Whitehouse: Nixing cotton candy nostalgia

Friday, November 12, 2010 at 6:42pm

Over the years, the Tennessee State Fairgrounds has been a second home to many who grew up in Nashville.

The flea market — and the guy with the modified camper filled with books on the back of his pickup truck — was always a favorite.

And there was the Tennessee State Fair. I’m not sure when the practice ended, but while I was in elementary school, we got a day off from school to attend the fair, and every student in the county got a small allotment of tickets that could be used for anything from carnival rides to the petting zoo.

My more recent memories are from afar. I used to live in a duplex in Oak Hill, near Glendale Elementary. Although my home was about five miles from the fairgrounds, on Saturday nights I could hear the steady roar of the engines speeding cars and trucks around the racetrack. It was a strangely soothing sound.

On overcast nights I could sit in my front yard and watch circles of light dart around the clouds of the city. The lights from the track bounced off the hoods of those racecars and reflected into the night sky.

There are many other reasons people have gone there over the years, lining the streets and trudging up the hill for pro wrestling, home and garden shows, and of course Fan Fair (which I still refuse to call CMA Fest).

If you look back at photos of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds over the years, you will see that practically nothing has changed. And therein lies the problem.

The fairgrounds has long been neglected, like the forgotten cousin of the Municipal Auditorium, also a relic of a bygone era. Most of the buildings on the 117-acre site were built in the 1970s, if not before. If the walls of the fairgrounds could talk, they would ask for a ventilator.

There are passionate arguments being made by those who want to develop the property as well as those seeking to “save the fairgrounds.” Unfortunately, there are people (looking at you, Duane Dominy) who are using highly suspect “economic impact” numbers — as The City Paper reported recently — to advance their cause.

Davidson County isn’t getting any bigger, and there is only so much land from which city revenue can be generated through taxes and so forth. The fairgrounds property is a stone’s throw from downtown and should be making money for the betterment of the community. It should be generating new revenue for schools, public safety and infrastructure, to start.

Frankly, the long decline of the fairgrounds began in 1984, when NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series pulled its races from the speedway because of the unwillingness of powers that were to upgrade the track and facilities. In 2000, the Nationwide Series left as well, moving to the contemporary environs of the new speedway in Wilson County. Then in 2001, Fan Fair ended its 19-year run at the site and moved
to various locations, primarily LP Field.

I understand those who want to keep the racetrack there, those who don’t want to move the flea market, and the desire to create something other than another bland office park.

Something will have to give in these debates. We must be pragmatic and do what is best for the city. If that means tearing the place down, so be it. If it can be shown with real economic impact numbers that we should sink more money into the place, then so be it.

Nostalgia should have no place in this debate. Our fond memories of bygone eras aren’t paying the bills of a growing city. 

16 Comments on this post:

By: fair_minded on 11/15/10 at 3:51

Ken... do you understand how these things work? All economic impact studies are *estimates*-- nobody really knows for sure. They are based on formulas developed by economists to make it easy for us. The economist did the hard part and figured out that someone visiting from out of town was "x%" likely to spend ten bucks on lunch and buy $20 worth of gasoline while he was here. But nobody follows each visitor around and makes note of their actual expenditures. So we have to take the number of visitors and using the formula, *estimate* how many hamburgers and tanks of gas are sold.

But in the case of, say the recent estimates by the mayor and the chamber of commerce, they don't have any attendance figures or anything else other than more guesses to base their estimated on-- they may or may not be "educated" guesses, but they're still guesses.

However the impact study that you've decided to label "suspect" followed the same industry standard formulas as the mayor and chamber did. The difference is that the metro employees who did that study were not looking to the future for "pie in the sky." They had a history of actual attendance figures from Fairgrounds events on which to base their estimates. So far from being suspect, their report is actually highly accurate-- more accurate than any guesses by the administration of what type of business could be generated by a grab at the Fairgrounds.

Further, looking around town at the number of empty and under-utilized office space that there is, I'd say neither the chamber nor any mayor in the last 10 years has been able to accurately estimate or even ball-park office and industrial occupancy rates. I sure wouldn't bet *my* farm on them, based on their track record.

If you want to come up with "infill" projects, let's start with the Centennial Park property. It's larger than the Fairgrounds. It's in a part of town with more expensive real-estate values. It's already flat and would require little in the way of "site prep" to be "construction ready." It has no toxic waste problem. It has few buildings that would require demolition. It has cost Metro taxpayers millions of dollars each year it's existed. It's a less historic property than the Fairgrounds. Metro would be much better off selling that property rather than the Fairgrounds. It would bring much more cash and a higher margin of profit. In fact, that property could probably even be developed *without* metro giving tax breaks and other "incentives" for a company to purchase and build there.

