Nashville Convention Center Controversy Not Over

Nashville SkylineEarlier this week it was announced that Omni Hotels would be participating in a new massive convention center project in downtown Nashville, and that this project would include an expansion of the Country Music Hall of Fame, doubling the size of the Hall. (You can read details of the project HERE).

Many music lovers and country music traditionalists are excited by the announcement. As much as many Nashville institutions such as Gaylord Entertainment and major labels are seen as robbers barons of the best music interests of Music City, the Hall of Fame has been an exception to the rule.

But some applauding the expansion have maybe forgotten where this convention center project started, and how we got to this point, specifically that another hall of fame, The Musician’s Hall of Fame, was eminent domained by the City of Nashville and bulldozed to make way for the new building. And that since the Musician’s HOF was only given 10 days to vacate, many of its antiquities were caught in the Nashville flood this Spring and destroyed.

Another interesting wrinkle to this story is that one of the reasons the Musician’s HOF and Nashville could not come to a buyout agreement before the building was bulldozed is because the operators of the Musician’s HOF said they were promised space in the new convention center where they could re-create the Hall, but later that proposal was pulled.

“We were told that they would provide us a place to go for free while the construction was goin’ on for the convention center for the next three years, and then we would move into the new convention center. They brought plans over, they had the plans drawn out for us.” says Joe Chambers, owner/operator of the Musician’s Hall.

Nashville Convention CenterAt that time there was no mention of expanding the Country Music HOF as part of the convention center project. As much as I’m am happy to see such a large commitment to the Country Music HOF by Nashville through the convention center, it’s hard not to wonder if the dissolving of the offer to the Musicians HOF came about after the City approached the Country HOF to be part of the project, or vice versa.

And the Musician’s HOF isn’t the only one feeling wronged by the convention center project. The other jilted lover in this sticky game of city politics is none other than Gaylord Entertainment, Nashville’s second-largest employer, and right now the keyholder to the mother church of country music, The Ryman Auditorium, and WSM’s Grand Ole Opry.

They say politics makes strange bedfellows, and this was the case with opposition to the new convention center. Gaylord, not really known as a champion of the little guy, gave $8,500 to an organization called “Nashville’s Priorities” when the convention center was just a proposal. The group was constructed to fight the project, and by proxy, save the Musician’s HOF.

But Gaylord was being no steward of history. The reason Gaylord fought the new convention center is because at the time their Opryland convention center was the only big game in town. Nashville’s relationship with Omni was a direct threat to Gaylord’s convention revenue, which has caused a major strain between Nashville and one of its largest land owners and corporate citizens. (Read more about the reasons for the Nashville/Gaylord strained relationship and the implications).

Gaylord’s biggest beef is that public money will be used to build the convention center that Omni will profit from. Omni will also receive tax breaks from the city, with the idea that a new employer and new tax revenue from more conventions will in the long run benefit the city.

“Mayor Karl Dean is proposing that Metro government chip in some hefty incentives, including $103 million in tourism taxes over 20 years, $25 million in tax increment financing in 2011 and a partial abatement of 62.5 percent of Omni’s property taxes.”

So what does all this have to do with Saving Country Music?

The lower Broadway region of downtown Nashville is the last bastion of what Music City used to be. Large civic projects like the new convention center continue to gobble up landmarks and venue space that keeps the music in Music City. Furthermore strains in the relationship between Gaylord and Nashville could have long term implications on Nashville landmarks like the Grand Ole Opry. If Gaylord decides Nashville is no longer a good place to do business, they may start to sell off their properties in the downtown corridor, or restrain future projects, like reopening the Opryland Themepark.

Right now there is a war raging for the heart of Nashville, and the city-backed convention center is where the battle is being fought. The Country Music HOF expansion was likely brought up as a way to appease the grass roots concerns for the project. Though the idea sounds good, I will be a little speculative until we see just how this expansion fleshes out. And as for Gaylord, they could go a long way toward appeasing the grass roots themselves.

Reinstate Hank Williams