State fair operator returns; future Metro involvement still unclear

Tuesday, May 15, 2012 at 3:00pm

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.

7 Comments on this post:

By: JeffF on 5/15/12 at 4:06

After thinking about this for a while, I support the takeover of the state fair by the state and its agricultural entities. Even if that means it one day is moved from Nashville.

As it stood until recently the STATE fair was under the thumb of the mayor and council of just Nashville. Nashville is not an agricultural interested entity anymore. While not being interested in agricultural element of the STATE, this mayor has become hostile toward the STATE fair and it's patrons' interests. As long as the hostile Nashville mayor was ultimately overseeing the STATE fair, he was placing it at risk of eventually closing. The state had not ability to stop a city official from killing the supposed state fair.

Kudos to the organizations for saving this long standing entity. Nashville may be the capital of the state but it long ago quit being representative of the state. Good luck my miserable, little blue island trying to flex your muscle in a state that overwhelms us culturally, economically, and electorally.

By: Nashville Guy on 5/16/12 at 6:09

If you want to know what's in the best interest of the Fairgrounds there are 3 groups you can trust.

Metro Councilmembers who fought on behalf of Saving
Dominy,Hollins,Duvall etc..
Fairgrounds Preservation Group
Members of the Save my Fairgrounds Red Army

All three groups are COMPLETELY OPPOSED to this Legislation and thousands have been contacting Gov Haslam to VETO THE FAIR BILL !

You might want to reconsider Jeff

By: Left-of-Local on 5/16/12 at 9:11

That craphole just continues to prop itself up. Pathetic.

FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS?!?!?!

That is OBSCENE.

There are plenty of vastly more appropriate communities who might actually give a damn about a hokey state fair who would accept far less than $50K to rent a field somewhere. Plenty of RV parking, I'm sure. Closer to the homes of those who still attend these things.

Hell, maybe actually putting it near the people who KNOW something about agriculture and in a less unnatural environment would re-elevate it above being a gloried carnie fest.

By: JeffF on 5/16/12 at 10:14

My priorities:
1. Save the State fair, make sure it keeps going

then move onto
2. Keep the fair at its current site

If that cannot be accomplished by an impartial state entity because of real economic or logistical reasons
3. Keep the Fair in Davidson County
4. Prevent elected Nashville officials in becoming too involved with a site and events labeled as "Tennessee State"
5. Improve the facilities on the site for the people of Nashville
6. Ensure that the fairgrounds has events that will keep the site bustling all year

Then
7. Save the track and racing events at the fairground

I support racing, but I do not want the preservation of this single event turn this debate into an all or nothing. There are a lot more important things to me about the fair and the fairgrounds. I do not want to lose those things because we were not able to save something at 7 on the list.

By: fair_minded on 5/16/12 at 9:45

This whole thing stinks of special interest legislation. Follow the money. The legislation was written and lobbied by the Farm Bureau Insurance folks. Their CEO is on the so-called "Tennessee State Fair Association" Board, as is the Commissioner of Agriculture, who would administer the new rules and its new commission, and it was sponsored in the Senate by Joe Haynes, also a member of the TSFA Board.

It was handled much as a hostile-takeover is in the business world-- nothing was said to the Fair Board of Commissioners or the state representative of the district in which the Fairgrounds/Fair Board is located, Rep. Mary Pruitt (The only member of the Davidson County Legislative Delegation to question the bill on the floor, and the only one not voting in favor. Remember that on election day!). No one was asked their opinion, or consulted in any manner. They found out about it when the rest of us did.

TSFA was awarded the fair contract months ago but failed to take any action, apparently awaiting the outcome of this takeover attempt, and only signed the contract Tuesday when it became evident that the Fair Board was not willing to jeopardize the State Fair by waiting any longer.

And the past two Fairs, handled by TSFA, have been VERY mediocre at best. They have nearly killed the agricultural interest by failing to award "premiums" or cash awards to many of the agricultural folks and other contestants in arts, home making, etc.

Nor have they attempted to widen the participation in the State Fair. Last year, equestrian events were held at the Fair for the first time in many years as a result of the Fairgrounds Heritage Preservation Group inviting equestrians to attend, and co-sponsoring the events. These people were happy to participate, as they had been overlooked for several years, and we have to wonder how many more people were never contacted to participate??

The midway has been reduced and squashed up on the very top of the hill, not using the lower areas as in years past. Some of the entrances were closed, making it more difficult for fair goers to come into the Fairgrounds, and ticket booths were reduced causing many people to be turned away from last year's Fair due to extreme long lines and waits for a ticket to get in!

And these are the people who are trying to hijack the Fair for themselves!!

While the Davidson County Fair Board has been tainted in the past by political influence, you can already see the political crap floating to the top at the state level!

Ronald Reagan once said the nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." Well, our Fair Board, while it may need some help at the moment, does not need the kind of help that this legislation is trying to provide.

The Davidson County Fair Board of Commissioners were given the authority for the State Fair in 1923 when the state, after running the fair unsuccessfully for many years, gave up the State Fair and formed the Board of Commissioners. This was done in part, because Davidson County, as a result of a special referendum, had purchased the land used for the State Fair as a "permanent home for the State Fair."

It was set up as a separate entity, under it's "own governance", making it independent from Davidson County. This was supposed to help keep politics out of the picture. Even though the Mayor appoints the Commissioners subject to council approval, the Commissioners only need answer to themselves and the people.

However, over the years, politics and "good ole boy" clubs have infiltrated the operations of the Fair Board, bringing the level of the Fairs and the Fairgrounds down.

But last August, the people spoke their will at the ballot box, and passed a pro-fairgrounds referendum, giving notice to the political structure of Davidson County.

And this year, we have a new chairman of the Fair Board of Commissioners, Ned Horton, who has stated that the Fair Board recognizes that will of the people and will work to improve and move into the future with a stronger Fairgrounds and Fair.

There are also three new members of the five-person Fair Board. So we have some new direction and new blood in the Commission, who should be given a chance to do what they can to improve things. Hopefully, they will also be able to pull back from Metro to their autonomous position-- the state law giving them that authority is still in effect, as is the same provision in the Metro Charter. Things worked better, and the Fairgrounds was more profitable when that was the situation rather than Metro trying to take control.

If they take the State Fair, it's still *our* Fairgrounds, and we still have flea markets, races, and many, many other events there. But the Fair Board is in place, and in position to do a better job than any state agency, or state commission run by an insurance company.

Call and/or email the Governor. Tell him to veto this legislation. No side-stepping and letting it sneak in with no signature-- tell him to use his veto to do the right thing.

You can reach the Governor's office at 615-741-2001 or write him at bill.haslam@tn.gov
Remember, this is the *State* Fair, and everyone can tell the Governor to veto, not just Davidson County residents!

By: Left-of-Local on 5/18/12 at 12:50

Awesome. Maybe Farm Bureau can kill it off then. Don't care how it happens. The place is a blight and needs to become something much more appropriate to a city.

By: Ask01 on 5/20/12 at 1:21

If for no other reason than to spite Mayor Dean and his slovenly followers, I will support the fairgrounds and racing.

With all the aroma of fresh manure from the agricultural exhibits to the smell of burning rubber and petrochemical products and roar of the engines at the raceway.

If such causes Mayor Dean and Karl's Kommandos extreme anxiety and frustration that they could not break the will of the people, such support will be well worth the price.