frank_talk (2006-01)

Roads Not Taken

Remember that decision to go convention center instead of ballpark?

by Frank Cagle

They say timing is everything. But the irony is too rich to ignore.

Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell has sent a proposal to Metro Council that involves a baseball stadium being built downtown on city property for the minor league Nashville Sounds. A developer will build the stadium, and riverfront upscale condos and a retail complex will surround it. The city will donate the land; it was once the site of the city incinerator.

Metro Council passed the measure on first reading, but then postponed it the second time around. There is some question whether the deal will eventually pass.

In the meantime, there are several members of the Nashville business community that are pressing the mayor to, instead, build a massive new convention center. It is rumored around Nashville that a committee has been formed to put together a financing package and seek out a location, supposedly just east of downtown.

You may recall that back in the 1990s there was a request to build the Knoxville K-Jays baseball team a stadium in downtown Knoxville. The price tag came in at $19 million because the site was a sloping hill on State Street that would require extensive excavation and tearing down some buildings. The city decided against the stadium and, at the urging of the business community, built a $162 million convention center instead.

The K-Jays, whose management didn’t want to be downtown anyway, became the Tennessee Smokies and relocated to a new stadium in Sevier County, at the Dollywood exit off I-40.

That State Street land that was too expensive to excavate and prepare is now excavated, the buildings are gone, and it is now a parking lot. So far it has not been the site of a baseball stadium, it has not been the site of a Justice Center (which included a jail), it has not been the site of the Universe Knoxville planetarium and it has not yet been the site of a bus transfer center. It has just been the site that has been excavated and cleared for no purpose at all.

A further irony is that, now, the principal owner of the baseball team that moved to Sevierville is the current mayor of Knoxville, Bill Haslam.

At the time Knoxville City Council looked at the baseball stadium, of course, Knox County government had not prepared the land. The idea of anyone buying an upscale condo in downtown Knoxville was laughable. And any proposal to do a retail center would have been considered suicidal.

Were the same choices before Knoxville today, is there any doubt we would trade the convention center for a baseball stadium, surrounded by condos?

But the baseball team is gone for good. The convention center is here and remains a drain on city finances. The Smokies are committed to a nice stadium that has 15 years to run on its lease, and the convention center debt is embedded in the city budget for years to come.

Nashville already has a convention center downtown, adjacent to a new convention center hotel. But many business leaders do not believe it is big enough, and they want huge instead. The Nashville stadium deal calls for the city to defer taxes for a period of years, and any sales tax generated that would ordinarily go to the state would go toward paying off the bonds. (This is under similar legislation that allows sales tax generated in downtown Knoxville to be dedicated to paying off convention center debt.) I leave it to Nashville taxpayers as to whether they should approve the stadium deal. I would just observe that if Knoxville taxpayers had it to do over again, there is little doubt which way they would go.

There is, of course, the option of doing neither.

No one could have foreseen the resurgence of downtown Knoxville during the last five years. Downtown condos are selling as fast as they come on line. Some of the county property on State Street will be used for the new movie theater complex. There is a plan entrained to build the bus transfer center, with the possibility of development on top of it. There are condos being developed on the upper floors of seemingly every building on Gay Street. The Mast General Store may be the beginning of a specialty retail comeback for downtown.

You can never know the outcome of the road not taken. It may be that the decisions Knoxville made will be for the best in the long run. New condos on State Street may have hampered the conversion of old buildings on Gay Street. A baseball stadium is not in continuous use and would not have generated year-round income. And you never know. In five years Knoxville may be a hot place to hold a convention. It could happen.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at .