A Big Box for Tourist Flocks 

A new study redeems those who've been saying we need more convention space

A new study redeems those who've been saying we need more convention space

For the last six years or so, Nashvillians whose livelihoods depend on attracting tourists to town—or selling them something once they get here—have been angling for a new downtown convention center. Boosters armed with market studies have warned that if the city didn't build a newer, bigger center with more hotel space Nashville would fall behind in the competition for conventions and trade shows and might never catch up. (Of course, Gaylord, which is in the convention business, has been the notable exception to this call for a new city convention center.)

The current Nashville Convention Center (NCC), which opened in 1987, has 118,700 square feet of contiguous exhibit space and 149,400 square feet of total function space; the adjacent Renaissance Nashville Hotel has 673 rooms. What many tourism officials want is a minimum of 400,000 square feet of contiguous (same floor) exhibit space, at least 1.1 million square feet of gross space, including meeting and ballrooms, and an adjacent 1,000-room hotel. All this square footage translates to a 15-acre footprint—by way of comparison, the Gaylord Entertainment Center site is seven acres—with another 15 acres reserved for future expansion.

On the other hand, those who think that Metro has invested quite enough in big boxes like the arena and the stadium have been more skeptical. Urban design advocates have pointed out that placing such a widescraper within the existing street grid—a site immediately south of the arena has been a favorite—would wipe out the block structure of much of SoBro. Such a move would concentrate traffic on the remaining streets and create a major obstacle for pedestrians to negotiate.

To mitigate negative impact on the streetscape, one suggestion posed to the Nashville Civic Design Center would have a new convention center built underground. A study of possible scenarios for the convention center's future unveiled last week utilizes this strategy while curbing the great expectations of the true believers considerably.

The study by KPMG and the Kansas City architecture firm of HOK Venue confirms what the boosters have long predicted: that Nashville is losing convention business to other cities. The existing facility lacks the space to host the larger conventions and trade shows or two smaller gatherings simultaneously. To fix this, consultants suggest a more moderate space increase to 250,000 to 300,000 square feet of exhibit floor rather than the 400,000 square feet that was once considered de rigeur. The study also considers ways to expand the existing NCC rather than build an entirely new facility, which considerably lessens the projected $299 million price tag for an altogether new complex.

The expansion scenario would eliminate the problem of what to do with the existing facility. And it would also forestall the need to build a new hotel that a new center would probably require. The report notes that the Renaissance and Hilton Suites hotels can, between them, supply 900 rooms to house conventioneers.

The study maps out footprints for expansion in four directions: north, northeast, south and west, but finds significant problems with the northeast and west options. The consultants thus recommend going either north to Church Street, or south to Demonbreun. Neither expansion would require closing or relocating existing streets or the demolition of historic buildings, which pleases the urban design crowd.

The southern expansion, with an estimated cost of $202 million, would pass under Broadway at the same level as the existing exhibit space, with two levels of parking on top, most of which is also below grade, capped by ballrooms and meeting rooms oriented toward Broadway and the arena. This option would reorient the reception and registration areas from Commerce to Broadway, and would add new retail space to the facade. This would rectify a major design flaw in the original structure, which turned its back to Nashville's main street. More problematic is that the southern expansion would mean removing all but the historic tower of the First Baptist Church.

The northern expansion, estimated at $181 million, would pass under Commerce Street, also at the same level as existing exhibit space, and also with parking, meeting and ballroom space on top. The reception and registration areas would be reoriented toward the Ryman and Broadway, again easing existing design flaws. This option would mean demolishing the Central Church of Christ and relocating the McKendree Family Life Center to Church Street on top of the exhibit space. The new McKendree center would stand where developer Tony Giarratana has proposed constructing a 55-story tower.

Mayor Bill Purcell commissioned the study, he says, "because I wanted to know what we already had, and what we really needed." He's now asked Marty Dickens, chairman of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Randy Rayburn, chairman of the Metro Convention Center Commission, to create a committee "to test all the assumptions" in the consultants' report about cost and financing, the feasibility of land acquisition and construction. "And if they decide that the study is right, then I've requested they make a recommendation on which scenario works best," Purcell says.

The mayor says that "the funding stream is traditional for these things and will be paid by and large by the users of the facility": a one percent increase in the hotel/motel and car rental taxes. "And the state allows you to take the gain in the state sales tax that more convention business will bring and apply it to the project," when otherwise that money would be dispersed across the state. "But the study does propose a half percent restaurant tax increase, and the committee must decide if they want to do that."

Purcell likes the lower cost of expanding to the north, mostly because it offers the most promise for the central core. Going north "moves the convention center closer to existing hotels, like the Sheraton, Hyatt, Marriott and even the Doubletree and the Hermitage," he says. And it brings the conventioneers "into the heart of downtown. They can walk out the door and right to Printers' Alley or Second Avenue."

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