After nine years of discussion, controversy, planning and construction, Nashville’s mammoth, gleaming new $585 million convention center opened with two days of public events and concerts Sunday and Monday.
The new Music City Center is three times bigger than the city’s existing convention center, which opened in 1987, and nearly 3 1/2 times bigger than the Memphis Cook Convention Center that opened in 1974. An 800-room Omni Nashville Hotel under construction next door will open this fall and has already booked 250,000 room nights through conventions and meetings in the years ahead.
Those facts have Memphis convention planners concerned, even as they applaud Nashville’s chutzpah in building the 1.2 million-square-foot, architecturally unique MCC.
“I think it’s bold news on the part of Nashville, a smart move on the part of their community,” said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s clearly going to pay huge dividends for Nashville tourism for years to come. And it’s clearly going to have an impact on Memphis because of the size and scope of the facility.
“We’re very concerned about what the long-term impact will be on Memphis. Nashville is a strong convention and meetings destination to begin with. They got stronger with this move. Will it put us out of business? Of course not. Will it make our job a little more difficult? You better believe it will.”
Music City Center occupies what had been six square blocks of parking lots, one-story office buildings, service and repair shops, a strip joint, a Greyhound bus station and an electrical substation — all demolished or moved when construction began in March 2010.
The center is the latest project in a massive transformation of the “SoBro” area, south of Broadway’s famed honky-tonks, that includes 20,000-seat Bridgestone Arena, a Hilton Hotel, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, 29-story Pinnacle office tower and a 21-story luxury condominium tower.
The $250 million Omni shares the block east of the center with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which is being expanded and integrated with the hotel as part of a separate $34 million city-funded project.
The project dwarfs Memphis’ modest renovations to the Cook over the years, including the 2003 expansion that added the city’s high-end performance center, the Cannon Center.
The convention center’s most striking feature is its wavy, flowing and open architecture, which combines artistic themes evoking guitars, sound waves and rolling hills. Four acres of the roof is an undulating space covered with live vegetation; the rest of the roof is a giant outline of guitar hiding a 200-kilowatt solar panel grid. Rainwater from the roof is stored and used for restrooms.
Seven outdoor balconies of varying sizes jut out of the building on three sides, encouraging visitors to walk outside, and much of the building’s exterior walls is glass. Even the main 350,000-square-foot exhibition hall is glass-walled on one side.
“Unlike a lot of convention centers, this building is filled with windows. Visitors are going to have natural light and are going to be able to orient themselves with our city,” Mayor Karl Dean said during a preview tour last week. The center has 60 meeting rooms totaling 90,000 square feet.
Dean spearheaded the project after his first election in 2007, following three years of indecision by city leaders and opposition by former mayor Bill Purcell, who focused his efforts on the city’s neighborhoods after years of big civic projects by his predecessor, Phil Bredesen. Dean persuaded the Metro Council to approve the project in January 2010.
The city sold $623 million worth of bonds to finance the center, to be repaid with revenue primarily generated through visitors: half of the 6 percent hotel-motel tax, an additional $2 per-room per-night room tax, a 1 percent surcharge on rental cars and a $2 “airport ground transportation departure” fee every time a taxi, shuttle, bus or other commercial vehicle exits the airport. Also earmarked for paying the debt are all future increases in sales tax revenue collected from a downtown tourism development zone and all sales tax collected at the center and the hotel.
After the open house, tours and free concerts, the first paid event is a sports festival this weekend. The Country Music Association’s annual Music Fest is scheduled. The 2014 NCAA women’s basketball Final Four is set across the street at the arena, but it wouldn’t have come without the new convention center. The National Rifle Association’s huge national convention is booked for 2015.
The center enables the city to go after 75 percent of the nation’s conventions and exhibitions, said Charles Starks, MCC’s president and CEO. “The average size of the group that’s booking with us now is about 6,500 attendees. The old center is about 1,500 attendees. So the sheer size of the groups coming is dramatically increasing.”
In Memphis, studies commissioned by Mayors Willie Herenton and then A C Wharton have recommended new facilities, and Wharton said in January he’d take up the task again with a new committee that would explore the city’s overall convention business and operations.
Dean, 57, a Massachusetts native and Vanderbilt University Law School graduate, is the county’s former elected public defender. Dean won re-election in 2011 with 79 percent of the vote, and clearly feels vindicated by the project, which was loudly opposed by some council members and others. ___