Sticky Article Arena project was catalyst for Nashville's transformation

Arena project was catalyst for Nashville's transformation
As seen in Inside Business

NASHVILLE

Justin Bieber brought a hot tub.

Madonna’s team transformed a hockey locker room into a luxurious suite.

“It was super gorgeous and you would not know that you were in a locker room at all,” said Ashlee Stokely, director of event services for the Bridgestone Arena.

“And we had to get brand new toilet seats for all the toilets in that room specifically. So when they showed up, you had to have the box, and the plastic on them,” Stokely said.

Cher and her entourage brought enough clothes and costumes to fill three rooms.

On the afternoon of Cher’s performance, Stokely had a wardrobe malfunction. She split her pants. It was 4 p.m. and there wasn’t time to leave the building to deal with it.

“I sent my intern to Target to get pants, but in the meantime, I sat in Cher’s robe, literally, in the wardrobe room and they sewed my pants up,” she said.

Each year, arena events bring hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact to the city. At last check, about five years ago, that number was about $400 million. Seventy-six percent of money generated is from people who don’t live in Nashville or adjacent Davidson County. And arena patrons generate about $17 million in annual sales tax revenue within the venue's walls.

Predators President and CEO Sean Henry said updated economic numbers are being compiled.

Speaking for about an hour in a candid and occasionally irreverent conversation, Henry credited former Nashville Mayor and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen for pushing the arena project forward, pulling in the region’s largest stakeholders and building collaboration to develop and build the venue, which opened two decades ago.

About 40 Hampton Roads business, economic and community leaders were in Tennessee from Nov. 28 through Nov. 30 to learn firsthand what’s driving the city’s economic, workforce infrastructure and sense of place development successes. The Hampton Roads Chamber organized the trip.

In the mid 90s, Henry worked for a company that managed venues, negotiated leases, sold sponsorships and financed buildings. The company was interested in four projects at that time and moved on two of them. 

Those projects were the relocation of the NFL’s Rams from Los Angeles to St. Louis; the Jacksonville Jaguars expansion team and a renovation of the Gator Bowl; building the Ice Palace in Tampa; and the then-proposed Nashville arena.

The problem with the Tampa and Nashville projects his company didn't take on? They were to be built in blighted areas.

Nashville's recently demolished downtown convention center’s back side and loading dock faced a main corridor – Broadway. Now that street, neighborhood and the city are filled with positive energy, live music and tourists, and economic investments.

The arena project, advocates say, was a catalyst.

Tampa turned a corner too.

Henry’s company bought the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999 and he ran the team for more than a decade.

Southeastern Virginia, Henry said, “is a lot like the Tampa market. You have multiple counties, multiple cities, multiple municipalities, multiple egos, multiple sets of desires for an array of reasons that are in conflict with each other.”

Resolving those conflicts, Henry said, positioned Tampa to think and act regionally.

Hampton Roads leaders worked for two years to bring an arena of similar size as Nashville's to the Oceanfront, near the convention center. Financing issues have stalled the project.

THEN AND NOW

About 20 years ago, downtown Nashville “was dead.” Bredesen said. It was one of the first problems he dealt with. Bredesen proposed the arena in his second year as mayor. About 17 percent of people supported the idea, according to a poll at the time.

 

“I started out thinking of retail, which is what everybody thought we should be doing. That was what had been lost in the downtown area and a lot of people wanted to bring it back. And I couldn’t see any way to do that.”

In essence, Bredesen said, “nobody was going to drive downtown, and pay to park to buy a pair of shoes in the city. It just wasn’t going to happen.”

The former governor, who has confirmed his interest in running for the U.S. Senate to replace retiring Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, acknowledged he took a development approach “which was very high-handed, I suppose, (which) was just to say ‘We’re going to build an arena. We’re going to build it here. I’m willing to talk about the size, the design, the height, the anything else, but here’s where it’s going. Just put that off the table.’”

Bredesen also quipped he learned a public relations lesson about shepherding big projects – announce a cost that’s higher than anticipated, one that’s unlikely to be exceeded.

“When I first talked about the arena (I said) ‘We’re going to build a $100 million arena. … As a businessman, talking very early on, that means to me I’m going to build an arena that’s going to cost between $90 million and $120 million.”

The project went over the initially announced cost. For two years, Bredesen said he “endured” newspaper headlines to the effect of “Mayor’s project now $8 million over budget.”

BUSY REHEARSAL HALL TOO

On a recent Thursday morning, music thumped behind a closed, guarded door in the building’s lower level. Paramore was perfecting its act in the rehearsal hall, a 40,000-square-foot space that stays just as busy as the rest of the building.

Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert also rehearse at the arena.

“They’ll come in, they’ll hang out for eight to 10 weeks at a time, and they’ll build their tours from top to bottom,” Stokely said. Then from Nashville, artists hit the road.

Bredesen said “civic furniture” such as arenas and pro sports teams, often “don’t produce a direct benefit ... but give the city structure that makes it a good place to live, it attracts young people and professional people, all different kinds of people to remain in the city or to come to the city and make a lively place.”

Nashville is poised to possibly add a piece to its civic furniture collection. The city is one of four finalists for a Major League Soccer expansion team.

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