Monday, November 11, 2013

A few thoughts on Sulphur Dell since the Mayor's financing plan is introduced

You cannot look to ballpark supporters for sober cost-benefit analysis on the question of financing a new Sulphur Dell and subsidizing the Nashville Sounds in the process. I have a few observations about the events of the past few days in the spirit of being more rational about that process:

  • The Friday late afternoon news dump of this story last week was curious. A couple of hours before today's ballpark meeting was announced GOP State House Speaker Beth Harwell announced to the news media that she would not support dedicating $35 million in state funding for Karl Dean's new bus rapid transit east-west Nashville connector, "The Amp". That can always change, but for the time being it is a blow to the Dean infrastructure priority list. It is a blow to his brick-and-mortarmentum. The Sulphur Dell announcement could have been planned all along or it could have been announced to soften the PR blow on and divert news media attention from a limping Amp plan.
  • It is obvious that Karl Dean's modus operandi is to move ahead with these voluptuous capital budget plans with minimal popular input. He pursued the new convention center even though local opinion polls indicated that Nashvillians did not support it. He threatened to demolish a popular working-class entertainment venue, the State Fairgrounds, and sell off most of the land to private developers until there was impressive public backlash threatening to rip Metro Council limb-from-limb. Hizzoner could have eliminated most of the strong, organized popular opposition to the AMP by moving bus rapid transit north to Charlotte, but he dug in his heels and all but dared state Republicans to kill funding. They are able to embrace popular opposition, and the Amp is on the verge of unraveling. Likewise, he is ramming the ballpark plan through the Sports Authority and Metro Council with no regard to public questions or feedback. We will see if he can push this before any organized opposition gains the footing necessary to slow or stop the ballpark.
  • In the context of today's meeting announcing the financing plan, the October 24 "community meeting" continues to appear to have nothing to do with the community. None of the questions asked by the community are being considered. Everything is running to script and any of the concerns that many of us have about traffic, parking, flooding, fireworks, etc. are generally being ignored, even by the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods. Buoyed by Metro's offer to build them a garage, the state is fully on board now. If Metro will not listen to community concerns, what chance do we have the state?
  • Our council member, Erica Gilmore, is ignoring the questions from the October community meeting. She does not seem to care to represent all of us. During tonight's council proceedings, she was described by one reporter as "celebratory" about the ballpark plan. Not a concern in the world about community impact. She seems to have checked out on some of us.
  • Before people start waxing on about how historic and "uniquely Nashville" the Sulphur Dell agreement is, they need to keep this in mind: the Metro Finance Director admits that the plan for Metro subsidizing the Sounds' new digs is based on the practices of other cities. Metro taxpayers are going to cough up $65 million to help pro baseball owners get wealthier because other cities do exactly the same thing. Ironically, being like other cities violates Metro Planning's first guiding principle: Be Nashville.
  • Seven years ago I expressed qualified support for the previous administration's plan to increase Metro operating budget spending $250,000 per year in maintenance costs for a new ballpark at the old downtown thermal plant site. It seemed like a fair trade-off, given that Greer Stadium required $5 million to bring it up to ADA compliance (completed in 2009 after the old deal fell through). I was more open previously to tax-increment financing (also a part of Dean's deal). I have had a change of heart about TIF, which I find to be overused and abused by opportunistic politicians nowadays. The Mayor's current proposal to carve out $345,000 from the annual operating budgets may not seem much more than the older plan, but we live in different times: cash flow to Metro services seems more strapped as the years go by. And a ballpark at the thermal site generated fewer questions about the potential negative impact on residential neighborhoods than the Sulphur Dell site does. Any support I express for a new Sulphur Dell has even more qualifications than my previous support.
  • The Mayor admits that the Nashville Sounds baseball club will not be contractually obligated to pay the $50 million that he plans on them paying for development. So, why would they need to hire a big-money lobbyist when they are not even required to pay for the development?

After going through the financials, I am still not ready to support a new Sulphur Dell without some assurances that Salemtown's quality of life will be protected. I am also not satisfied with how the concerns of the community, democratically expressed, are being overlooked and ignored by those we elect to represent us.

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