At least one Metro Council member would appreciate if Mayor Karl Dean’s long-term intentions for the Metro-owned fairgrounds were a little clearer.
In making his case to convert the 117-acre fairgrounds property to a corporate campus, Dean has cited figures supplied by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce that suggest the site could generate $2.5 billion in economic impact. He’s even gone so far as to remind Nashvillians about the infamous May Town Center debate to drive home the need and urgency to compete with suburban counties for corporate relocations.
But there’s been something noticeably missing: Dean hasn’t definitively said what company or companies could be in store for the property. There’s also no guarantee Dean’s vision would actually materialize.
“Before any demolition begins, can we have actually some indication — at least — that there’s a financial guarantee that success is coming?” Metro Councilman Mike Jameson said. “Because why tear it down if nothing is going to come?”
Jameson’s comment characterized the type of unscripted discussion that unfolded during the Saturday morning work session as roughly 25 council members convened to talk about the city’s hot-button issue of the day: the future of the much-disputed, much-debated fairgrounds.
The meeting, organized by Jameson, who represents part of downtown and East Nashville, was ballyhooed as a forum to politely and casually discuss the fairgrounds issue. Council members wore sweaters and jeans instead of suits or dresses. Jameson even threw on a baseball cap.
Throughout the two-hour meeting, moderated by former Councilman Jim Shulman, civility was certainly in the air — as was the obvious sense that council members still have plenty of questions about Dean’s plans and the property in general.
“I think we should get [council attorney] Jon Cooper or somebody to do one paragraph on what happens to the fairgrounds if we don’t take any action,” said Councilman Carter Todd, who represents the Forest Hills area. “I don’t think we really know.”
Council members divided into subgroups to discuss both the idea of keeping the fairgrounds property in tact as well as the possibility of demolishing its buildings and historic racetrack to make way for a new use. The arrangement offered a unique look at elected officials having a dinner-table type discussion in contrast to formal deliberation. Perspectives covered the spectrum.
“If you’re going to look at the fairgrounds for redevelopment, then I think you need to step back and you need to look at all the Metro properties for redevelopment,” Councilman Jim Gotto said. “Because apparently the thing that’s driving this is we don’t make money at the fairgrounds. Well, we’ve got a lot of golf courses not making money.”
Watching from the sidelines were key stakeholders including mayor’s office representatives, Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling, Board of Fair Commissioners chair James Weaver, several auto-racing drivers, fairgrounds neighbors and Darden Copeland, who heads the group Save My Fairgrounds.
“Obviously, it’s an important issue,” Riebeling said. “It’s good that a lot of council members showed up. Obviously, there’s a lot of different thoughts on it. I think the key is, everything that’s out there has been discussed, and now it’s time to make some decisions and move forward.”
“Our thoughts are still clear,” said Riebeling, speaking on behalf of Dean’s administration. “It’s really about trying to rebuild this neighborhood. That’s our focus.”
The meeting took place 10 days before the council is set to consider on the second of three votes a bill that would move forward with the demolition of the fairgrounds’ racetrack, but keep the expo center and Tennessee State Fair at the site for at least one more year. A new park is already slated for part of the property. Metro Council Budget and Finance Committee chair Megan Barry introduced the bill, which enjoys the support of eight other co-sponsors.
Several council members on Saturday suggested the legislation be deferred to allow for more debate. Approached by The City Paper, Barry deflected questions on her plans for the bill to Councilwoman Sandra Moore, who represents the surrounding fairgrounds neighborhood and has co-signed the legislation. Moore said she would consider deferring the bill.
“I’m taking everything into consideration,” Moore said.
After discussing the fairgrounds within small groups, a council representative from each subset revealed ideas to the group as whole. For the most part, council members just tossed around ideas instead of lobbying for a particular course of action. There was no consensus.
Some said it’s important the state play an integral role in producing future state fairs. Many council members said the fairgrounds should take on a green component. Others talked about keeping the racetrack, but installing sound buffers to lessen the noise of high-speed vehicles heard by neighbors. Councilman Jamie Hollin, who personally thanked Riebeling for his attendance, pointed out the fairgrounds property currently lacks proper zoning to be privatized and converted into corporate office space.
Weaver, whose term on the fair board expires in April, called the meeting “very insightful.” Talking to reporters, he stressed the fact that the expo center is set to remain at the fairgrounds until a new location is found regardless of the outcome of Barry’s bill.
“That discussion, that bill, is mostly about the racetrack,” Weaver said. “It’s not about the flea market. It’s not about the expo center. We will have a flea market at that site until there is a replacement venue.
“The racetrack, I think tends to be sort of the tail wagging the dog,” he added. “It’s an issue, obviously, and there’s a lot of passion around it. But it’s not the core central issue.”