What will become of the state fair and fairgrounds?

Monday, September 6, 2010 at 11:45pm

The first Tennessee State Fair held where Nashvillians know it today, on 117 acres at Nolensville Pike and Wedgewood Avenue, was noted for its spectacular display of electric lights that illuminated the sky at night, a rare sight in those times.

One hundred and four years later, the lights are going out at Nashville’s fairgrounds. This week, the grounds will open up to state fair-goers for the final time, with the 10-day event set to run Sept. 10-19.

The state fair in Nashville — and its staple mix of livestock, agriculture and creative arts displays and competitions — dates back as early as 1855. Locations moved frequently, however, and interest floundered.

At the turn of the 19th century, a group of Nashville businessmen began to eye the property at Nolensville Pike and Wedgewood Avenue, then known as Cumberland Park, as a chance for the fair’s revival. Grounds featured an elaborate 7,000-seat grandstand for horseracing and a lavish clubhouse that would become the Woman’s Building. The site was also coveted for its location, with streetcars able to drop off passengers at its doorstep.

By 1906, the location would become synonymous with the Tennessee State Fair, eventually becoming a city government-operated event. Today, longtime Nashvillians fondly recall a time when, as children, they were given a free ticket to the fair and permitted to miss school. Famous acts like Sonny and Cher and comedian Bob Hope performed there during its heyday. The site also featured the first night flight in the history of aviation, and ushered in Nashville’s era of NASCAR racing.

But cities change, and so has Nashville.

After years of declining attendance figures and dwindling revenue, Mayor Karl Dean and Metro have opted out of the state fair business. Instead, fair producer North American Midway Entertainment signed a $100,000 contract with the city earlier this year to hold a final state fair at the old fairgrounds site. Fair organizers are encouraging Nashvillians to “be a part of history.”

The demise of the state fair at the current site has produced some major questions regarding the outlook for a state fair in Davidson County, as well as the future of the Metro-owned fairgrounds site itself.

A group of Tennesseans dedicated to the continuation of the fair is hoping to strike a deal to prolong the event at an alternative location, ideally in Davidson County. Meanwhile, Dean has made clear his desire that the fairgrounds property be redeveloped, having appointed a 10-member task force earlier this year to study the future of the site. Their report is expected to be released this week. At the same time, corporations are eyeing the land for relocating or expanding their businesses.

After two years of confusion and impassioned debate over the future of the fairgrounds, answers appear closer than ever to taking form.

This year’s fair

It’s an admittedly strange time for Buck Dozier, executive director of the Tennessee State Fair.

Though the former fire chief, at-large councilman and candidate for mayor still holds the title of director of the fairgrounds, the clock is ticking. By Dec. 31, all operations and events held at the property are set to cease. After that point, the five-member fair board will continue to meet periodically, but it would likely be tasked with overseeing the flea market and other expo events — provided a new location for them is landed — as opposed to managing the property.

Right now, Dozier said he’s focused on finding work for his department’s 17 employees, who stand to lose their jobs in just four months.

“Normally, at this time of year, we are very busy with getting ready [for the state fair],” Dozier said. “So, it’s a little weird that we’re not as actively involved, and we’re going to sit back and watch somebody else do it. In one sense, it’s a relief, but in another sense, we miss it.”

With Metro not overseeing production of the state fair as it has in the past, North American Midway Entertainment — in partnership with Nashville-based Rockhouse Partners, an entertainment agency — is running the show.

“From the fair’s perspective, this year’s really important to bring back all of what you’re accustomed to,” said Chrysty Fortner of Rockhouse Partners. “We also added a little flair.”

That means attendees can expect a familiar assortment of rides, games, music, agriculture shows and creative arts competitions that they’ve enjoyed in the past, organizers say, along with new events such as hula-hoop and egg-toss contests, as well as soccer-ball juggling.

Admission fees have been rolled back to 2008 prices. There’s also a “9/11 night” on Sept. 11, when military veterans are welcomed free, and separate evenings designated for free admission to seniors and youth.

“We’re really working hard at making this the most affordable fun a family can have,” Fortner said. “That was our whole idea. Get people coming back to the fair, get them comfortable with coming back to the fair, and remind them what the fair’s all about, and let them be a part of history.”

The goal is to attract around 200,000 visitors over the course of the 10-day event, but they’ll have to overcome a few obstacles. For starters, there’s general confusion over whether the state fair is actually taking place this year.

Then there’s declining attendance. Last year, the Tennessee State Fair had disappointing numbers, a fact widely attributed to the steady rainfall that hampered the event. More recently, in August, the Wilson County Fair’s attendance dropped from the previous year, with organizers pointing to extreme heat as the cause.

