Maybe we need another helicopter ride

There was no strain as the helicopter carrying 1200 Nashvillians took off and flew us into the future.

Most of us were mesmerized as the then-mayor, Phil Bredesen, piloted the virtual helicopter six years into the future.  We looked out in amazement to see a new Nashville arena, and, wait, across the street a new downtown hotel…and, wait, can you believe it, a sparkling new Country Music Hall of Fame.  And, this was truly hard to imagine, people walking and spending money on Broadway all the way down to Second Avenue.  And, and…wow,what a ride.

It was April 4, 1994 and my partner had dragged me to yet another State of Metro address hosted by the Greater Nashville Chamber of Commerce.  It was always a fun event when you saw a lot of friends, but also predictable and a bit boring.  Not on this day, though..  This day we saw a vision of a mayor, who would never be pigeonholed as a huge sports fan, seeing the new sports and entertainment facility as the key to a major overhaul of Nashville’s physical downtown and our community’s lifestyle.

I kept thinking of this ride a few days ago when reading and hearing all the carping and whining about spending money on the Nashville arena and on the coliseum that houses the Titans. We’ve already forgotten what a catalyst those facilities were for cleaning up “Lower Broad” and the industrial slum across the river from downtown. Note that the coliseum wasn’t part of the Mayor’s helicopter ride that day, because the Oilers/Titans move to Nashville wasn’t yet on anyone’s radar screen.  Luckily, when the opportunity came, Mayor Bredesen was ready to act.  There were some bumps in the road, but in the end, nearly 60% of Metro voters said “Yes” to the NFL.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with raising questions about the maintenance costs of these facilities, but for God’s sake, folks, let’s not lose perspective about what they have done for this city. In hindsight, maybe the operating contracts could have been a little tighter. But isn’t it amazing how hindsight always rears its head after the opportunities are taken?

Maybe it would have been good for Nashvillians to have taken a virtual helicopter ride when the NCAA brought March Madness to Nashville this year. Thousands of people from throughout the country spent millions of dollars and had a great time (even better if their team won) in the arena, the restaurants, the hotels, visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame and on and on. Or when more than 60,000 celebrated New Year’s Eve in Nashville while they attended the Music City Bowl and spent millions of dollars to fill hotel rooms that are normally empty during that time of the year.  These are just two events in the past few months.

So, it takes some money to maintain and operate these entertainment jewels, but even with a hockey lock-out last season, these facilities are probably the most important thing to happen to Nashville in the last two decades.  They not only brought pleasure, but have generated millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

Maybe, just for perspective, we should take just a cursory look at some other recent capital expenditures or authorizations:

$9.7 million for “moving, set up, operating and leasing of relocations space for courthouse offices.” Had to have it, but that’s a lot for temporary space.

$25 million for an underground parking garage on the new courthouse site; great because I look forward to the new park adjacent to the courthouse;

$14.9 in deferred maintenance for schools, obviously needed.

$10 million a year for sidewalks; I enjoy the ones near me, but they don’t necessarily create revenue.

$19.4 million for “fleet purchases” (that’s cars and trucks); obviously we have to replace old fire and police vehicles and other necessary equipment.

And on and on.  I’m not saying any of these expenditures are not needed, but, again, let’s keep our perspective. The total authorized capital budget for 2004 was $242.3 million.   I’m sure every dollar was necessary, but I would almost bet that virtually all of that money together won’t generate the dollars and jobs like the arena and the coliseum.

Even if you don’t care for sports or concerts or ice shows or Mayor’s Night Out with school children, I hope you would agree that Nashville is a more vibrant place now than it was before we had these catalysts for change.

Thanks, Phil Bredesen, for taking us on that helicopter ride, but even more for having the vision to see what could happen and the fortitude to make it happen.  Maybe the whiners should take a helicopter ride. If they’re not up for that, maybe they should consider taking a hike instead.


Bo Roberts is a Nashville businessman and managing partner of Roberts Strategies.