In the past several weeks, a number of Metro Council members have been approached by their constituents to discuss the proposed $635 million Music City Center. But what have been billed as casual sit-downs with concerned citizens have turned out to be presentations by a paid lobbyist organized by the Music City Center Coalition.
That has raised the hackles of several Council members, who say the meetings are premature given the absence of a formal financing plan. They also have made it clear that, at this point in the process, they don’t want to be seen as endorsers of the massive SoBro project.
One such meeting was held last week in District 8. In an interview Friday, Council member Karen Bennett said a constituent she had not met before asked her to sit down with other concerned citizens to discuss the project. A date was set for last Thursday.
But on Wednesday, Bennett learned that Terry Clements, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau’s vice president of government and community relations and a registered lobbyist for the Music City Center, would be attending and giving a PowerPoint presentation on the case for a new convention center.
“I didn't realize it was a meeting per se,” Bennett said. “I thought it was a ‘Let's-get-together-and-talk’ thing.”
The gathering was announced on an Inglewood Neighborhood Association listserv in a short item that said the event was being hosted by the constituent and would feature Clements' presentation. The note also stated that Bennett would be in attendance and bolded and underlined her name.
Before the meeting began, Bennett addressed the group and explained she had not organized the event. Her concern, she told NashvillePost.com, was that she was not directly informed at the outset that a lobbyist in favor of the project would be in attendance.
Public meetings do need to be held by Council members on the project, she said, but not until all the relevant information is available in order to have a balanced discussion.
“We need the financial component to understand the complete package of the convention center and to make an informed decision,” she said.
Council member Jason Holleman also has – at the request of a constituent – attended a recent meeting where Clements gave his PowerPoint presentation. Holleman told NashvillePost.com he didn't organize the event and plans to hold his own public meeting with other Council members once new financial information is made available.
On Friday morning, Bennett called the Mayor's office, which oversees the CVB, to request a moratorium on such meetings.
“I'm just asking that they contact the convention center folks and request they don't handle their meetings that way anymore,” she said.
But Clements didn't come to the meetings at the behest of City Hall. According to Molly Sudderth, the CVB's director of communications, he was invited by the high-powered group working to see the project pass.
“Terry says the meetings have been organized by the Music City Center Coalition and that he has been invited to attend by the coalition,” Sudderth said, adding that, to Clements' knowledge, Bennett had been informed he would attend the gathering.
A representative of the coalition defended the presentations Monday morning and said the group will continue to invite Council members to such informational events.
“Over 50 associations have endorsed the Music City Center, and we have made presentations to hundreds of community groups to educate the citizens about its many benefits,” spokeswoman Beth Courtney said in a statement. “These particular meetings were at the request of citizens who are supportive of the convention center and we invited the councilpersons in the respective districts to attend. This is a standard and acceptable practice and we will continue to invite all councilpersons to our presentations as we educate the community about the Music City Center.”
But Council members remain concerned that public meetings held before key information is released – particularly when it comes to financing – are premature and in these cases biased. Council Member Mike Jameson has over a number of weeks been in touch with Charles Starks, the Convention Center’s executive director, about structuring the meetings to provide attendees a more complete and objective picture for discussion.
“It's important that when community meetings are scheduled to hear about the convention center, the public be informed of both sides of the issue, rather than one side,” said Jameson. “It seems basic and fundamental to me.”