One of the last-minute surprises that’s filling Metro’s budget gap this year is a payment of $3.6 million from the city’s tourism agency.
The Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation volunteered to share that money from its reserves, even though it wasn’t legally required. Butch Spyridon, the CVC president, says the gift makes sense, because a thriving city is essential for the tourism that his organization promotes.
“We are willing to help support and work with the city. You can always revisit how we’re spending. But we’re an economic development engine. We’re a revenue-generating entity,” he said. “By anybody’s measurement, it’s working.”
The CVC promotes Nashville around the world, courts conventions to come to town, and throws some of the city’s biggest parties, including the annual New Year’s Eve celebration on Bicentennial Mall.
Visitors are up, and Nashville has repeatedly landed in the national spotlight. But that has come with friction.
“The ‘entertainment chaos’ downtown — and tourism as an economic engine for the city — gets blurred,” Spyridon said. “I understand that. I get frustrated by it. But those are two very different things.”
The CVC is mostly funded from a share of hotel taxes, which have more than doubled in a decade. That allowed the agency to stockpile reserves and make this year’s payment.
Attention On Tourism Dollars
Yet misgivings about tourism played a major role in Nashville’s recent elections, and the success of the tourism industry has caught the attention of Metro’s Blue Ribbon Commission, which works to identify wasteful government spending and suggest better ways of doing things.
In its first year, members suggested Metro could be capturing more revenues from tourism. And the group noted it might be time to study how much of the hotel tax should go to the Convention and Visitors Corporation. (State officials would need to agree to any change to the tax formula.)
Commission members say Nashville’s election season put even more attention on tourism dollars.
“The public feels there’s been a little bit too much attention paid to downtown and not enough in the other areas of the city,” said commission member and former councilwoman Emily Evans.
For the upcoming year, Blue Ribbon members have decided to focus solely on the growing pains of tourism. That decision comes at the direction of Mayor John Cooper. The mayor helped create the commission in the first place when he was a Metro councilman, and he has made the quest for tourism revenues a focal point of his administration.
The new Blue Ribbon chairman is Dave Goetz. He said he wants to get to the bottom of the tourism question: Does the industry pay for itself?
“I think we have to understand what is already being done to support tourism, what is not being done, and what the revenues that tourism both consumes and produces are,” Goetz said.
It came as news to Spyridon that tourism would occupy the Blue Ribbon Commission in 2020.
He says he hopes to be at the table in those talks, so that no hasty measures come down on the tourism industry.
“I’d be the first to tell you: Yeah, you could probably strip us and not feel it for a year or two. But in three or four years, everybody’s going to go: What the hell happened?” Spyridon said. “And then it’s going to take 5 or 10 years to get it back, if you can get it back at all.”
And he says there’s an ongoing conversation about whether the CVC could start making an annual contribution to Metro, perhaps to offset costs associated with large downtown events.
“We obviously need to find a different or additional plan, because what we have doesn’t suffice,” he said.
Spryidon says Nashville’s tourism momentum is the envy of cities nationwide, and that without proper care, the angst over tourists could chase away all the dollars that they bring.