“In down economic times, fairs and festivals really do great,” Fortner said. “I think Wilson got caught with what we got caught with last year. You can’t fight Mother Nature. I don’t know what the final numbers were they reported, but it wasn’t because people didn’t want to go out.”

New digs

Earlier this year, a group of agricultural and tourism leaders that included state Sen. Joe Haynes and state Rep. Stratton Bone formed the Tennessee State Fair Association to try to launch a reinvigorated event beginning in 2011. (The same state fair association is also responsible for overseeing the agricultural offerings this week — livestock competitions and creative arts, for example.)

“As far as relocation, we are looking at all available sites, preferably in Davidson County,” said Joe Gaines, assistant commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, who serves on the new fair association’s board. “I think everyone is committed to exhausting every effort to keep the state fair in or near the state capital.”

In an ideal world, Gaines said an adequate property to house a state fair would need to be around 120 acres, featuring open space, parking and necessary facilities. One property that’s been bandied about by observers is the old Clover Bottom Developmental site at Stewarts Ferry Pike near Lebanon Pike, which Gaines said he’s also heard suggested. Some sort of public-private partnership also appears to be an option.

“We have gotten some very favorable feedback from both Metro and state government about willingness to discuss any existing public properties within Davidson County,” Gaines said. “We’ve not gotten to the point yet of looking at those and evaluating, or that type of thing.”

For next year’s fair, Gaines said there’s a possibility the midway/games/rides component could be held at one location, with the agriculture portion at another.

“It’s going to take more than a year to find a site and develop even a minimal amount of facilities to be able to host what we picture a state fair being,” Gaines said. “So, my forecast, for lack of a better word, is that there may be some interim, temporary 2011 Tennessee State Fair.

“It would have been nice if we’d been given a couple of years to vacate the fairgrounds, but it looks like they’re going to do something immediate with that,” he said.

What will they do?

The fate of the fairgrounds has stirred passions for many.

Over the past several months, a task force appointed by Dean has solicited public input, tapping the land-use nonprofit Nashville Civic Design Center to conduct a series of community meetings.

On occasion, those meetings have been flooded with fairgrounds preservationists and racing enthusiasts who seem convinced there’s still an ongoing debate. Despite their emotional, sometimes tearful pleas, the property will cease to be the fairgrounds by the end of the year.

The task force, which includes the mayor’s Economic and Community Development Director Alexia Poe, last week put the final touches on an 87-page comprehensive report on the future of the fairgrounds, which includes recommendations and recurring themes as suggested by participants
of the various community gatherings.

The task force recommends an economic feasibility study be conducted to evaluate proposed uses for the site and that a professional planning firm be hired to create a master plan.

Recurring themes, as highlighted in the report, include the desire that the revamped fairgrounds site establish an opportunity for shops and retail; improve street-connectivity with the surrounding neighborhood and various landmarks; embrace environmental sustainability; create green space; generate opportunities for local jobs; and provide outlets for recreational activity.

Meanwhile, Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute has teamed up with the mayor’s office and Metro officials over the past year to study infill development along some of Nashville’s barren corridors. The institute, which is funding the study, is conducting similar fellowships in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Phoenix. By no accident, Nashville’s study is focused on Fourth and Eighth avenues — streets that sandwich the fairgrounds.

“We’re going to take the [task force report], the previous studies that have been done on the fairgrounds and the work that the ULI [Urban Land Institute] did, and look at those three things together to determine how we go forward,” Dean said.

Corporate interest?

There’s also been a concentrated effort by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to showcase the fairgrounds land to corporations looking to either relocate or expand. Efforts have included on-site corporate visits led by the chamber of commerce and even aerial helicopter tours.

“We have thrown it out as a possibility ever since the word came up that it may be in play, and we do that for all kinds of sites,” said Janet Miller, the chamber’s chief economic development and marketing officer. “We have not made formal proposals on it because we’ve been very careful and clear that we need to honor the Metro process.”

Above all, corporate interest appears to be the result of its location — the site sits near exits to Interstates 65 and 440, and in close range to downtown and flourishing communities like the Belmont neighborhood.

“From a transit standpoint, it’s got a lot of possibilities for anything from corporate headquarters to back office and customer care centers,” Miller said. “If you draw a circle around it, you can reach a lot of rooftops in a short radius, so I’d say it’s a highly desirable piece of real estate, but I also know there’s a lot of different views on what the highest and best use could be.”

According to real estate experts, the fairgrounds could be worth as much as $20 million, though that kind of price tag could require the state or Metro to invest in street and access improvements near the property.

