Council approves Sounds stadium deal

$65M Sulphur Dell park set to open in 2015

The Nashville Sounds are set to play ball in a new park come 2015, after the Metro Council gave final approval Tuesday night to the deal for a baseball stadium at Sulphur Dell.

Legislation enabling the project was the only thing on the agenda for Tuesday night’s special called meeting and it took no more than 30 minutes for the council to pass it all on third reading. The council approved the $65 million bond issue for the stadium by a vote of 29-7. Two other bills related to the project — one dealing with land acquisition and the other amending the Phillips-Jackson Street Redevelopment plan to accommodate the project — passed 31-5 and 34-2, respectively.

Along with the ballpark, which will sit on Jackson Street between Third and Fifth avenues, the project includes $87 million in expected private development. The current timeline would have the stadium ready for the Sounds opening day in 2015.

Before the vote, At-Large Councilman Jerry Maynard, the project’s most prominent cheerleader, called it a historic night “because this will be the first time in almost 50 years that we will be making an economic development investment north of Broadway to the tune of $150 million.”

"I've seen major development in the Gulch. Major development downtown,” Maynard said. “Major development in SoBro. Major development in East Nashville. And as an at-large person, I have to look at what are the areas of town that we need to put public investment. And it's great that North Nashville is now going to get a shot in the arm. That historic Jefferson Street will get a shot in the arm."

Councilman Lonnell Matthews also hailed the project as a chance to resurrect a historic, but long dormant, part of the city.

"I grew up in this city and I've heard stories about Jefferson Street and they've only been stories,” he said. “I didn't get to live through the vibrancy of Jefferson Street that I've heard about before the interstate came through. But I can make a decision tonight, and we all can make a decision collectively, so that my children — whenever I have them — my children will be able to see a thriving Jefferson Street."

There’s no doubt that this day has been long-awaited by a part of town that many feel has been overlooked during a steady stream of economic development projects, and by the Sounds who have spent the better part of a decade angling for a new stadium. But once it came, some on the council and in the community felt it moved too fast.

Although word of the plans for a new ballpark came back in August, the full details of the project and the plan to finance were not released until Nov. 11. In less than a month, the deal has secured final approval, with some efforts to slow it down defeated along the way.

Concern, if not opposition, arose in some quarters due to the financial details. The deal calls for Metro to pay $65 million on the front end — $27 million to acquire the land from the state and $37 million to build the stadium, plus $5 million in capitalized interest during construction. Coupled with that are two planned private developments, one to be built by the Sounds ownership and the other, which had been in the works prior to the ballpark proposal, from Embrey Development. Neither the Sounds nor Embrey are contractually obligated to do follow through.

To pay off the $65 million debt service on the stadium, Metro plans to use the following: The Sounds annual lease payment of $700,000; property tax revenue from the expected Sounds and Embrey developments, projected to be $750,000 and $675,000 annually; the increase in local-option sales taxes and state sales tax generated on-site, estimated at $650,000 annually; and the existing tax-increment financing plan for the area, which accounts for $520,000.

Along with that, Dean administration officials noted, an annual payment of $250,000 to the Sounds for Greer Stadium maintenance and the city will no longer pay the state $410,000 annually to lease the former Tennessee Preparatory School property which is now the Nashville School of the Arts campus.

But the deal is not budget-neutral. Metro will pay $345,000 annually toward the debt service on the stadium. That’s the part of the deal, which he said “could be worse,” Councilman Josh Stites urged his colleagues to remember Tuesday night.

"I think this is going to be good for Jefferson Street,” he said. “It's going to be great for that area and for that I'm thankful. But I think there is a number that we all need to remember, and that number is [$345,000]. That's the number we're estimating will impact our general fund each year."

More broadly, Stites reiterated that saying yes to $65 million for a baseball stadium meant saying no to $65 million for something else in the future — be it schools, libraries, or a different economic development project. On top of that, he suggested Nashville should take a hint from cities before it.

"As a city, we need to look at cities around us like Memphis and Chattanooga, both who have stadiums in their downtown areas that are struggling,” he said. “And just take that as a cautionary tale that maybe we as a city don't want to go into the minor-league baseball stadium business."

But after the Metro Sports Authority votes Wednesday morning to give final approval to the bond issue, Nashville will once again be in the minor-league baseball stadium business.

With the goal of opening the ballpark by the spring of 2015, construction should begin early next year.