After one of the most impassioned public hearings in recent Nashville history, the Metro Council Tuesday backed off on plans to demolish the fairgrounds racetrack for now, opting instead to create a new “master plan” that will dictate the fate of the speedway and the fairgrounds property.
An estimated 1,000 citizens packed the Metro courthouse Tuesday night, forcing hundreds to spill into overflow areas situated in the building’s basement and on its sixth floor. The vast majority were auto enthusiasts dressed in red pleading for the survival of the track they love. Some longtime Metro officials said it was the largest gathering they’ve ever seen at a council meeting.
Citizens came to speak for or against a bill that would have called for the demolition of the historic racetrack. But hours before Nashvillians even lined up at the courthouse doorsteps, council members had already used committee meetings to begin talks on amending the bill to incorporate the new master plan approach.
In the end, following a three-hour-plus public hearing, the council voted to approve an amendment introduced by Councilman Jason Holleman, which takes the language “demolition of racetrack” completely out of the bill, calls for the state fair to stay at the Nolensville Pike property through 2012, retains the expo center until a new location is landed and paves the way for the master plan to determine the best use of the property. A 40-acre park is already in store for fairgrounds land that falls within the city’s floodplain.
With the amendment approved, the revised bill found undivided support, clearing the council’s second of three votes by a unanimous 37-0 vote, setting off a few cheers from racing fans in the gallery. The ordinance is up for third and final reading next month.
“I’m terribly pleased,” said Councilman Michael Craddock, one of the leading voices in support of the fairgrounds and its racetrack. Craddock pointed out the bill had only hours earlier sought to demolish the speedway.
No doubt, Tuesday night was a clear victory for Nashville’s racing community, as the council also voted 21-19 to defeat a competing amendment introduced by Councilwoman Sandra Moore that would have effectively ended racing at the speedway. The council chose Holleman’s amendment because it lacked that provision.
“We’ve heard a lot of people who care about racing tonight,” Holleman said. “When we come to the table for this [master plan] process, everyone needs to come on equal footing.”
Councilman Duane Dominy, who last year filed a bill that would keep the status quo at the fairgrounds property, came away content with the master plan, which is to be engineered by the Board of Fair Commissioners, the Metro Planning Department and the Metro Parks and Recreation Department.
“I think we can address the concerns of all the parties in a way that’s respectful,” he said. “If we can include all the voices so that we can come up with a viable plan that honors all the history of that property, then I think the master plan will be a good thing.”
But while arguably a setback –– because Moore’s amendment failed –– Tuesday night wasn’t a complete loss for Mayor Karl Dean and members of his administration, who want to redevelop the property to accommodate a mixed-use development anchored by corporate office space.
As outlined in the amended bill, the forthcoming master plan –– which the council would need to adopt –– is to give consideration to existing plans already drafted by groups such as the Nashville Civic Design Center and the Washington D.C- based Urban Land Institute. Those documents, in essence, recommend racing end at the fairgrounds.
While acknowledging, “You never get everything that you want,” Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling called the master plan a “good, positive step forward.”
“This is going to take time,” Riebeling said of the administration’s fairgrounds hopes. “We all know that. But I think you heard for the first time tonight from the community, whose voice had never been heard from before.
“A study is good,” he added. “It’s in the hands of the fair board of what they want to do. They’ve voted very strongly not to do racing because it’s just not an economic model that is viable.”
According to council attorney Jon Cooper, the master plan would address the construction of the fairgrounds park, the restoration of nearby Browns Creek, the future of existing facilities including the racetrack, the possible addition of mixed-used development and necessary zoning changes. He said the planning commission, fair board and parks board are to decide on a timeframe to draft the plan.
That indefinite period of time should allow for the fairgrounds debate to only continue, with arguments heard during the marathon public hearing likely to remain at the forefront.
Neighbors of the fairgrounds property, often overshadowed by passionate racing fans, took the public hearing opportunity to discuss the racetrack’s pollution and noise, while calling the speedway an “eyesore” to a frustrated community. Neighbors said it’s finally time to start revitalizing the area. Some said the property has potential to become “the next Grassmere or MetroCenter.”
“Throughout this process, I believe it is the neighbors of this area who have not been heard,” said Betty Page, a 52-year resident of the surrounding fairgrounds neighborhood. “We did not move into the noise of our neighborhood. The noise moved in on us.”
Keith Moorman, a member of the neighborhood group South Nashville Action People, likened the fairgrounds fight as a battle of “David versus Goliath,” with the neighbors representing the underdog. His analogy was a jab at Save My Fairgrounds, which has received considerable funds from the likes of NASCAR legends Darrell Waltrip and Sterling Marlin.
A fair comparison or not, racing enthusiasts are now encouraged to carry on with the case they’ve made for months in light of Tuesday’s proceedings.
“This is the premier track in the Southeast and probably throughout the United States,” said Ricky Bolden, an auto racer. “If you do away with it, you’ll never have it again. You’ll never have a second chance at this. It doesn’t just belong to the neighborhood. It belongs to all of us.”
Marlin, who resides outside Davidson County, along with other racers who have rallied behind Save My Fairgrounds, introduced a refurbished fairgrounds and racetrack proposal last week, which would privatize racetrack operations and set up a sound barrier to try to ease noise concerns.
“We can fix noise,” Marlin said last night. “A $50 muffler will fix everything.”