For the second straight year, the Metro fair board has contracted with a group of state tourism and agriculture leaders known as the Tennessee State Fair Association to hold the Tennessee State Fair.
But beyond the 10-day state fair set for this September, the future of the annual event as it relates to Metro government remains in doubt.
The fair board finalized a prior agreement Tuesday for the state fair association to operate the 2012 state fair on the 117 acres of city-owned fairgrounds property off Nolensville Pike. The association, which will pay $50,000 this year to hold the fair, played an identical operator role last year. Metro will collect parking revenue from the event.
But this same organization –– working in hand with the Tennessee Farm Bureau and Tennessee State Agriculture Department –– was also the muscle behind a Sen. Joe Haynes-sponsored state bill that would allow state government to oversee the state fair.
Passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate this session, the legislation authorizes the agriculture commissioner to appoint a state fair advisory commission –– a board that would presumably be the same group that has contracted with Metro for the past two years.
Fair board chair Ned Horton likened the state fair association’s state legislative maneuver to an “end-around.” He said the tactic surprised him considering the fair board had thought of the 14-member state fair association as an “ally and friend.”
“The state bill says the new commission would be the ‘sole’ party responsible for producing a Tennessee State Fair,” Horton said. “That’s in direct conflict with what we’ve been doing here.”
Davidson County has overseen the state fair since 1906. Critics fear a wide-range of implications connected to the state measure, including opening the door to the fair moving outside Nashville.
Though irked at the recent Capitol Hill politics, Horton offered encouraging words to a state fair association representative in attendance Monday. “We need to have a great year this year,” Norton said. “Then we have to make plans for the future, for long-term success.”
The legislation at issue still awaits the signature of Gov. Bill Haslam. The Metro Council earlier this month unanimously voted to ask the governor to veto the legislation, which was delivered to his desk on May 9. If Haslam doesn’t veto the bill by May 19, it would become law.
Until Haslam signals his position, the Metro Department of Law will refrain from offering an opinion on the matter.
“We’re going to reserve judgment on that until we see whether or not it is actually signed into law,” Metro attorney Susan Jones said. “It may be a little premature for us to opine.”
The potential transfer of state fair oversight –– from Metro to the state –– already raises plenty of legal concerns. Chief among them is one regarding the naming rights for the “Tennessee State Fair,” which the Metro fair board owns.
John Rose, a former state agriculture commissioner who chairs the state fair association, was not present at the fair board’s meeting Monday.
Rose told The City Paper there is no intention to move the state fair out of Davidson County.
“All parties want and believe it should be in Nashville,” Rose said. “I think everyone involved at this point has a pretty keen understanding that the current Tennessee State fairgrounds is far and away the most likely and the most desirable place for that to happen.”
Rose credited the farm bureau and agriculture department with advancing the bill. (Representatives of both groups sit on Rose’s state fair association.)
Rose said the Metro fair board has in the past concluded that the state fair would be best served having state government involvement “to make it a true state fair.” He added: “I think this is just a logical step in that direction.”
Still, Norton said the law wouldn’t require the state fair stay in Davidson County. “There is that fear that they would go to some other county,” he said.
Backers of the legislation, such as Rose, have said the purpose of the legislation is to ensure an entity is in place to oversee the fair if Metro opts to back out of the state fair business completely. Since 2009, the city has contracted fair operations to outside entities. Mayor Karl Dean has fought unsuccessfully to redevelop the fairgrounds.
Critics, however, led by the council’s Duane Dominy, have a different interpretation of the state legislation.
“While it’s been proposed as a back-up measure if we don’t continue a state fair, the language doesn’t match the rhetoric,” Dominy said, pointing out that the law would become “effective immediately upon signing.”
“Right now, it’s entirely in the governor’s hands,” he said of the issue.