But wait-- you might ask what about the events held at Centennial Park? What about the quality of life issues? Yeah... what about those?

It's already been pretty well established that the events at the Fairgrounds cannot be held anywhere else in Davidson County, unless a new facility were constructed. We've already lost the largest Civil War show in the U.S. to a neighboring county. Based on figures released at the last Metro Council meeting, at least 45 more events (so far) will be lost along with the Fairgrounds itself. Based on remarks from flea market vendors we stand to lose the 5th largest flea market in the U.S. if the Fairgrounds is lost *OR* moved to Hickory Hollow.

So what about the events and quality of life issues there? Those events bring over one million visitors a year to this county, each one with money in hand and provide entertainment for many thousands of Metro residents-- residents who will never attend the new convention center.

And what makes the mayor think that everyone in Metro Nashville *wants* a city of nothing but (empty) office parks and (empty) condos as far as the eye can see?

Where did he learn his math at that he thinks it's a good deal to spend more to move *some* events to a shopping mall than what he and his financial wizard claim that the Fairgrounds is losing? Keeping in mind of course, that the Fairgrounds has never cost the county a dime-- any actual losses to date have been covered by accumulated profits from previous years. Think of the losses of removing much of Hickory Hollow Mall from the tax rolls and off the commercial market.

There is still lots of land available in Davidson County for new construction. What we don't have is companies ready to step in either lease existing space (of which there currently is a glut) or build new facilities.

Let the mayor and his economic development folks fill up some of the existing facilities so that we don't have "ghost towns" like Metro Center scattered around the county.

Or better yet, send the mayor back to Massachusetts and let him end their state fair. Leave ours alone!

By: bfra on 11/15/10 at 4:44

fair_minded - Your comment contains too much logic for, Karl or any of his suck-up cronies to understand.

Thanks for pointing out facts!

By: govskeptic on 11/15/10 at 5:52

I wouldn't sell the wife's wedding rings in order to buy a wine
cooler or pay off an overpriced watch that I charged, nor would
I sell the fair-grounds to some company that just wants to buy
well located property at a discount!

By: Loner on 11/15/10 at 6:59

Good morning, Nashville!

Lots of nostalgia this morning. Ken Whitehouse and Margaret Faye Jones (LTE) both address issues with nostalgia in mind. Whitehouse eschews nostalgia for the fairgrounds and Ms. Jones embraces it for the DK store that meant so much to her over the years.

It seems that nostalgia and economics do not mix in Nashville. To me, an outsider, that is a pity. When human emotional attachments to a place take a back seat to profits, landmarks get razed and a community's uniqueness gets sent to the landfill along with the debris from the torn down buildings.

One-of-a-kind structures are then replaced with cookie-cutter development. Franchised look-alikes sprout up from the cleared off ground..like cute Walt Disney mushrooms.

Factor in the kickbacks and perks for Metro decision-makers, do a little research and one can see where the the pressure for "renewal" is coming from. It's a sham, a scam and a flimflam.

Nashville needs to get the special interest realtors and developers off the Metro Council. Their "public service" is motivated by selfishness.

Not convinced? OK, go ahead and put profits before people and pretty soon, Nashville will resemble all the other cities that urban renewed themselves into mediocrity.

By: Loner on 11/15/10 at 7:13

The State Fair is still cool in the Empire state. It is held in Syracuse, NY, near the Geographic center of the state. I attended last year's NYS Fair and had a great time; for family entertainment, it's hard to beat. Not only that, the fair is educational, informative and it reinforces one's identity as a citizen of a particular state within our union of states. I came away feeling proud of my state and re-assured that New York is on the right path. One cannot put a dollar and cents value on those things, they are priceless.

This same dynamic can and should be fostered in all of our states, IMO. Yes, we are all Americans, but sometimes it is good to remember that we are citizens of a particular American state as well. Sometimes it is good to pat ourselves on the back...just a little.

By: girliegirl on 11/15/10 at 8:40

Fair MInded may've stepped in it...by accident. The difference in your Centennial comparison as to the Fairgrounds: Centennial is used for movies!!!! More than ever lately! Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, for one. LOL The FG location is a dive, and that's a compliment. :-) Let's use the FG location 24/7 for a change, and not just one weekend a friggin' month.

