Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Music City Center Blues

Last night Mr. Beale and I went to West End Middle School for a Music City Center community forum organized for residents of Council Districts 14, 24 & 25.

I haven’t really said much about our $600 million proposed convention center because I’m honestly on the fence about it. I see the merits to arguments both for and against the project, and frankly I also detect the waft of bullshit coming from both camps as well. All of which prompted me to attend last night’s meeting so I could hear what both sides had to say.

Let me say right now, Mr. Beale has come out in favor of the project and he spent a portion of last night’s meeting whispering train sounds in my ear (“chugga-chugga chugga-chugga chugga-chugga CHOO CHOO! Get on board!”) much to my annoyance. But he’s got a point: I’ve long sensed that this thing is a done deal and everything that’s happening right now is just so much Kabuki theater. Sorry for being cynical.

West End Middle School is a gorgeous old brick building, built in 1937. According to its website it sits in an affluent neighborhood
where the majority of homes costs upwards of half a million dollars
which if you ask me is probably a little conservative. The school has just undergone $7 million in infrastructure repairs, including a new roof and new windows. And yet, as we listened to everyone give their spiel in the assembly room, I picked up a loose screw and washer from a nearby chair that had fallen to the floor. On the ceiling above our heads, a large spray of peeling paint bloomed. This was the best school in an affluent neighborhood that had just been rehabbed and even it was crumbling around us. The irony was not lost on me.

This weekend a series of water mains burst, and businesses downtown are still suffering. Today we learn that Metro Schools will have a $35 million shortfall in next year’s budget. This year Metro budget cuts forced the city to slash public library hours and the Public Works budget. And while it’s true that this is an apples and oranges issue -- the money spent on the Music City Center is not the same money that would go to schools or repair water mains -- the philosophical argument is 100% correct: this city has other priorities. I have other priorities.

I find it really offensive that we as a city have devoted so much time and energy to talking about the need, nay the imperative, to build a $600 million convention center, when it’s quite obvious we have other needs, and other imperatives. What does it say about Nashville that we can find the time, funding, energy to wage a PR battle, newspaper column inches, and on and on to rally for a $600 million convention center at a time when people in our community are losing their homes and cannot afford to pay their utility bills?

What does that tell the world about Nashville, TN? I’m afraid it tells the world that our priorities are messed up. We have all the will and all the energy to ram this project through, yet we turn our backs on the people living in Tent City. Shame on us.

Three years ago I was drafting a letter for my church board’s approval wherein we as a congregation urged the mayor to commit to building 1,800 units for the homeless by 2015 at a cost of $2.3 million a year. That’s small change compared to the proposed new convention center, and yet we’re far behind on that pledge now.

I don’t understand why there’s always a massive push from folks like the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Partnership for these shiny-sparkly new toys. Where are you people when the schools budget is being hammered out? Where are you people when we talk about dealing with our chronic homeless population (other than handing out "Please Help, Don’t Give” flyers to tourists, that is)? Where are you when we cut public library hours and the Public Works budget?

You see, my problem is not that I’m “for” or “against” the Music City Center. My beef is a philosophical one. I just really hate what the whole debate says about this city. Personally, I want to live in a city where the grass in our parks gets cut before it’s knee-high. I want to live in a city where the library is open and well-staffed, and the homeless people currently panhandling downtown actually have a place to go. These are quality of life issues to me. It’s not all about the shiny-sparkly new toy that the Nashville business community wants to play with.

Last night I heard the same “trickle down” fairy tales we’ve been told for years about these kinds of massive projects. Somehow the economic impact of a new convention center (or arena, or football stadium, or symphony hall, etc. etc.) will “trickle down” like fairy dust on the entire county.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the arena, I’m a huge Nashville Predators fan, and Mr. Beale and I have been to many Titans games. I moved here in 1986 and I well remember what downtown Nashville used to look like. So yes, the past 20 years have seen some wonderful changes to our city, positive changes.

Yet every year our schools budget is cut to the bone. This year Metro Public Works laid off employees and cut back on things like cutting the grass in the public right-of-way, making some intersections in my neighborhood rather dangerous. The Green Hills Library was closed on Fridays, and now it looks like more cuts are likely.

In other words: we have these wonderful downtown facilities like a stadium and an arena and we still have the same budget issues we’ve always had. So don’t tell me that all of the business from a new convention center is going to have a positive economic impact on my neighborhood because I haven’t seen it yet.

These are the things I care about. If all our budget ducks were in a row, I’d say great, let’s build the thing. But they’re not, and we’re sending the wrong message. What do you think of someone who can’t afford to keep their grass cut, repair the roof on their house, or send their kids to school who then runs out and buys a brand-new Porsche? You think that’s messed up. And if they tell you, “oh, someone who lives in Germany bought the Porsche for me, so it’s not like I was using my own money,” do you think, Oh, that’s cool then. No! You think, sell the damn Porsche, fix up your house, and send your kids to school.

So. Nashville needs to table this Music City Center thing for the time being. And I’m tired of hearing whining from the business community about it. Pony up, boys. Put your money where your mouth is. If tourism is supposed to have some kind of economic impact for Nashville beyond your bottom line and the shiny-sparkly facilities that residents of Music City get to enjoy alongside the tourists, then I want to see it. I want a year where the Metro budget isn't accompanied by another round of Metro employee lay-offs and shuttered community centers. Maybe some of our tourism taxes can go to stuff like that--stuff that people in this city and county actually use on a daily basis.

Something for you Chamber folks to think about.