Colby Sledge — press secretary for the Senate Democratic caucus by day, spokesman for Tennessee State Fairgrounds demolition and redevelopment by night, lunch and weekend — was prepared for a certain amount of quarreling when he got involved in the fairgrounds debate last year. Just nothing like what actually happened, he told The City Paper last week.
Things took a turn when preservation group Save My Fairgrounds began a coordinated effort to derail Mayor Karl Dean’s development proposal. Then later, the group successfully petitioned for a referendum vote on the fairgrounds in the upcoming Aug. 4 election. The referendum, if passed, will add an amendment to the Metro Charter that would require a super-majority (27) of Metro Council votes to approve demolition of any fair or racetrack facilities on the land.
But the argument about the future of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds had become personal well before June 2. That’s when Sledge, head of the pro-development group Neighbors for Progress and co-chair of South Nashville Action People, had his (and the group’s) lawyer, George Barrett, send a cease-and-desist letter to fairgrounds preservation supporter and former publisher of the defunct local newsweekly In Review Boyer Barner, accusing him of libel.
Sledge said the intent of the letter was to re-civilize the conversation. Some critics, most notably Metro Councilman Jamie Hollin, said it’s an attempt to smear fairgrounds preservationists as belligerent. He also said it could be part of an as-yet-unannounced, full-blown political campaign to defeat the referendum.
The question of whether to demolish the fairgrounds, racetrack and expo center in favor of green space or a multi-use business park is, in one sense, a heady debate about historical preservation and government’s proper role in business development. In another sense, it’s a glorified zoning dispute.
And yet it’s taken on polarizing elements of class, race and accusations of high-level political manipulation by the Dean administration, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the local media, and the Tennessee Democratic Party during the course of the debate. To some extent, that has been playing out in council meetings and traditional media. But as usual, the real ugliness takes place on Facebook and in the comment sections of local blogs and newspapers.
Take, for example, Internet reaction to a September suggestion by Dean that fairgrounds property might accommodate a park that could include soccer fields. (Note: In case it isn’t obvious what is being said here, The City Paper will note two things. One, soccer is a popular sport in Latin America. And two, South Nashville has a large and growing Hispanic population.)
Taken from the preservation group Save My Fairgrounds’ Facebook page:
Ronnie Campbell:“Next year about the time we would all be readying for the AA 400 weekend, you will be able to drive by the fairgrounds and witness hundreds of Illegal Immigrants kicking a soccer ball around on what used to be The Greatest Short Track in America.”
Taken from the comments section of frequent Dean critic Mike Byrd’s blog, Enclave Nashville:
User name wintuckjr: “They don’t want to piss off the Mexicans, but it’s okay to piss off the Fairgrounds folks.”
There are more. Another comment refers to Barner as an idiot. Yet another statistically probable post, according to Godwin’s Law, refers to SNAP as the “first official neighborhood Nazi organization.” In the darker corners of the Web, development advocates are generally cast as snobs, gentrifiers and disingenuous property flippers.
None of that is so unusual. What prompted the cease-and-desist were two of Barner’s comments from May. The first, on Enclave, called Sledge “a tool of Dean” and “a rat. And a scroungy one at that.”
The second, more alarming to Sledge, was posted on the Save My Fairgrounds Facebook page. It referred to an incident in May when the scoreboard at the fairgrounds racetrack had temporarily malfunctioned. It was rumored at the time that the problem might have resulted from vandalism. This was later reported as false.
Barner, who declined to comment for this story, opened with the following: “Colby Sledge probably got drunk one night and went and vandalized the scoreboard.”
How serious an accusation it was actually intended to be, which is debatable, seems beside the point. According to the letter Barrett sent to Barner, that second statement qualifies as “classic defamation” which was made “with a reckless disregard for the truth.”
“The reason I sent the cease-and-desist letter was — I don’t have anything against the guy, I don’t know him — I’m trying to show that we can have a discussion about this, but when it devolves like it has, there’s a line that gets crossed,” Sledge said.
Sledge added that the penchant for line-crossing among certain fairgrounds preservation supporters has grown more and more frequent recently, since Hollin took over as spokesman for Save My Fairgrounds from departed consultant Darden Copeland.
“In my conversations with Darden before, I think Darden made a concerted effort to look at the folks who maybe were the most outspoken in a negative way and try to redirect that conversation,” Sledge said. “I think when Councilman Hollin took this effort over, I think there’s been much less monitoring of that.”
Political strategist Will Pinkston, who Sledge said has been involved with Neighbors for Progress in an informal advisory basis, echoed that theory.
“Say what you will about Darden Copeland. Even though this was an Astroturf campaign from start to finish, it never got threatening and menacing the way it has gotten lately,” Pinkston said.
Copeland did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But Hollin, for one, disagrees with that assessment.
“Other than the fact that I don’t know what he’s talking about, with everything that’s been coming out on this — Save My Fairgrounds just went about the job of collecting the signatures — they’re the ones that have been throwing the stones,” he said.
Hollin pointed out that neither Barner nor any of the other commenters cited by Sledge are officially affiliated with Save My Fairgrounds.
“To suggest that Boyer Barner or any of these other people has anything to do with Save My Fairgrounds, they don’t. It’s just fundamentally flawed,” Hollin said. “I’m not going to hold Colby Sledge accountable for someone else’s actions. He shouldn’t hold me accountable for someone else’s actions.”
The real reason for the letter, Hollin suggested, was to garner sympathy for Neighbors for Progress in response to Save My Fairgrounds’ success in getting the referendum on the ballot.
And the timeline — or the number of actions Sledge’s group took in a few short weeks — appears to lend at least some support to that theory. Hollin’s group turned in its signed petitions on Monday, May 16. Just prior to that, Neighbors for Progress announced that it had hired Barrett — who’s working pro bono, according to Sledge, but on a contingency basis, Barrett told The City Paper — to monitor the Election Commission as it counted the signatures. On June 2, the letter came. Four days later and through Barrett, the group challenged the validity of the referendum petition, in a letter to the Nashville District Attorney’s office.
It almost feels like the beginnings of an official political campaign — complete with campaign finance, media buys and the other trappings — to defeat the referendum, something that’s been noticeably lacking on the Neighbors for Progress side. Sledge denies that a campaign is in the works.
“I think right now we’re making people aware of it. We’re asking people to vote against it, but there’s no real coordinated effort,” he said.
Pinkston also said no effort is under way, since the referendum — which doesn’t entirely preclude the possibility of fairgrounds development — wouldn’t be worth the cost. But on May 16, Sledge registered with the Election Commission as the official treasurer of a single-issue
political group called Neighbors for Progress.
“I filed that form as we were entering this whole process, just to make sure that we had all our bases covered in case we did decide to do a formal campaign,” Sledge wrote in an email to The City Paper. “As of right now, any campaign plans have stopped solely at that filing.”
As of this writing, the group has not filed any contributions or expenses; then again, they wouldn’t be required to until the next filing deadline on July 11. Hollin said it’s a clear indication of their intentions.
“What it all boils down to is pride. I mean, my God, our charter makes the executive branch so damn strong. The council is generally irrelevant,” Hollin said. “The mayor’s never been beat before. He got beat on the fairgrounds. He can’t get away from it.”