Nashville Tax Abatements

The Metro Nashville Council Meeting last night was one for the history books, and while I have a great deal to say about the Council’s response to the mourners and protestors of Jocques Clemmons’ death, first I want to address some other Council proceedings which spoke to what may seem like an unrelated but what is actually a tangential issue in Nashville.

Passed on second reading was Ordinance No. BL2017-589, an ordinance designed to grant Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center a tax abatement package for developing a new water park complex for the use of guests of the Opryland Hotel. The package has several elements:

In addition to the boat access, and what some Council members hope to develop into an Opryland Greenway connector to the Cumberland River Pedestrian Bridge, supporters of the tax abatement claim the following benefits to Metro:

Those familiar with Nashville development are well aware that tax abatements are common in the city. Councilman Jim Shulman questioned whether Metro had ever studied whether the benefits of these tax abatements had ever come to fruition. It was stated that Metro Finance was in the process of performing such a public study, and that so far the results were positive that tax abatements work in producing job growth. It is reasonable to suppose that the water park will provide a number of low wage jobs for Nashvillians in addition to the aforementioned benefits.

Ultimately Shulman, along with Councilors John Cooper and Colby Sledge, chose not to vote for the ordinance for a number of stated reasons, not the least of which being the city’s residents are about to see a property tax increase due to reappraisal, and therefore a tax abatement to one of Nashville’s wealthiest landowners is going to be a hard sell to their constituents.

The Councilmen pointed out that this tax abatement is for a water park that the citizens of Nashville won’t be able to use, since unlike Nashville Shores it is part of a private hotel. Gaylord already responded to a request for one or two public days at their Soundwaves water park as “very impractical and very difficult.”

Councilwoman Nancy VanReese, who is a proponent of the tax abatement, scoffed at the claim that the water park wouldn’t be open to Nashvillians. She pointed out that Nashville is a great place to “staycation,” and that of course Nashvillians are free to stay at the hotel and use the water park. This was an extraordinary claim coming from the representative of District 8. Here are some facts about District 8:

Councilwoman VanReese’s insistence that a water park, accessible at a hotel rate of upwards $200 per night, is even remotely accessible for her constituents is ridiculous. This would be a “staycation” option for only the wealthiest of Nashvillians, whom she does not represent. VanReese could legitimately make the argument that the water park might provide her constituents with much-needed employment, or that “a rising tide raises all boats.” However, it’s disheartening that a representative who should – judging by the composition of her District – be near the forefront of combating poverty issues in Nashville, still thinks it’s appropriate to claim Nashvillians are able to pay $200 per night for recreation.

One of the more important statements made during the twenty minute public comments period at the end of the meeting by the family of Jocques Clemmons and their supporters was a gentleman who pointed out that many in our community have been “torn up by old Nashville.” Their communities have problems, and they need help, and members of the Council are in a position of power to provide some of that help. Poverty breeds crime, and crime feeds a perception (by the police in particular), that citizens are a hazard who must be controlled instead of valued neighbors who should be served and protected. The idea that Metro government isn’t significantly responsible for the development of this poverty and crime blatantly ignores the facts of our local government’s history of ignoring, when they weren’t outright destroying, these areas for the gain of others. Nashville created this problem, and now Nashville, together, must solve it.

Poverty and crime and the racism that often go with them may seem like entrenched, insurmountable issues which can never get better, but they are not. Other local governments, for example Utah and Chattanooga, have faced issues like chronic or veteran homelessness and effectively solved them. Significant progress can be made, and plans already exist for most of the challenges we face, but we must have the political will to enact those plans and allocate the necessary resources. When the Metro government is more concerned with handing out tax abatements to profitable corporations than extending a hand up to its most vulnerable citizens, it’s no wonder that our poverty rate keeps growing, our income disparity keeps widening, and people who have lived here for generations keep getting priced out of the county.

Personally, I am not against the water park or even necessarily the tax abatement for it, because I think that Nashvillians will receive a net gain in exchange for the property tax revenue loss. I grew up riding the Grizzly River Rampage, and there are few Nashvillians who don’t remember the old theme park with some nostalgia, so a new water park sounds nice even if I might not be able to afford it. However, I would like to see our Council representatives demonstrate a better appreciation for the actual economic circumstances of their citizens, and what our priorities in public spending actually mean in terms of the priorization of their interests.