At this month’s meeting of the Metro Board of Fair Commissioners, board member Kenny Byrd appealed to recent local history. As the board discussed how to proceed with sputtering lease negotiations for the 2013 state fair, Byrd was preaching caution.
“Just ask the school board,” he said.
The details of course, both legally and circumstantially, are somewhat different. But by invoking the Metro school board’s public run-in with the state over the approval of the Great Hearts Academies charter school application, Byrd called to mind the last time a local body decided to thumb its nose at the state, and questioned the wisdom in rushing to do the same.
His comments came amidst a stalemate between the fair board and the Tennessee State Fair Association — the nonprofit chosen by a new state commission to operate this year’s Tennessee State Fair — that has put the fair in jeopardy, and raised the specter of the event’s relocation outside of Davidson County for the first time in its 106-year history. The TSFA, which has run the state fair for the past two years, is offering more money than it did in 2012, and has said that paying any more would put the organization at risk of losing money. The fair board, which oversees the Tennessee State Fairgrounds — a Metro facility that has long struggled financially — says they need more money to even come close to covering costs.
The fair board approved a final offer to the TSFA last week that would bring the two sides closer together, with a deadline of Feb. 13. After that, fair board chairman Ned Horton said, “All bets are off.”
But hanging over the proceedings is a disagreement about whether the two sides are legally compelled to work together, no matter if the math works out or not. A law passed by the state legislature last year created the Tennessee State Fair and Exposition Commission, shifting oversight and control of the state fair from Metro’s hands to the state. Many Metro officials opposed the bill, for fear that it could lead to the city losing the state fair, and the Metro Council passed a resolution urging Gov. Bill Haslam to veto it.
Nevertheless, Haslam signed the bill, and the nine-member commission it created selected the TSFA in November to run this year’s state fair.
TSFA chairman John Rose, who has been representing the group throughout the negotiations, cited the Metro charter and city ordinances requiring the city to host the state fair at the fairgrounds, and argued the state law did nothing to change that obligation. The implication is that Metro has no choice but to sign a lease with whomever the state commission selects to run the fair — in this case, the TSFA.
“Of course, they don’t like that, but if you think about it, what’s that mean?” Rose told The City Paper after the recent fair board meeting. “It means that they have to provide this space for a state fair annually, and they have to let whoever the commission appoints to run it, run it. Well that seems kind of harsh, right? ‘Here’s who you have to let run a fair.’ However, think about the school board. They have to run the schools on the budget that the council gives them.”
If there are financial obstacles that would keep the fair board from agreeing to a deal with the TSFA, Rose said, Metro must overcome them.
“I think the current posture is that the council is obligated to abide by the charter, which says there will be a state fair here,” he said. “So the financial burden presently is on Davidson County to fund the fairgrounds sufficiently to provide for a state fair.”
The fair board, under advisement from Metro’s legal department, feels that by usurping the city’s control of the event, the state effectively nullified Metro’s obligation to host the fair in Davidson County. In other words, they believe, if the fair board can’t come to agreeable terms with the TSFA, they don’t have to play ball.
“I don’t think we’re required to enter into a bad deal, no,” Horton said. “We can have a fair. We believe we can have any kind of fair we want. In fact if they do have that name [the Tennessee State Fair] — which is open to some debate — if they do, we can have another fair that benefits the people of Davidson County and the state of Tennessee.”
The matter of the fair’s name referred to by Horton springs from a provision in the state legislation that states “the use of the name ‘Tennessee State Fair’ or ‘Tennessee State Exposition’ to denote a fair serving the state shall only be granted by the Department of Agriculture with the approval of the commission.”
When the law was signed last year, local officials pointed out that Metro owned the naming rights of the “Tennessee State Fair.” Horton was only half joking when he suggested at last week’s board meeting that the state pay Metro a $50,000 fee for the naming rights to this year’s fair, thereby closing the gap between the board and the TSFA.
As for the obligation to ensure that the state fair occurs each year, Metro officials believe the commission, and the authority granted to it by the state, supersedes their role in the process. Specifically, the section of the statute that explains its legislative intent says “it is the intent of the general assembly that the commission created herein shall be the sole body in Tennessee charged with administering a state fair and exposition.”
At the fair board’s January meeting, according to its official minutes, Metro attorney Susan Jones told the board that, because of the new legislation, “the requirement/charge for the Metropolitan Fair Board to carry on the ‘Tennessee State Fair’ was no longer in place.” The board’s only responsibility, she said according to the minutes, “would be to lease the premises, if they so choose.”
Rose, who is also an attorney, recalled the terms under which Metro obtained the fairgrounds.
“The state authorized Metro to be in the state fair business long ago and there was a quid pro quo,” he said. “And the quid pro quo was, we’ll let you sell bonds to buy this property if you agree that you’ll operate it as a state fair. And the commission statute did not invalidate that law. So, I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I believe the legal obligation, notwithstanding what their Metro attorney says, I believe ultimately the legal obligation of this board is to do what they have to do to have the Tennessee State Fair.”
Later, he told The City Paper that another attorney who has been working with him on the matter has begun preparing the legal memoranda to argue just that, should the dispute escalate further.
That’s the kind of storm Byrd said he’d like to avoid, if at all possible. He disagrees with the new state law, he said, and has been frustrated by the commission, noting that TSFA board members were serving on the commission at the time it awarded the contract to the TSFA. (Former state Sen. Joe Haynes was the sponsor of the bill that created the commission, and also serves on the TSFA board. Currently, however, there are no TSFA board members serving on the commission.)
Byrd told the fair board the law was “not well done, questionable, and a stupid decision by the governor and his cronies to counter their most basic principles of not messing with local government.” But in the first year of the arrangement — messy, and ill-defined as it might be — and with a century-long tradition at stake, he said he didn’t want to rush off the cliff.
“I don’t think invoking that battle is the first thing we ought to do,” Byrd told The City Paper days after the meeting. “I think the first thing we ought to do is try to work this out. And I’m still very hopeful that we can. I don’t think we ought to be as reactionary as the people who pushed to pass the law that put us in this position.”
That patience is not boundless, though. Byrd has said that while he does not want to lose the state fair, he’s also not ready to cave in to what the board feels is a substandard offer from the TSFA. Furthermore, he’s asked Rose to open up the nonprofit’s books for the fair board, to show how much money the TSFA truly has at their disposal. (If they can’t take the board’s offer, he said, “I need to understand why.”)
If the nonprofit truly is operating on the edge of their budget, the pressure doesn’t end there. While the fair board may have its own anxieties about losing a century-long tradition, the TSFA is charged with putting on a successful state fair — if not here, then somewhere. A protracted legal dispute, eating up time and money, would only make that more difficult to pull off.
Others on the board, and council members in the area, have expressed a desire to entertain other offers for the dates normally reserved for the fair, such as one from Memphis-area operator Delta Agribusiness.
That could invite a legal fight with the TSFA, if not the state, that could have unforeseen consequences. Just ask the school board.