For years, Metro has tried and tried again to figure out what to do to improve the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. The Metro Fair Board, which receives no tax dollars to subsidize its operations, has renovated buildings and increased marketing to try and boost attendance for the Tennessee State Fair.
But the crowds and the revenue haven’t followed for the 10-day event, which is still clouded by a shooting that occurred a decade ago. Several area county fairs draw greater crowds – the Wilson County Fair last year had paid attendance more than double the state fair’s 100,000 number.
This Friday, the board will begin reshaping the debate anew, fielding ideas from developers on what could be done with the 117-acre site less than two miles from the city’s core. Minnesota-based Markin Consulting, which has said that the fairgrounds will continue to struggle in its current configuration, will cull through the ideas and present feasible options next month.
Developers likely will suggest moving the State Fair elsewhere in Davidson County and redeveloping the site, according to people familiar with some of the thinking to date. For the fairgrounds, that would mean all new buildings, a more efficient layout and possibly some financial help from the developer taking over the current site.
A complete overhaul would mean that the site’s storied racetrack, which now hosts weekly races, will go away.
Moving the fair resonates with board officials. Buck Dozier, executive director of the fairgrounds, said the idea certainly will get a look.
“It would be easier to reinvent (the fairgrounds) in a different location,” Dozier said. “I think we need a state fair.”
Keeping office jobs in the county
Relocating the fair would free up an enticing central-city property with good access to nearby neighborhoods and the potential to become Nashville’s urban renewal showcase.
A developer may offer to swap the property in a different part of the county for the fairgrounds and redevelop the 117 acres into a mixed-use project similar to the Hill Center in Green Hills but not as upscale.
In real estate parlance, the office portion of such a project would target the gray market — the middle-income offices between white-collar and blue-collar jobs. One developer said the office portion could target the types of jobs Verizon Wireless is moving to Williamson County — a regional headquarters that handles information technology, human resources and customer service functions.
“There are significant corporate users in Davidson County and surrounding counties that have a very strong interest in potential buildings at the fairgrounds,” said Crews Johnston, a broker with Colliers Turley Martin Tucker.
Johnston, who isn’t involved with a group submitting ideas, pointed to Vanderbilt University Medical Center leasing space at 100 Oaks Mall.
“Given a better choice, they would have made a better choice,” he said.
Rolling Mill Hill, Thermal not good precedents
But the biggest challenge in redeveloping the fairgrounds site could be the government itself.
Developers note that Metro’s track record with redeveloping land it owns is not good. The prime examples, they say, are the decade that passed before the redevelopment of Rolling Mill Hill got under way and the Thermal site, which still sits vacant four years after the trash-burning plant there was razed.
Rolling Mill Hill was the topic of two studies conducted years apart. Close to a decade ago, Atlanta-based Post Properties, which had teamed with The Mathews Co., was chosen close to redevelop the former Metro General hospital campus. But deteriorating national economic conditions forced Post to scuttle its plans. The company also had wanted more tax-increment financing than the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency was prepared to give.
A similar scenario occurred with the site where the Schermerhorn Symphony Center now sits. In the late 1990s, MDHA selected Lincoln Property out of Dallas to build an apartment complex there. Also citing a changing national market, Lincoln backed out.
Fair move would have examples
As for the mechanics of moving the fair to another spot in the county, there are precedents from elsewhere.
The Mid-South Fair in Memphis is moving next year to Tunica, Miss., where it will set up shop on 150 donated acres. And in Nebraska – where the fairgrounds teetered on bankruptcy in 2004 and needed a portion of Nebraska Lottery proceeds to be saved – the fair is moving 80 miles west to Grand Island.
In the Nebraska fair’s case, a group of business leaders concluded that the research park was needed to allow the city and the university to thrive. Markin and its subcontractor on the fair in Nashville, Knoxville architectural firm HOK Smith Forkner, worked with the Nebraska fair on long-range planning.
“The city didn’t put together a real plan,” said Lindsey Koepke, the Nebraska fairgrounds’ executive director. “Grand Island did.”
Proactive planning will no doubt help decide the future of Nashville’s fairgrounds. So would a concerted push from a motivated Metro, said one developer.
“How do you fast track (the fairgrounds) so it happens?” the developer asked rhetorically. “This could absolutely be a legacy-type deal (for Mayor Karl Dean).”
Dozier is mindful of the challenge.
“I hope whatever we do it’s an informed, relatively quick process,” he said.