“We have planned ourselves to death: Strategic planning, strategic planning, strategic planning.”
“It is time for strategic doing,” Commissioner Diana Biddle told the audience of about 100 people, to a round of applause.
Locals and a few visitors came to the Brown County Playhouse on June 20 to learn, ask questions and express support and concerns about a new county project: the Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center.
For the past four months, select public officials have been meeting informally to discuss how to build a music venue using innkeepers tax. It’s an idea that some organizers said had been in the back of their minds since the Little Nashville Opry burned in 2009.
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This meeting was the public’s first chance to see their work.
Concerns were raised about traffic in and out of already-busy area where the venue is proposed to be built. Senior citizens live there, too, and they drive their motorized scooters on roads where there are no or few sidewalks.
Questions about competing with the Playhouse and other venues were brought up as well.
Overall, residents voiced their support by giving a partial standing ovation to the presentation:
“Look at what we can accomplish. Seven people in here figured this out to this point,” Brown County Convention and Visitors Commission member Barry Herring said, fighting tears.
“I want to look at my grandkids some day and say, ‘Look, I was involved in getting the Maple Leaf here.’”
Biddle and Herring were joined on the Playhouse stage by Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jane Ellis, CVB board Chairman Bruce Gould, Convention and Visitors Commission President Kevin Ault, architect Doug Harden, county redevelopment commission member Jim Schultz.
The Maple Leaf is projected to make $3,060,000 a year, with $2.7 million of that coming from ticket sales. That’s based on selling 60,000 tickets at $45 apiece. Herring used 60,000 as the baseline because that was the Opry’s attendance on its worst year, he said.
The remainder of the venue’s earnings is to come from the sale of food and of beer and wine, estimating only $1 per person spent on food, Herring said.
The plan is to pay off the estimated $10.2 million cost to build the venue with innkeepers tax. It would be financed with a 30-year bond.
Visitors already pay a 5-percent innkeepers tax on room and cabin rentals, and 95 percent of that money has been going to run the CVB office and market Brown County.
Ellis told The Democrat for a June 14 story that a portion of the innkeepers tax would be used to cover the first bond payment, and cash flow from the venue would cover the annual payments of about $560,000 thereafter. But on June 21, she said she misspoke; the current plan is for the tax to cover all bond payments for 30 years.
Herring confirmed June 21 that the innkeepers tax is the funding mechanism for the life of the bond.
Innkeepers tax revenue has been rising most years since 2008 by 1 to 6.5 percent, according to his presentation.
For 2017, it’s expected to bring in $852,671, and the CVB had planned to spend $712,500 of that.
Herring, a former builder of commercial shopping centers, estimated the annual bond payment at $553,061.
That could mean the CVB’s budget would be reduced to around $400,000.
Herring said it would be highly unlikely that the innkeeper’s tax wouldn’t make enough to cover the annual bond payments.
“Every hotel would have to go bankrupt. (That) would be the only way the innkeepers tax doesn’t pay for it,” he said.
A decrease in the CVB’s budget means less money spent on advertising Brown County. But Ellis and Gould said social media could be used instead, and the county likely would get free publicity because of the Maple Leaf opening.
Organizers also anticipate a 25-percent increase in innkeepers tax collections because of the new attraction, assuming more guests stay overnight.
That could bring innkeepers tax collection for 2019 to $1,140,146, Herring said. That’s how he sees the CVB budget getting back up to its current level by 2019.
On June 20, the morning before the public presentation, the CVB and CVC boards voted to amend their contract, allowing more than $500,000 of innkeepers tax revenue to flow to a yet-to-be appointed redevelopment authority instead of the CVB.
A contract for 2019 is in the works, Gould said.
The Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center still has to get approval from multiple government entities over the next 180 days before ground can be broken.
Organizers want to see that happen before frost this year, with hopes of opening the venue in 2019.
About 10 residents from Willow Manor and Hawthorne Hills — the senior apartment buildings near the proposed Maple Leaf site — attended the meeting at the Playhouse.Three of them expressed concerns about using Hawthorne Drive as one of the two entrances to the venue.
“This Hawthorne Drive thing you guys are proposing ain’t gonna fly. I’ll say that right off the bat. We can argue about it, we can do whatever you want, but it’s just not going to happen,” Neil Smith said.
Smith lives in one of the apartments. He also posted a letter at the Brown County IGA encouraging residents to attend the meeting.
