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VOL. 35 | NO. 50 | Friday, December 16, 2011

Transforming the East Bank

Proponents of new Sounds stadium see location as game changer for city's neglected riverfront

By Linda Bryant

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Minor league baseball could do something for Nashville that professional football hasn’t – transform the East Bank of the Cumberland River into a thriving business and entertainment hub.

That’s what some East Nashville neighborhood leaders and residents are hoping for as they rally behind the East Bank as the top location site for a new minor league stadium for the Nashville Sounds.

They remember the promises of a small business boom that came when LP Field opened in 1999. It never happened.

District 6 Metro Council member Peter Westerholm, who represents the area surrounding the yet-to-be financed project, has an expansive vision for the East Bank.

He sees the revitalization as a sweeping metamorphosis of a largely contiguous two-mile swath of city-friendly developments on the riverfront. The long strip would incorporate a medley of sports and recreational options – Shelby Park, LP Field, Cumberland Park, the Metro-backed $30 million, family-friendly “play park,” which is nearing completion, the new Sounds stadium and, ultimately, a new development for public use at the PSC scrap metal site.

“This is about transforming the future of the riverfront,” Westerholm says. “It gives us an option as a city to confront the waterfront in general. Eventually, it can mean that we also confront the PSC scrap metal facility. It’s been blight for decades. It’s a tremendous eyesore and such a bane to development on the east side.”

PSC, which has been in place for more than 40 years, would have to be relocated, a move that could prove costly for Metro.

LP Field, with its annual schedule of eight regular-season NFL games, Tennessee State University home games and occasional concerts, didn’t create expected commercial development, just a handful of convenience stores and a couple of restaurants and motels. The addition of the Sounds, with more than 70 home games each season, would create a larger influx of people and, potentially, businesses, Westerholm says.

“You’d have an increase in events from the Sounds and a lot of families coming to the new water park,” he adds. “You begin to get to critical mass.”

A Metro-financed study by the sports consulting firm Populous suggests the area around the stadium would be suitable for residential, retail, other entertainment opportunities and a hotel. Full copy of study (25MB).

District 7 Metro Councilman Anthony Davis, who represents portions of Inglewood and Madison and owns iDesign, a web development business on Gallatin Road, has been approached by east side residents and small business owners who are interested in locating businesses near the proposed stadium. Davidson Street is drawing the most attention as a location for new businesses, he says.

“At this point, relocation to the East Bank makes good business sense for the Sounds, for Nashville and for the east side,” Davis says. “In business, you go where you are most likely to get the people. You put the happening things where the people are.”

Dentist Thomas Hadley,president of the East Nashville Merchant’s Association, says he is convinced minor league baseball would spark new businesses, particulary on Davidson.

“It’s an industrial street that’s really ready for redevelopment,” Hadley says. “There’s room for retail, restaurants and residential projects. People are already talking about it.”

Westerholm and Davis believe East Nashville will continue to galvanize in support of the new stadium. But those residents aren’t the only ardent supporters.

The location has the enthusiastic support of the Sounds’ top brass, and Mayor Karl Dean has weighed in positively, although he’s also been complimentary about the other two potential locations -- historic Sulphur Dell site in North Nashville, where minor league baseball thrived until 1963, and the North Gulch at Charlotte Avenue location near Interstate-65 and Nelson Merry Street.

Those three were identified as the best potential locations by the Populous report, which ruled out building at the site of the current stadium, as well as a riverside site near Jefferson Street and the downtown site of the old thermal transfer plant on the west bank of the Cumberland.

Merchants, property owners and residents of the west bank also are beginning to get excited about the East Bank, says attorney Shawn Henry, president of The District, a non-profit downtown business group that advocates for businesses on Broadway, 2nd Avenue and Printers Alley.

“There’s a synergy of factors that make the East Bank an attractive site,” Henry says. “It’s in close proximity to downtown, the Titans stadium and the new waterfront park. You are close enough to capture pedestrians who will potentially walk to and from downtown to the stadium. Walking is the key here; everything will be within walking distance. That’s not the case with the other two proposed sites.”

Investor Brad Daniel, who lives and works downtown and owns the Market Street Emporium on 2nd Avenue, also supports East Bank relocation. Daniel believes the stadium will succeed because Downtown is already an established, thriving market.

“We have such a great opportunity in Nashville,” Daniel says. “We are doing well in the recession compared to other cites. There are so many positive things happening. There’s nothing to say we won’t just keep on going, keep on building on our successes.”

Westerholm and Henry envision an ease-of-use surrounding East Bank development that includes plenty of parking, active shuttle buses and frequent use of the Shelby Street Pedestrian bridge.

“The momentum supporting the East Bank is building,” Westerholm says.

But a little caution in moving forward could be in order, too.

At least two national experts say it’s good idea to take projections of economic impact and growth associated with a new stadium with a grain of salt.

Construction estimates on the stadium, according to a Metro-financed report released on Dec. 1, would generate $53.4 million in total economic output with 382 full-time jobs, theoretically making back the money spent.

“It’s clear that Nashville doesn’t want to lose their Triple A affiliate, and I hope they don’t,” says Bruce A. Seaman, a professor of economics at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University who is considered an expert in economic impact analysis. “But it’s also important to note that many statements of economic impact in these types of situations sometimes overreach on the numbers.

“The simple economy of minor league sports is not about really big dollars. It offers an affordable, fun and family-friendly form of entertainment. Minor league baseball is usually much better as a community asset, as an addition to quality of life, than as a huge economic generator.”

Andrew Schrage, who heads Money Crashers, one of the most trafficked finance websites and blogs, also recommends a cautious approach.

“Minor league baseball is a risky venture when trying to calculate the return on investment,” Schrage says. ”A public referendum would be in order before taking on such a project.

“I have seen cities conduct open and honest referendums regarding minor league stadiums and I have also seen them “snuck in” during midnight hour council meetings,” Schrage adds.” If you’re going to ask the public to foot the bill, they should have a say in the process. Unless there is a true thirst for minor league baseball that can likely feed the economy not only in the short term, but also the long term, a project like this should not be taken on lightly.”

Schrage said some of the most successful minor league teams have attempted to offset the use public dollars with guaranteed loans, private loans, private investment and selling the naming rights to the stadium beforehand.

For example, the Gwinnett Braves, the minor league affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, sold the naming rights to their stadium in a multi-million dollar deal.

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