Bill Plays Ball 

How Mayor Bill Purcell and the Sounds finally hit a homer

How Mayor Bill Purcell and the Sounds finally hit a homer

Last fall, as his proposal to build a downtown ballpark for the Nashville Sounds was sputtering, team general manager Glenn Yaeger spotted Mayor Bill Purcell enjoying a game at Greer Stadium. The two had engaged in distant discussions about a new park a few times before in the mayor's office, but they seemed hopelessly stalled. The Sounds wanted Metro to back nearly $40 million in bonds to build the park, which would be covered in part by increased sales taxes generated from the project. The mayor's office, though, wanted the Sounds to find a third-party guarantor so that taxpayers wouldn't be on the hook.

i But if Nashville has learned anything about Glenn Yaeger, it's that he's more persistent than a beer vendor. The man simply doesn't give up. So when he saw the mayor that day with his senior advisor Patrick Willard, he quickly grabbed a seat next to Hizzoner. Purcell and Willard probably just wanted to relax and take in a game. But Yaeger started in about the new minor league ballparks being built across the country. Not surprisingly, the mayor, who must be a whiz at Trivial Pursuit, was well-versed on nearly all of them. Then as their conversation was wrapping up, Yaeger mentioned his own plan for a ballpark.

"I said this project was so strong that there were some aspects of the project that we could privately finance," Yaeger recalls.

And just like that, the two had rounded third. On Monday, after years of drawn-out negotiations that tested everyone's patience, Mayor Bill Purcell announced his support for a new park because, as it turns out, the city won't have to issue public debt to build the stadium. Taxpayers won't be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars. The Sounds development group and its bank, First Tennessee, will lead an effort to privately bankroll the $43 million project. The city, in turn, will contribute the land—the 11-acre site of the old Nashville Thermal Transfer Plant along the river and five acres of property south of the newly built Gateway Bridge.

"We were never against it," Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips says about what finally tipped the mayor in the project's favor. "People felt like we were going to budge on the financing part, but we never did."

Which is pretty amazing. While the mayor's predecessor, Phil Bredesen, has the reputation for his business genius, Purcell negotiated a better arrangement for Nashville than both of Bredesen's signature deals, the Nashville Coliseum and the Gaylord Entertainment Center. While Metro spends nearly $20 million annually on debt service and operating expenses on the other two facilities, it will spend a mere $500,000 each year to maintain the new ballpark. And if the new park draws roughly 800,000 fans every summer, you could argue that the Sounds facility will help downtown much more than the stadium and the GEC. Also, as part of the project, a Baltimore-based developer will build condos and apartments around the stadium, dovetailing with Purcell's vision of a more livable downtown. His critics will just have to admit it: the controlling little bastard hit a home run.

Of course, though the Sounds and Yaeger didn't get everything they wanted, they didn't strike out either. Yaeger first unveiled his plans for this dream nearly two years ago. He tirelessly pitched that plan to reporters, business leaders and the Metro Council. That plan's core will be realized. Still, the Sounds will have to make higher annual payments than they would have under a city-backed bonds model.

In fact, even after Yaeger and First Tennessee had secured private financing for the project, they still had trouble making the numbers work. That's when the mayor's office offered the additional five-acre parcel that's part of the Rolling Mill Hill project. Purcell's last overture clinched the deal.

If still more local banks come through, the mayor's office will probably present a plan to the council by March. The mayor will probably encounter token opposition, but he won't have to play the heavy to garner support for a ballpark that the city doesn't pay for. A council-appointed task force already reviewed proposals for the best use of the old thermal site and chose the Sounds plan.

"This is really a great way for this plan to be done," says council member Christopher Whitson. "Let them get their private financing and let the city contribute the land." Besides, Whitson says, "If there's a better use for that land, I don't know what it is."

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