Giving a ringing endorsement of Mayor Karl Dean’s plans to redevelop the Metro-owned fairgrounds, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce released Monday a report that claims redeveloping the site to suit a corporate entity could generate 6,500 jobs and $2.5 billion in economic impact.
The timing of the report –– coincidentally or not –– comes eight days before Metro Councilman Duane Dominy’s bill to preserve the 117-acre Metro-owned fairgrounds goes before the Metro Council on the second of three votes. Council members seem split on the bill and a close vote is expected.
In his most candid remarks on the fairgrounds debate to date, Dean on Monday questioned the legality of Dominy’s legislation and even suggested Dominy –– without identifying by name –– used the issue “as a platform to run for office.” Dominy, who represents council District 28 and could not immediately be reached for comment, lost his election bid last week for the District 59 state House seat.
At one time conspicuously reluctant to talk about the controversial mixed-use development known as May Town Center, Dean singled out the discourse surrounding the now-defunct proposal as a reason why the fairgrounds should be redeveloped.
“When folks talked about May Town,” Dean said, “the debate became about how we have to have an area where we can develop and expand our tax-base in order for our city to succeed. You can’t sit back and say, ‘We’re never going to do anything, anywhere in all of Davidson County.’”
But Councilman Michael Craddock, who supports the preservation of the fairgrounds, questioned the relationship between Dean and the chamber. When contacted by The City Paper, Craddock pulled out Dean’s former campaign slogan, “It’s all connected.”
“I’m sure that someone within the administration has gone and asked the chamber to make that statement,” said Craddock, who represents District 4.
“The chamber is typically made up of people who do not go to the flea market, of people who do not go to [auto] races, or events at the fairgrounds,” Craddock said. “They genuinely don’t have a clue what happens out there. The poor people and the blue-collar people of this town are the ones who frequent the fairgrounds.”
As The City Paper previously reported, the chamber has showcased the fairgrounds property to corporations as a relocation or expansion possibility for more than one year. Chamber President and CEO Ralph Schulz on Monday said the chamber has talked with “four or five” companies about the site, adding that the property’s location is ideal for a mixed-used development that could contain white-collar office space.
“We believe that the former fairgrounds property offers an ideal and development-ready site,” Schulz said. “The site is located about two miles from the urban center along the I-65 corridor, and that makes it extremely attractive for corporate relocations and expansions.”
Working in conjunction with the chamber, Nashville-based architecture firm Gresham, Smith and Partners has developed schematic designs for a project that would include 1 million square feet of Class A office space. The net result, according to Schulz, would be approximately 6,500 new jobs, $200 million in capital investments and $2.5 billion in economic impact. Schulz stressed that the described project represents only one possible scenario.
Conversely, Schulz said, “The opportunity cost of not redeveloping the fairgrounds site is large.”
“Prosperity for this region is at stake,” Schulz said, adding that the chamber’s report would be outlined in a letter to be sent to council members.
Schulz indicated that companies are reluctant to put forth a formal proposal for the site because of the ongoing political battle behind the fairgrounds fight, and because the site hasn’t been physically cleared for development purposes.
“In most cases, companies won’t commit to a site until it’s developmentally ready,” Schulz said. “At the former fairgrounds site, several companies have expressed an interest, but none want to commit until the site is ready for development.”
Dean called the chamber’s findings “impressive.”
“This is how you grow a city’s tax base,” Dean said. “In just property taxes alone, 1 million square feet of office space would generate about $1.5 million a year. That’s $1.5 million more a year that we can use for things like schools, police, parks and libraries. The alternative is to begin using property tax money to support the existing events on the sites, because the facts are that the fair has been losing money for the last eight years.”
Under Dean’s plans, flea market and other events currently held at the fairgrounds’ expo center are to be relocated to Hickory Hollow Mall in Antioch. A bill outlining three separate leases for the site is to go before the council on the first of three votes later this month. Meanwhile, the council approved plans last month to create a 40-acre park within the floodplain of the fairgrounds property.
Citing a report conducted in 2007 by Minnesota-based Markin Consulting, Dean said the fairgrounds is “too hilly and too small” to hold an annual state fair, and pointed out that surrounding neighborhood groups have advocated that the site be redeveloped. A group called the Tennessee State Fair Association recently formed to find a new location for a state fair in Davidson County.
“The bottom line is some people will ultimately never be happy with this move, but this is a move that will be good for the events that take place at the fairgrounds,” Dean said. “It will also help out Hickory Hollow Mall.”