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Tennessee City Takes a Spin On the Sports Team Carousel

A new team is years away, but how does the 'Nashville Grits' sound

NASHVILLE is on a quest. Music City, home to crooners Vince Gill, Johnny Cash, and scores of other country stars, is now seeking to become the new address for several dozen other beefy men - the Houston Oilers.

The Oilers' owner has been looking for a new home since last summer, when the Texas city refused to build a better stadium.

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Oilers officials targeted Nashville, a city with no major league sports teams but a place where just about every sector of the economy is booming.

At a time when the Raiders belong in Los Angeles one week and Oakland, Calif., the next, the New York Yankees can consider jumping ship to New Jersey, and the Cleveland Browns have announced they're packing it up for new digs in Baltimore, teams trading cities happens almost as often as fans trading sports cards.

Nashville wants a piece of the action. Mid-sized cities across the South are seizing sports franchises to attract a higher profile. Jacksonville, Fla., signed the Jaguars two years ago. And Charlotte, N.C., is now host to the Panthers.

Nashville and state leaders, eager to boost the city's image among rival Southern capitals, are jumping at the chance to achieve big-league status.

They have crafted a $292 million sports package to lure the team from Texas by 1998. They say they'll build a new stadium and pay for the team's move with the funds.

The financing plan calls for Nashville to pay about $143 million and the state $79 million. Fans and corporations who buy permanent seat licenses, giving them lifetime rights to prime seats, are expected to fork over $71 million.

But not everyone here is enamored with the chance to snatch a National Football League team. Many residents question the city's zeal to spend public money attracting a sports franchise when schools, infrastructure, and other basic services need improvement.

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''I'd be glad to see them come, but I think about children in school'' and how that money should go toward bolstering education,'' says John Lawrence, who sits on a stool taking tickets at Nashville's refurbished Ryman Auditorium.

But supporters here say the city will be able to fund the stadium and still pay for city needs. ''Right now tourism generates $60 million a year in state and local taxes,'' says Butch Spyridon, executive vice president of the Nashville Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

''Our argument is we've got to continue to find ways to keep that base growing so there is money for schools and libraries and streets, and tourism is a tremendous source of revenue for the city,'' he says.

But the economic benefits professional sports teams have on communities are overrated, some say.

A team usually plays between eight to 10 home games a year, but the money from spectators tends to be spent more on the game than locally, says Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. ''If the stadium is properly financed, it's possible there will be a positive economic impact, but you just shouldn't expect it to be a major one....''

Building the stadium near tourist venues is what Nashville has in mind. In a store on Second Avenue that sells old soda machines, records, and posters, employee Bucky St. Stephen walks over to a large window at the back of the room and points to land across the Cumberland River. Currently home to a bargemaking company and gravel pits, it's the site of the proposed stadium. This once decrepit area now bustles with restaurants, shops, and tourists.

But Mr. St. Stephen is concerned the stadium will displace the barge company, and thus take away a piece of Nashville history. After a new barge is built, it is floated down the river, creating a huge wake. People come from all over town to the ''barge parties,'' St. Stephen says. ''You'll think I'm loony, but they're a blast. I want to know where these businesses are going to go.''

In the meantime, people are wondering what to call the Oilers, which would be considered Tennessee's team, not just Nashville's. The Oilers owner has suggested hosting a contest to rename them. Some ideas kicking around: the Grits, the Crawdads, or the Nashville Cats. I don't know about the rest of the South, but I'm rooting for the Nashville Wynettes.

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