In the past, Nashville-based Hospital Corporation of America, known better as HCA, explored the site, an interest that is believed to still exist. Another suitor had been Harley-Davidson, but that match never gained momentum.

Some in real estate circles say as many as three corporate relocation or expansion proposals have been presented to Metro, ranging from projects sized between 200,000 to 1 million square feet of space. The City Paper couldn’t confirm names of companies or the legitimacy of the talks because ongoing real estate deals are not subject to open records laws.

“I will say this,” Dean said. “On a daily basis almost — maybe it’s four times a week — I’m working on economic development issues and talking to businesses that are either located within the county and want to expand, or businesses located somewhere else who want to come to Nashville. One of the issues that we confront is having available land or space to show them. To create jobs, to create additional tax revenue for the city –– where we can properly fund our schools, properly fund public safety — that is something I’m very interested in.”

In light of May’s flood, it appears likely that part of the property’s redevelopment would include a park around Brown’s Creek. An estimated 30 to 40 acres on the site fall within a floodplain. The idea of a new park in the area, which currently lacks one, has been suggested at some of the task force’s community gatherings.

Rather than allowing the fairgrounds site to sit vacant for too long, conventional wisdom suggests it would be politically wise for Dean to announce plans for the property sooner than later — whether that’s a mixed-used development, a corporate relocation, neither, or perhaps a combination of both.

If the mayor has a quick timeframe in mind, he could present something — Dean hinted it would be the new park — in a revamped capital spending plan for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. The administration had previously postponed this year’s spending plan following the flood and is expected to release it this fall.

Besides the redevelopment of the fairgrounds, there’s also the matter of finding a site to relocate non-state-fair events traditionally held at the expo center, which include the flea market, lawn and garden shows, antiques shows and Christmas Village. Dean has said he hopes to find a location for them to continue.

“I don’t have an announcement to make right now, but I’m hopeful that as we move forward, particularly as we announce our capital plan, that we’ll have space identified to perform that exposition role,” Dean said.

14 Comments on this post:

By: 117_acres on 9/7/10 at 4:02

Thank you Mayor Dean and Staff, Council Lady Moore, and the Fair board. The fairgrounds property has so much potential to positively impact and benefit this area of South Nashville as well as all of Nashville. Creating jobs and providing green space sounds great to me! For those that do not understand the issues with the fairgrounds property, what to do with the fairgrounds property discussion has been going on for years even before Dean took office and you shouldn't rush to quick into your conspiracy theories just yet.Thank you again Mayor Dean, I hope and pray that whatever your administration's plans are for this property it is something that will benefit the nearby communities for years to come.

By: nashviller on 9/7/10 at 4:59

Good news for all of us who want to see Nashville prosper. This is a very unique opportunity to have substantial improvements made to such a large piece of land near the city, and do something that will beautify and benefit the city...unlike the current uses of the property.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 9/7/10 at 6:12

Thank you, Mayor Dean!

By: Kosh III on 9/7/10 at 6:18

"We have not made formal proposals on it because we’ve been very careful and clear that we need to honor the Metro process"

In other words, cut a backroom deal while appearing to wait for the window-dressing of public input to occur.

It will go to whatever corporation can get the biggest welfare check from the city, combined with the lowest price being paid and the biggest under the table bribes being passed out around City Hall.

It's been a done deal since day one. I only hope it isn't too bad of a deal for the taxpayers.

And all the other non-Fair events? Probably GWTW.

By: 37203 on 9/7/10 at 7:17

The outcome is - so far - a good one.

But the process was problematic. We need change at the fairgrounds, but the process so far has not seemed genuinely open to citizen involvement. The CDC-facilitated meetings seemed driven by a conclusion the organizers knew before we began. There were a lot of markers and charts, and a lot of speeches about citizen involvement, but no tangible signs that anything anyone said made a substantial difference.

We need a transparent, open, democratic process, with citizen interest groups - not just individual citizens - with a seat at the table where the deals are getting planned and made.

And we need a final outcome that keeps this land in service of the public good. We can't just shift it from a bad public use to a use that is all about private profit. We need to shift it to a good public use, which probably includes upgraded meeting and expo space.

By: JeffF on 9/7/10 at 7:35

The process for community involvement with this ordeal has paralleled that of the convention center process, Q&A sessions have instead been opportunities for Powerpoint presentations by officials, prepared with the help of PR firms. Opportunities for actual citizen input into the idea pot have been cutoff in order to leave time for the prepared slide shows.

I am curious as to what development that happens on this site will do for downtown. Every action Dean has taken in his single term was done so only if it benefited the downtown tourism/hospitality industry. I have a hard time believing that Dean's first foray outside the castle walls is going to benefit only us serfs living outside the confines of downtown.