In his letter, he compared the traffic the venue would bring to Hawthorne Drive to Interstate 65 traffic.
“I’ve got all these old folks in wheelies and their canes and their walkers who use that street constantly, walk dogs back and forth. We just cannot have it. I am not going to see lives lost,” he said.
Hawthorne Hills resident Marcia Henson agreed.
“We have enough traffic down that road. … I am glad for the entertainment center, but you can use your entrance, not ours,” she said. “We want our seniors to live.”
Harden said the plan is to have 585 parking spaces, which is more than what the local zoning ordinance requires for that size of theater. However, they hope many concert-goers will walk to and from shows from their hotels in Nashville using the Salt Creek Trail.
He said the plan is to have two entrances. One of them would use Hawthorne Drive and possibly turn at West Chestnut Street next door to Hawthorne Hills, and/or go straight into the venue on Hawthorne.
The straight-shot option would require removing the Nashville Police Department’s station where Hawthorne dead-ends now. That’s an option Harden said is in negotiation with town officials. They are also talking with Brown County Health and Living Community about possible land swaps and other route possibilities, he said.
The second entrance would be built on a 50-foot strip of Snyder’s property that runs east of Salt Creek Plaza.
Harden said police would be asked to help direct traffic on show nights.
CVC member Derek Clifford said sidewalks might be built into the new road plan as well. Town Manager Scott Rudd had proposed adding a new sidewalk on Hawthorne Drive weeks ago, but the town council has moved that project off the top of the list for now.
Herring said he planned to meet with apartment residents. “I think they have some valid comments,” he said.
“Definitely, we want to make ingress and egress as simple and as easy as we can, so traffic goes in and clears in a shorter amount of time and a safe manner,” Harden said.
More for all?
How will the Maple Leaf affect the Brown County Playhouse and other music venues?
Herring said he’s heard that concern since plans for the Maple Leaf were announced earlier this month.
He said there are possibilities for joint advertising, not just with the Playhouse but with other music venues as well.
He also noted that since the Maple Leaf would be publicly and not privately owned, it would provide less competition to the Playhouse than another private venue would.
“It does not have to make major profit. It needs to keep lights on; it needs to pay the electric bill. It’d be nice to make profits because there a lot of wonderful things we could do with those profits,” he said.
“In fact, it’s going to be easier for us to give an act to the Playhouse,” he said.
Playhouse Executive Director Suzannah Levett Zody said she supports the Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center, but she would like to see the Playhouse involved “in a more concrete way.”
After the Opry burned down, the Playhouse continued to operate and do well for years after, she said.
“Part of that magic was there was no programming conflict, so I feel the need to ask we be included in the conversation about this type of programming and marketing,” she said.
“Our circle of theater professionals here would welcome the opportunity to work on this and consult with this, so that this benefits the Playhouse, so we’re not the shabby sister of the nice shiny thing outside of the town.”
Biddle said the Playhouse is where theater belongs. “We’re not going to compete against that in any way shape or form,” she said.
Shortly before the Maple Leaf announcement was made, Little Nashville Opry land owner Scott Wayman also announced plans to build and reopen a 2,000-seat concert hall in 2018.
In a prepared statement sent to The Democrat on June 14, Wayman said he “looks forward to doing our part.” He and his family have owned the land where the Opry once stood since April 2012.
“While I have not been in contact with anyone involved in the planning of the proposed Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center, I feel any venture that brings visitors to the area is a plus,” he wrote.
“The nearly 35-year history of success at the Little Nashville Opry shows that Nashville can draw concert-goers to the area.”
Herring said he hopes Wayman does build.
“I think once Nashville and Brown County become more known, more acts will come. I think everybody keeps trying to plant this seed that we would be nervous about splitting the pie, and I think it just makes the pie bigger,” he said.
“We’re getting to the point where you could spend a week in Nashville and be thoroughly entertained every night that you’re there. I think it’s wonderful.”
Herring presented several scenarios for how the revenue from the Maple Leaf could be put back into the community, since the plan is to have bond payments covered by innkeepers tax.
Suggestions included giving the county and town payments in lieu of taxes to make up for having much tax-exempt land in the county. Another idea was to give a percentage to the CVB until its funding reaches the 2017 level. Other ideas included donating a percentage to the Brown County Community Foundation or to the Playhouse, or the town of Nashville to offset costs like having police directing traffic; or contributing toward the expansion of broadband Internet through the county.
The broadband suggestion received applause from the Playhouse audience. Herring said more suggestions are welcome.