By: bfra on 11/15/10 at 8:45

IMO, the still active tenants of HH should have some input about this proposed "stupid" plan. The parking, alone, will be a big problem, when any event takes place, possibly leaving their customers, with no convenient parking, if any at all.

Maybe Karl has another "pipe dream" for taking over the entire mall, at a later date.

By: bfra on 11/15/10 at 9:02

girlie - When the FG wasn't under rule of Karl's "let's ruin the FG" committee, it was used several friggin' times a month & made money. Where have you been?

By: girliegirl on 11/15/10 at 9:02

No more stupid than keeping it where it is! We drove past the parking lot of cars for MILES all the way around (Nolensville Pk, Craighead, etc...all backed up for HOURS) and no one was even moving. Period. It was truly pathetic. Most of those folks will never make that mistake (going to the fair) again. They'll opt for a different fair completely.

By: girliegirl on 11/15/10 at 9:02

No more stupid than keeping it where it is! We drove past the parking lot of cars for MILES all the way around (Nolensville Pk, Craighead, etc...all backed up for HOURS) and no one was even moving. Period. It was truly pathetic. Most of those folks will never make that mistake (going to the fair) again. They'll opt for a different fair completely.

By: bfra on 11/15/10 at 9:17

That's odd! I went to this year's fair, several times, as in the past, and had no trouble parking at either time. HH has less parking.

By: bfra on 11/15/10 at 9:19

Should have said, last year's fair. To put it simple, the last fair at the FG.

By: gdiafante on 11/15/10 at 9:41

The fairground site is a pit. Parking is bad.

HH is a pit. Parking is bad, traffic is worse.

Both options suck eggs. I wouldn't go to either.

By: localboy on 11/15/10 at 10:18

But what about the big picture in this deal...Metro will finally get to own its own mall!! Isn't that cool?
I agree with Mr. Whitehouse - it's still Fan Fair to me, too.

By: judyboodo@yahoo.com on 11/15/10 at 5:11

Lots of things need to be looked at here. I know that the Centennial park analogy is tongue in cheek but there is another that is real. The Municipal Auditorium. The previous administration didn't put up a peep when the GSA came to town a few years ago to select a site for a new Federal Courthouse. How do I know this? Because they told me so. They said that the City told them that their first choice, the Municipal Auditorium was not negotiable. Never mind that it has been a consistent money looser for years, It houses the events that the common man wants to attend. Nothing wrong with that. But it didn't have the potential to enrich somebody's pockets. It didn't matter if the site that was selected took about $200,000 of property taxes off the city's rolls and now sits deserted and non productive. I bet we wind up with another white elephant in the old convention center when the MCC opens. But by that time the Mayor and his friends will have an excuse for why the people must pay more in taxes to make Nashville compete to be a city we can all be proud of. Go right ahead citizens of Nashville, sleep through the whole process, Fair Park, Opryland, the two Winston Cup races, the Fairgrounds, someday when you wake up and see how badly this city has been run by the people that we elect to public office you will wonder where all the really good stuff that made Nashville a place you wanted to be, disappeared to. Once it's gone it never comes back. Pay attention. The fairgrounds should be refurbished and made into a site that is more in the league with Louisville's Fair grounds. For a long time they had a Six Flags park, as will as a baseball venue and event space that is used all the time. And it's surrounded by residential. Common man events, every city that you can be proud of has them. I've never seen them in a mall, in a war zone.

By: GUARDIAN on 11/16/10 at 5:18

GUARDIAN- Go ahead and do away with the fairgrounds. I was lucky to be born in Chattanooga in the greatest state in the Union. I grew up around Knoxville learned my work ethic in Memphis and spent the last 20 years around Nashville before returning to my family and childhood friends in the Knoxville area. I've worked and traveled all over the world so I can say there's no place like Tennessee. I don't mean to bore anyone but I say this because I want to point out that I've lived in what are the four jewels of our great state. It hurts to say I have watched these four wonderful cities fade from what they once were. Knoxville and Chattanooga have battled to maintain their identity and are holding there own but it's sad to say that Memphis is all but lost. Crime, gangs, liberalism and progressive-ism have all but destroyed it. It hurts to see Nashville on the same path. This fight over the fairgrounds with that Ken Whitehouse said here rings true till it got to the end of the article. "BUT" fair_minded hit the nail on the dead with every word they wrote.