After just nine days in office, Nashville Mayor John Cooper has struck a deal with the city’s Convention Center Authority to bring more money into the city budget.
The agreement announced Thursday is a major campaign promise fulfilled for the mayor, but stops short of solving the city’s looming budget shortfall.
The deal, which awaits formal authority approval next month is simple: the Music City Center doesn’t have to pay property taxes, but its leaders have agreed to start making an annual contribution in the amount that it would be taxed.
That’s $12.6 million the first year — sent to the city, no strings attached, said a celebratory Mayor John Cooper.
“During the campaign, I talked about the need for tourist dollars to serve residents and today we are receiving a welcome dividend on our biggest investment in downtown,” he said. “It’s fantastic. … It’s something that many people said was not possible.”
The past few years, Metro negotiated one-time payments from the lucrative convention center, which has built up a sizable and much-discussed surplus thanks to its success in booking events.
The new deal means money will come to Metro dependably each year.
“It’s a long-term plan. It helps us stay on a good basis in the city. And it helps us to continue to be a good partner with the city,” said Marty Dickens, chairman of the board for the Convention Center Authority.
He estimated the authority has given Metro nearly $80 million since opening in 2013. That includes a $10 million payment this year, which is separate from the latest $12.6 million.
None of the leaders involved would detail how the deal came together.
Dickens noted that because of open meeting laws, the authority’s board members could not meet to make decisions, but that Music City Center CEO Charles Starks acted as a go-between.
“For us, internally, we’ve been thinking through this for a while. It’s not new to us,” Starks said.
Asked about access to the convention center’s remaining surplus, Dickens said that money is meant to go into upgrades or an expansion, and that some must be kept on hand for a “rainy day.”
Starks said he remains interested in funding civic projects.
“We are still interested in projects that benefit conventioneers and tourism and in working with our partners around the city,” he said.
City Budget Situation Evolves
For the current fiscal year, the new money will go partway toward plugging a hole in Metro’s budget.
But reacting to the announcement, Metro Council Budget Chairman Bob Mendes noted the city is still far short.
“This is the low-hanging fruit,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go before we can even stop sliding backwards. … We have to squeeze money out of downtown, we have to figure out how to rework it, but at the end of the day, we’re going to be looking at adjusting our revenue, which has fallen sorely behind our needs.”