After weeks of intensified scrutiny over Mayor Karl Dean’s proposal to transform the Metro-owned Tennessee State Fairgrounds, a handful of Metro Council members have filed legislation that will effectively bail him out, keeping the expo center at the site and all but guaranteeing that next year’s state fair will be in Davidson County.
According to multiple sources, the Dean administration fully supports the plan.
The bill, filed Wednesday evening, would require the five-member Metro Board of Fair Commissioners to negotiate with the Tennessee State Fair Association to keep the 2011 state fair at the Nashville site. The fair association — a nonprofit group of statewide interests formed in response to Dean’s plans — has had difficulty finding a comparable site for a fair in the county. And chair John Rose told The City Paper earlier this week that the mayor’s office has shown little interest in keeping next year’s fair in Nashville.
The bill would also keep the expo center at the current fairgrounds location, and begin the demolition process of the racetrack on the property to make way for a 40-acre park along Browns Creek.
Councilwoman Sandra Moore, whose district includes the fairgrounds site on Nolensville Road, is the lead sponsor of the bill. She could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday night.
Dean’s administration has faced tough criticism over the past several months for its concept to redevelop the 117-acre fairgrounds site into a mixed-use complex likely to be dominated by corporate offices. The administration pursued legislation that would move the fairgrounds’ expo center and flea market into the failing Hickory Hollow Mall, along with certain city-backed service centers, including a health clinic. The total price tag for the plan is about $18 million.
The proposal to move the expo center and flea market to the mall has drawn the most criticism. Councilman Duane Dominy filed an opposition bill that would maintain the status quo at the fairgrounds, but it was deferred indefinitely amid questions from the council’s attorney. Informed of the new legislation by The City Paper Wednesday night, Dominy said he wasn’t prepared to comment.
At-large councilwoman Megan Barry, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it represents the concerns citizens have brought forth in recent weeks.
“I think it’s a really positive move,” Barry said Wednesday night. “I think this helps us continue to do what voters in Davidson County want us to do. We’re listening.”
Councilman Rip Ryman is also a co-sponsor.
“I just think it’s the right thing to do,” Ryman said. “I’ve had some reservations about the Hickory Hollow leases. I’m not sure a flea market would work in a mall, although it has happened in some cities around the country. I just felt we probably needed to take a step back, leave it there for awhile, and hopefully the city can find some other property to really build an expo center.”
Ryman also confirmed that Dean is on board with the new initiative.
In a news release emailed Wednesday night, Save My Fairgrounds spokesman Darden Copeland accused Dean of playing politics with the issue.
"With nine months before his re-election, this is nothing more than 'election year' politics," Copeland said. "It is a thinly veiled attempt to kick the can down the road until after the upcoming Metro elections."
The administration has said the fairgrounds loses money consistently, and that if it continues to operate as it is now for 2011, Metro would have to dip into its general fund to keep up its operations.
Janel Lacy, Dean’s spokeswoman, did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails requesting comment Wednesday night. Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling, who has spearheaded the administration’s economic efforts on the fairgrounds proposal, did not return a voicemail message left Wednesday night. Neither did Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote.
The bill will come up for first reading at the council’s Dec. 21 meeting. Council members Ronnie Steine and Anna Page round out the bill's five sponsors.