But his calculations, based on 60,000 annual ticket sales, the venue would make a minimum profit of about $200,000.
Biddle said the redevelopment authority may be able to appoint an advisory group to help make those decisions.
Herring also addressed concerns about the project being done “behind closed doors.”
He asked the audience to not confuse preparedness with secretive activity.
“When I’ve seen other projects come before the town and … when they were ill-prepared, I see the reaction it gets. What I felt was when I invited one person from each commission, from each board — I didn’t invite a quorum; I invited one person to these meetings — I wanted to make sure I was standing here ready in front of you to say this can happen,” he said, about early conversations among select government officials.
He reiterated that nothing is final, including the purchase of Snyder’s land, because it is all dependent on getting the approval of multiple government boards. All meetings from here on out will be done in public forums, he said.
“I’ve just made sure that standing before you today, with my friends and co-workers and fellow county residents, that I’ve done my homework,” he said.
Q: What is the Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center?
A: It’s a 2,000-seat music venue that a group of public officials want to see built in Brown County. They’ve been researching how it could be done for about four months.
“We don’t want to be tied to country music,” said Barry Herring, a Convention and Visitors Commission member and project organizer. “We want to see blues, we want to see rock.”
The venue also could also be used for community functions, like graduations and school performances, Herring said. Nationally known agency LiveNation is one of the companies being considered to book acts; it’s been suggested that the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau should manage the venue, but nothing has been decided.
Q: Where will it be built?
A: Chuck Snyder signed an offer with the CVC on June 15 to sell 13.75 acres of his farmland.
The venue would be built directly east of the Salt Creek Trail trailhead, behind Brown County Health and Living Community.
A 50-foot-strip of Snyder’s property east of Salt Creek Plaza would be used to build Maple Leaf Boulevard, a county road that would be one way to get into the venue. Hawthorne Drive also would be used and possibly widened to three lanes with sidewalks. Organizers have also suggested extending West Chestnut Street to meet up with Maple Leaf Boulevard, to help ease traffic congestion on performance nights.
The hope is that patrons will use the Salt Creek Trail to walk from Nashville to the venue, so vehicle traffic will be reduced.
Q: How much will it cost?
A: The estimated cost to build it and buy the land is $10.2 million.
Operating costs are estimated at $2.3 million, and include $900,000 for performers; $679,760 for food, beverage, production and booking fees; and $727,200 for payroll, marketing, maintenance, insurance and creating a reserve fund unforeseen costs.
Q: Who is paying for it?
A: Tourists will pay for it through the innkeepers tax, Herring said.
Visitors who stay in a hotel room or cabin already pay a 5-percent tax. For the past six to eight years, the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau has received 95 percent of that tax revenue to run its office and market Brown County. Last year the innkeepers tax brought in $813,743, up 6.5 percent over 2015. It is estimated to bring in $868,683 for 2017.
The hope is that the innkeepers tax will be used to cover the bond payment of $553,061 annually for 30 years, and that the CVB’s budget will recover to its 2017 operating levels after the venue has been open for a year or less.
The county commissioners will appoint a three-person redevelopment authority to lease the innkeepers tax revenue to create the bond.
Q: When will it open?
A: Organizers hope to break ground this year before frost. The goal is to build it in 2018 and open in early 2019.
Q: What has been approved so far?
A: On June 20, the morning before the public “rollout meeting” about this project, the CVB and CVC boards had an open meeting to change their contract for 2018. The change will allow around $560,000 of the innkeepers to be diverted to cover a bond payment for the music venue.
The CVC-CVB contract for 2019 is being worked on, CVB Board Chairman Bruce Gould said.
At that meeting, the CVC approved the purchase offer with Snyder. This gives the CVC 180 days to get governmental approval for the project. Once the project is approved and the redevelopment authority is established, both parties can close on the $2 million purchase.
The CVC also approved the appointment of two appraisers who will look at the Snyder property, and approved Miller Architects as the architect for the project.
The county’s attorney, Barnes & Thornburg LLP, was named bond counsel and issuer’s counsel for the financing. H.J. Umbaugh & Associates was hired as the municipal adviser for the financing of the venue. Total administrative costs to build the Maple Leaf are estimated at $494,300, Herring said.
The project still has to go before the Brown County Redevelopment Commission, the Brown County Council, the Brown County Commissioners and the Area Plan Commission to get approvals. If one board votes the project down, it will not move forward, Herring said.