The only thing I can think of is he plans on selling the land to pay for more transit, more public buildings, more something in downtown. Taking all that property in downtown off the tax roles (for publicly owned buildings and TIFF) is expensive and government services still have to be provided even if the money is already being given away. Is selling the fairgrounds going to offset a riverfront amphitheater or downtown baseball stadium?

I would recommend selling the land to the highest bidder if I knew the proceeds wouldn't be wasted on yet more downtown largess and pork. If they can't promise that then keep it public and build the baseball stadium AND amphitheater there.

By: bfra on 9/7/10 at 8:15

Kosh - You described this, yet another under the table fiasco of Karl's, to a tee!

By: bfra on 9/7/10 at 8:17

Some are so blinded by, getting rid of the races, they can't see how this double dealing project is going down.

By: HokeyPokey on 9/7/10 at 8:36


Move the "state" fair to the grounds of a mega-church and lift up Jesus!


By: Hotshoe17 on 9/7/10 at 12:48

Stan H.
Can the old Middle Tennesseans send Karl Dean back to Massachussetts and send Obama back to Kenya. How much progress can the Taxpayers of Middle Tennessee take?

By: DeLaney3840 on 9/7/10 at 1:42

So, they want us all to go down town to the convention center for all that we have had at the fairgrounds? For me it has been 40 years+ going to the fairgrounds, flea market, races, Christmas village, etc etc. Will it be the convention center picking up the slack for those events and Wilson County for the races??
What happened to preserving history? You call this progress, but Hotshoe - is right we the taxpayers never come out smelling like a rose. Is it because not enough of us take the time to voice our opinion? Are most of us too old & feel they will do what they want any way?

By: gdiafante on 9/8/10 at 12:50

The fairgrounds are a dump and the fair is a freakshow.

By: localboy on 9/8/10 at 2:15

"On occasion, those meetings have been flooded with fairgrounds preservationists and racing enthusiasts who seem convinced there’s still an ongoing debate. Despite their emotional, sometimes tearful pleas, the property will cease to be the fairgrounds by the end of the year."
Opinion piece that masquerades as a news story.

By: MAmom on 10/10/10 at 11:52

THANK YOU VERY MUCH Nashville City Paper for not being afraid to cover this STORY. It is a legitimate story. People are interested in it... over 30,000 people have signed petitions to save the fairgrounds. And these are just THE TIP OF AN ICEBURG... just those people who have attended functions at the fairgrounds recently.

Govskeptic said in anoher thread:
"This park project that keeps being discussed by the Mayor over at the fairgrounds sounds like a ruse to me. Use small portion and sell/lease the much larger part is more likely their plans."

Since the initial sale plan was met with resistance (and some of the buyers may have backed away because they don't want their corporate "good-guy" reputations tarnished), a "PLAN B" may working now: 1) move the fairground functions somewhere else (it doesn't matter if the little businesses fail - it is okay - they are just collateral damage), 2) build a park, 3) the park will be underutilized, 4) and then the land can be sold without resistance because no one will care, 5) so the property falls into Corporate hands & is lost to the public.

The property was a gift to the people and has become the poor (and middle class) man's convention center - it really should be retained. Renovated it could be made a into an outstanding public place - a forum/showplace other cities would envy. It is is big enough to house: -a park & playground, -State Fair, -Flea Market & Expo events, -race track (with as much sound-proofing as possible), -an amphitheatre / stage, and also a large, central, accessible site in times of emergency (e.g.: tornado, earthquake, etc.) to house displaced people, if needed at some future date.

Renovating and improving the Fairgrounds would employ architects, contractors, and many others. If done well - homeowners around the Fairgrounds would see their property values soar - good for them and Realtors. The public would be served & monies would routinely flow into the city's coffers. And at some future time - if there is ever a really big emergency in Nashville (e.g.: tornado, earthquake, etc.) - it would be nice for the city to have a big block of centrally-located land to help displaced people.

CONVERSELY - IF THE FAIRGROUNDS PROPERTY IS SOLD AND BECOMES COMMERCIAL PROPERTY - and fairground activities are not given an comparable site - it will be remembered as a land grab by city representatives who ignored the concerns of the public & result in an incalculable loss for future Nashvillians who in future years will only be able to think back to a time when Nashville had a neat place called the Fairgrounds.


Ostensibly the Council represents Nashvillians. If you are upset by the Mayor's plan - communicate this to your representative - tell them you do NOT want the property sold - that you want to keep the Fairgrounds open & improved. And, if possible, attend the next Council meeting and let them know how you feel about the plans to discard/dismantle the Fairgrounds.