Metro Councilman Jamie Hollin tossed back a bag of popcorn Tuesday night expecting fireworks as the council held a special meeting to discuss the hotly contentious Metro-owned fairgrounds.
Though the two-and-a-half-hour gathering lacked the punch some had anticipated, the meeting had its moments, with a handful of council skeptics decrying the origins of Mayor Karl Dean’s fairgrounds redevelopment plans and the process by which those plans have been carried out.
As a backdrop to the meeting were two competing bills: One, introduced by Dean and his administration, outlines a set of leases that would enable flea market and other expo center events to relocate to Hickory Hollow Mall in Antioch. The other, filed by Councilman Duane Dominy, seeks to preserve the Metro-owned fairgrounds until a new location for a state fair is landed. The council will consider both in the coming weeks.
Councilwoman Emily Evans offered the most curious line of attack last night when she referenced Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling’s former role as a commissioner on the fair board during portions of the Phil Bredesen and Bill Purcell administrations.
Evans, who said she’s unsure how she’ll vote on the Hickory Hollow leases, pointed out that the fair board back then also bandied around the idea of redeveloping the fairgrounds. She asked Rebieling what happened to that proposal.
“I believe that the administration at that time was not interested in pursing that,” Riebeling said.
“So, you’ve been carrying the torch for a few years?” Evans shot back.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” Riebeling said. “But your words, not mine. Sometimes we should just do the right thing.”
Councilman Mike Jameson delivered another noteworthy moment when he seemingly alleged Metro Public Works Director Billy Lynch had been asked to contact council members and say continued services within their districts were dependent on their voting for the Hickory Hollow bill. Jameson said Lynch called him last week and asked for his stance on the fairgrounds issue.
“You don’t need to go there,” Jameson said. “Had it just been me, I would have chalked it up as just idle conversation. But, in talking to some of my colleagues on the council floor –– none of whom I will name –– but all of whom said they got the call and started getting arms twisted and references to yellow trucks in their district. That doesn’t need to happen.
“I know the public works director,” Jameson added. “He’s a phenomenal public servant. I know he doesn’t do this out of his own volition. I know he follows orders.”
Jameson requested Councilwoman Vivian Wilhoite, who chairs the council’s Codes, Fair and Farmers Market Committee, ask Lynch for any vote tally list that he may have obtained.
Contacted following the meeting by The City Paper, Lynch said he had called Jameson regarding another matter and asked him about his fairgrounds stance out of curiosity.
“I’m a lifelong resident and taxpayer,” Lynch said. “I just think it’s a good deal, and I was asking out of curiosity where he stood.”
The bulk of Tuesday night’s meeting saw fair and Metro officials again spell out the dire financial situation of the fairgrounds and explain the opportunities that could be had by moving certain events to Hickory Hollow, leaving the fairgrounds as property to be redeveloped.
Fair board chair James Weaver said revenues at the fairgrounds, which operates as an enterprise fund, have been flat or slightly declining during the last 10 years. At the same time, he said expenditures have increased as a result of inflation. Weaver also alluded to Minnesota-based Markin Consulting’s 2007 report that said the 117-acre fairgrounds property isn’t optimal to hold a state fair.
“We were faced with the situation where we didn’t believe it was fiscally responsible to continue to do what we were doing,” Weaver said. “We didn’t believe it was responsible for us to continue to operate the fairgrounds until our reserves were just complexly gone and then come in here in March of some year with our hat in our hand and ask this council to fund the fairgrounds. We just simply as a board were not willing to do that.”
Buck Dozier, executive director of the Tennessee State Fair, said he anticipates the new expo center at Hickory Hollow Mall will generate $2.5 million in revenues by its third year of operations. Expenditures, he said, would be slightly below that figure.
Dozier dismissed the notion that all expo center vendors are reluctant to make the move from Nolensville Pike to Antioch. “That just isn’t true,” Dozier said.
Alexia Poe, the mayor’s office director of economic and community development, cited a recently drafted Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce report that claims retrofitting the fairgrounds property to suit 1 million square feet of Class A office space could generate 6,500 new jobs and $2.5 billion in economic activity. Poe said Davidson County currently has a scarcity of properties to compete with surrounding counties for corporate relocations.
“Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen tremendous growth in Middle Tennessee, but most of our growth has been in contiguous counties,” Poe said. “We are lacking attractive sites for economic development projects.”