Sep 6, 2022 - News

Flashback to the 1996 Titans stadium referendum

A fan cheers at a Titans game during the team's first season  at what is now Nissan Stadium.

A fan cheers at a Titans game during the team's first season at what is now Nissan Stadium. Photo: Andy Lyons/ALLSPORT via Getty Images

In stark contrast to the current debate in which elected officials will decide whether to finance a $2 billion stadium for the Titans, the power rested with Nashville voters in 1996.

  • When former mayoral aide Dave Cooley first examined opinion polling results early that year on the possibility of building a pro football stadium in Nashville, public support stood at a paltry 34%.

Why it matters: Since Nissan Stadium stands handsomely on the East Bank, you know how this played out.

  • But a reexamination of the 1996 effort is instructive for today's debate about a new stadium.

Flashback: Mayor Phil Bredesen had been negotiating with Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams about relocating the franchise here and spending tax dollars to build a football field on the East Bank of the Cumberland River.

  • Because Bredesen wanted to pay for the stadium partly with property tax dollars, the city charter allowed for a public referendum to be held so voters could decide the fate of the financing plan.
  • Metro Councilmember Eric Crafton collected thousands more signatures than what was needed to force a special election. The proposed $290 million stadium would not be built without voter approval.

State of play: Cooley was given the daunting job of political strategist for the pro-stadium effort. Between the project's unpopularity in initial polls and Crafton's successful signature drive, Cooley faced the political equivalent of starting inside his own 20-yard line, down by six with no timeouts.

Zoom out: The centerpiece of Cooley's strategy was to relegate the politicians and wealthy executives negotiating the deal to the sidelines.

  • The pro-stadium effort was led by regular folks. The first planning meeting took place at a Shoney's, Cooley recalls. A businessman, a public school mother and two preachers were recruited as the faces of the coalition.

What he's saying: "The key was we got the suits out of the way. Nobody was really talking to the general public," Cooley tells Axios. "We were able to find a core group, and frankly it came out of my Rolodex. We were able to find four or five people willing to give it the time and effort."

  • The coalition's sales pitch was that a stadium would benefit the city economically and that Nashville's image would dramatically rise as a city if it became home to an NFL team, Cooley says. The business community, led by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, bankrolled the campaign.
  • Within weeks, what began as a few people around a table at a Shoney's ballooned to hundreds of volunteers. More than 15,000 pro-stadium people were registered to vote, according to an article in the Nashville Banner.
  • The financing plan was approved with just under 60% in support. "It was a genuine grassroots movement," Cooley says.

The other side: Crafton says his primary goal in pushing for the referendum was for taxpayers to become better educated about the plan and for voters, not Metro Council members, to make the final call.

  • "I'm not pro-referendum on every little project," Crafton says. "But when you're talking about those kinds of transformational votes, I do think the public should weigh in."
  • "I think the Titans have been a good benefit to the community," Crafton says. "I think we did what we set out to do. After that, when I served on council, I don't think I ever voted against anything related to funding at the stadium. We knew the public wanted it."

Flash forward: There won't be a voter referendum on the financing for a new stadium because the proposal won't use property tax-backed general obligation bonds. Nashville Mayor John Cooper and the Titans are discussing a mixture of hotel taxes, sales tax collected in and around the stadium, state funding and private money from the Titans ownership to pay for the new stadium.


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