The Metro mayoral race has stirred a lot of debate about “surplus” sales tax collected through Nashville’s “tourism development zone,” which was created in 2009 by the Tennessee General Assembly at Metro’s request.
Tourism Development Zone
The TDZ was created to fund operational costs and debt service payments of the planned Music City Center. A portion of the sales tax surplus collected in the specific geographical zone surrounding the new convention center, with residential and some commercial properties omitted, were then earmarked to fund the MCC.
The MCC has performed well above expectations — recent reports say it generated a direct economic impact in fiscal year 2019 of nearly $440 million, up more than $90 million from 2018. The MCC’s surplus fund has now become the focus of a larger debate on how the Metro government should balance its support of downtown and tourism compared to its support of Nashville’s neighborhoods and community needs.
The legislature-granted parameters of the Music City Center funding are very precise and defined by the Convention Center and Tourism Development Financing Act of 1998, updated in September 2018. It’s not a simple matter to reprioritize or redirect the use of any surplus funds, and the holders of the bonds sold to finance the MCC would likely not make it easy to redefine the funding source that repays their loans.
Can we change the rules?
Despite these challenges, it isn’t impossible to consider alternate methods to supplement Nashville’s needs using a portion of these surplus funds. Even with the fairly precise legislative and fiscal parameters, it would be prudent to identify all options on the table for helping balance the scales between downtown and neighborhoods. That is, after all, the overarching goal of the Blue Ribbon Commission, which was established in June 2018 and promptly fulfilled its initial goal of identifying $20 million in cost savings.
We are reminded frequently about Nashville’s issues around income inequality, affordable housing and quality public education, which will have significant impact on the next mayoral administration. Without directing attention away from these critical inequalities, there are other inequalities that also need attention. Those are the inequalities between the Nashville we live in and the Nashville that the world visits.
Quite frankly, downtown has been receiving a disproportionately large piece of the pie. Even still, the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., which is understandably focused only on the downtown areas that draw tourists, has done its part in recent years to support Nashville’s neighborhoods and multicultural aspects.
But multiple mayoral administrations have continued the pattern of their predecessors, of supporting major downtown initiatives with comparatively less attention for our neighborhoods. Corporate development, both downtown and across Middle Tennessee, has been the primary focus of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce for decades. The chamber’s emphasis on regional growth and on corporate development has clearly worked well — too well, in many people’s minds. They’ve beefed up the steroidal growth in outlying counties and downtown’s corporate sector, but it’s been at the expense of our neighborhoods and everyday citizens.
Neighborhoods need more attention
Our neighborhoods need more attention, even if they aren’t a major driver of corporate or tourism dollars. Donelson doesn’t necessarily attract a significant portion of downtown’s tourists, but it certainly attracts prospective residents and has the infrastructure and educational needs to prove its status as a thriving neighborhood. Antioch has the resources to continue its climb as one of Nashville’s most attractive corporate growth sectors, but it’s not one of the boxes vacationers would check as their reason for visiting Nashville.
Neighborhoods where we live and raise our families deserve as much attention and support as the “neighborhoods” that attract those who visit our city. We’re happy for Nashville’s increased tourism dollars and the long-range financial security it can bring, but we shouldn’t have to starve our neighborhoods to feed downtown’s growth.
There are some commonsense options on the table to ensure Metro’s allocation of funds results in all neighborhoods receiving equal support. Each one of our communities — whether it’s Bellevue or Whites Creek, Bordeaux or Woodbine — deserves our support. We’re more than a city that is great at welcoming visitors. We are a city that takes care of its own.
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.