Nonetheless, he seems to say that the moderator, news corporation president Chris Ferrell, cited the three preceding mayors as all building along the identical lines of "big-ticket projects." Giving Garrison the benefit of the doubt, I would argue that Ferrell's own framing is not just subjective, but it skews the facts into a fallacy of false equivalence.
Neither Garrison nor Ferrell (reportedly) mentioned the singular glaring difference between the three mayors as framed: Bill Purcell's projects were Metro infrastructure projects that primarily and directly benefited the people who paid for them and used them. Sidewalks and community centers benefit all Nashvillians, not just the business class. They are neither limited to those who pay admission fees nor excluded to visitors from out of town. They address common goods of the local citizenry.
Both Bredesen and Dean have been primarily subsidizers of the business class. Stadiums, arenas and convention centers primarily benefit the corporations, industries and professional groups in entertainment and tourism. They benefit those industries while Metro mitigates the risk of private investment by committing public taxes to private-use facilities.
Bredesen and Dean at least acknowledged in their more honest moments that the goods to the larger Nashville community in their "big-ticket projects" were secondary. Many would add that they provide only trickle-down scraps to the Metro taxpayers, who are on the hook for all of these venues if they fail to live up to projections. In some cases they obligate Nashvillians even if they succeed: the NFL football stadium transfuses millions of tax dollars every year from public infrastructure services (Metro Water) per the contract signed by former Mayor Bredesen (the contract runs through 2026).
Framing the different capital spending priorities of the various mayors on the flat is not just incorrect, it invites the new crop of mayoral candidates to level all such spending as the same. That is potentially hazardous for the neighborhoods that these candidates claim they will attend to. There is a qualitative difference between a community center and an arena. Both of these news men should acknowledge that difference and hold the candidates accountable for doing so.