Nashville medical mart expected to announce site Monday, turning up the heat on Cleveland

The latest sign of progress by developers of Nashville’s medical mart ratchets up the pressure on Cleveland to put aside political bickering and decide on a location for its own project.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Developers of Nashville’s medical mart are expected to announce a location for the project on Monday, a move that could place the presumed first-mover status of Cleveland’s project in further jeopardy.

The developers of the Nashville venture have called a press conference for Monday morning that is expected to be attended by Tennessee’s governor and Nashville’s mayor, the Nashville Business Journal reported. The announcement will include architectural renderings and location design, according to the report.

Cleveland, Nashville and New York are embroiled in a race to complete the nation’s first medical equipment showcase and Nashville’s site selection represents a major move forward in its effort to establish a position of leadership among the three competing proposals.

Developers from the Cleveland and Nashville projects have repeatedly said that the first medical mart to open would enjoy a significant advantage over its competitors. Industry experts doubt whether the nation can support more than one medical mart. “Being first is a key element to victory,” Bill Winsor, president of the company that’s developing Nashville’s medical mart, said earlier this year.

While Nashville appears to be quickly moving forward with plans for its medical mart, Cleveland is stuck in neutral. Last week, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson publicly lambasted Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. (MMPI), the project’s developer, asking whether the Chicago-based company “really wants to be here.”

Cleveland and MMPI seemed until recently to have first place locked up. It expected to renovate the city’s Public Auditorium and have it ready for conventions by May 2010. But MMPI announced big changes to the project’s plans, which included abandoning use of the nearly 90-year-old Public Auditorium for conference space, citing the building’s deteriorating physical condition. MMPI says getting Public Auditorium’s heating, cooling, electrical and mechanical systems into usable shape could cost around $90 million, about triple what the company had budgeted for as part of the $425 million medical mart project.

The company now wants to move the location of the medical mart’s showroom from St. Clair Avenue to Mall C, a prospect that has raised controversy about using public land for the benefit of a private firm.

While Cleveland’s medical mart is expected to be completed in 2013, the recent changes have put the project’s time line into question. Nashville’s developers say their medical mart could open a year earlier than that with portions open even earlier. It will be interesting to hear whether the announcement on Monday will include a fresh time line and financial details.

Currently, the Nashville project has no financing at this point. Cleveland’s promise of hundreds of millions in public funding, courtesy of a quarter-cent hike in Cuyahoga County’s sales tax, represent its one significant advantage over its competitors.

Still, backers of Cleveland’s medical mart should take care to not squander that advantage. While Cleveland officials bicker about whether a nearly 90-year-old building should be included in the city’s latest effort to reverse years of economic decline, Nashville’s leaders may have taken a decisive step to establish themselves as the front runners in a competion that experts say can have only one winner.