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Mayor's Op-Ed: A Stadium Deal That Works For Everyone

2/10/2020
Chris Song

The following op-ed was submitted to The Tennessean and published on Sunday, February 9, 2020.

A stadium deal that works for everyone
Mayor John Cooper

Nashville is very much open for business, and we are in the business of stewarding taxpayer dollars and public assets. A mayor should negotiate for the whole city and be a voice for every resident.

Addressing the shortcomings of a financially unimplementable soccer stadium deal has taken longer than I would have liked, but a thoughtful process takes time. I’m committed to making soccer a success. I’m honoring Metro’s commitment to build a stadium. Now, we need a financially sustainable path forward for soccer that enhances and preserves the historical uses of the fairgrounds. I’d like to explain the process and my guiding principles as I serve as your mayor.

In my campaign’s policy platform book, I wrote: “Only a mayor can turn the page and usher in an era of good management. As mayor, I will put taxpayers first in negotiations.” I take that commitment to put taxpayers first very seriously.

As a council member, I opposed the stadium deal because of cost concerns and the lack of any site selection process. As mayor, I’ve tried to put taxpayers first while being mindful of Metro’s prior commitments. Being a negotiator for the whole city doesn’t mean reflexively saying “yes” or “no”; rather, it means speaking up to say, “Not yet — let’s see if we can make this financially workable and beneficial to the county.”

I recognized the importance of keeping Metro’s commitment to soccer. Metro’s pledge of $225 million in revenue bonds for the stadium and $25 million for related infrastructure was never in question. But the previous arrangement included financial risk and cost overruns untenable for a budget-constrained city with urgent needs in education, transportation, affordable housing, public safety and neighborhood infrastructure. I could not, in good faith, commit to using additional taxpayer dollars on a private entertainment subsidy.

I’ve focused on controlling costs and creating a better site at our historic fairgrounds. I believe Nashvillians will be proud of the results. I’d like to unpack the $54 million in cost savings and explain my vision for the fairgrounds campus.

The historic fairgrounds campus deserves a master plan that works for all its uses and visitors. If we successfully integrate soccer and new development with enhanced historical uses, our fairgrounds will be one of Nashville’s signature public spaces. One historical use is auto racing, which is mandated by our Metro Charter. I’m working to find a path for racing’s success, and in these negotiations, I’ve secured additional space to allow for necessary speedway improvements. Higher-level auto racing will attract more visitors and ensure the long-term sustainability of the fairgrounds.

I’m hopeful that the 2.4 acres between the soccer stadium and the speedway (“Parcel 8c”) can be redesigned to create a public plaza worthy of the two great sports in neighboring 30,000-seat venues. A multi-functional plaza would address the operational needs of multiple fairgrounds uses, create open space on a campus home to Fair Park and Browns Creek Greenway, and shape a unified and beautiful fairgrounds for generations.

Negotiating for the whole city means making sure taxpayers are not responsible for covering private investors’ risk. The original financing arrangement for the stadium included a “Rent Reduction Guaranty” by Metro. That meant taxpayers would have paid up to $35 million in the event of soccer revenue shortfalls. As a result of our talks, this risk now falls on Nashville Soccer Holdings. That $35 million saved is $3 million more than the annual budget for all our public libraries.

When reviewing updated cost estimates, I was concerned that stadium-related infrastructure would cost roughly $19 million more than expected. The private investors — not taxpayers — have agreed to pay this bill. That savings alone is enough to pay for two brand-new fire stations.

Throughout the process, I’ve remained fully supportive of the community benefits agreement between Stand Up Nashville and Nashville Soccer Holdings. Metro government was never party to that agreement, but I am working to support its enforcement by including reference to the CBA in the lease agreement.

We are an ambitious city that can welcome a new sport, save taxpayers millions and create welcoming public spaces. Nashville will keep growing, and I pledge to continue working to make sure our growth is people-centric, neighborhood-friendly and financially sustainable. And in so many ways — from our streets to our schools — Metro needs to catch up to the growth we have already experienced. I am excited to move forward with the rest of my policy agenda to create a city that works for everyone.