Recognizing that the Metro-owned fairgrounds will likely operate for at least two more years, the Board of Fair Commissioners and staff Tuesday began the process of salvaging an institution that has lost money in recent years.
Still, the future of racing at the property remains very much in doubt.
For two-plus hours, the five-member fair board talked on Tuesday in broad strokes about the coming 2011 and 2012 state fairs and the continued operations of the facility’s expo center and flea market. Both the fair and expo center would be preserved — at least for the short-term — in a bill that the Metro Council is considering on the final of three votes Tuesday night.
The pending legislation also calls for a new master plan to dictate the future of the 117-acre property. But commissioners refrained from talking in detail about the forthcoming plan in deference to the council’s final vote and Mayor Karl Dean’s required signature. The Metro Planning Department and Metro Parks and Recreation are to assist in the drafting of the plan.
“The council hasn’t spoken yet,” said James Weaver, board chairman. “We don’t want to do anything to take away from their responsibility and their rights to say what it is they want us to do, and then we’ll react to that.”
But for now, there appears to be no intention of holding racing events at the fairgrounds site even though the bill — which the council is expected to approve — spares the much-disputed Fairgrounds Speedway from demolition. Last year’s racing slate consisted of only five events organized by promoter Tony Formosa.
Asked about the status of racing at the site, Weaver pointed out the fair board has voted twice before to make 2010 the final year for racing. Nonetheless, he didn’t entirely rule out entertaining a racing proposal for the coming year, saying the board would consider “anything.”
Weaver’s term on the board is set to expire in April. He confirmed Tuesday he has no plans to continue to serve after that point.
Numerous auto-racing enthusiasts showed up at Tuesday’s meeting to show their support for continued racing at the fairgrounds. Many echoed the thoughts of racing legend Sterling Marlin, who told the council two weeks ago, “A $50 muffler will fix everything” when it comes to the racetrack’s noise. A few on Tuesday asked the board about the possibility of conducting a “sound test” to see if they could lessen the noise of the cars.
Formosa told the board he would like the opportunity to “show everybody what we can do.”
Following the meeting, Formosa handed the board a letter in which he says he wants to discuss in greater detail the possibility of leasing the racetrack for the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Weaver responded to the auto racers’ muffler proposal by pointing out that promoters have been asked to adhere to noise considerations in the past. Despite noise-level stipulations written into previous lease agreements, neighbors have continued to complain about racing, he said.
In terms of the property’s expo center and flea market, the media splash created by the tug-of-war over the future of the fairgrounds appears to have resulted in more interest from vendors.
“We lost people because of the uncertainty,” said Buck Dozier, executive director of the Tennessee State Fair, alluding to vendors. “Now that there’s been some settling ... we think we’re beginning to see people come back.”
Dozier on Tuesday informed fair commissioners about the possibility of increasing the rates Metro charges to vendors. He said the rates would still remain the lowest in the area.
Though the commission talked briefly about the future of state fairs at the site, board members said they wouldn’t issue a formal request for proposals in search of companies willing to organize the fair until later this spring. It appears the commission will bring in an outside company to hold the fair, which it did last year.
If the council approves the pending legislation on Tuesday night, the board would be required to work alongside the Tennessee State Fair Association to find a future state fair location.
Overall, financial losses at the fairgrounds from July through December 2010 weren’t as bad as expected. That’s largely because the staff members assumed the property would no longer be operating by now, said fairgrounds finance director Howell Townes.
The fair board had expected to lose $448,294. Instead, the board had a net-profit loss of $153,406.
“Buck and his team have worked hard to control expenses and maximize revenue,” Weaver said.