Fairgrounds debate spurs May Town revisit for mayor

Friday, November 12, 2010 at 2:17pm
Mayor Karl Dean and some administration officials have been invoking the heated debate over May Town — the proposal to build an alternative downtown, in essence, in the rural Bells Bend community — to bolster their case for redeveloping the fairgrounds, which is running into opposition. (Image courtesy of Paradigm Productions)

All it took was the furor over what to do with the Tennessee State Fairgrounds to finally get Mayor Karl Dean talking about May Town Center.

When the equally furious debate over May Town — the mixed-used development dream of billionaire developer Jack May — reached its climax a year and a half ago, seemingly every Nashvillian had an opinion on the proposal to plot a $4 billion project on 500-plus acres in the rural Bells Bend community. But Dean remained conspicuously noncommittal about the proposal, which pitted development against preservation at a time when sprawl is increasingly seen as detrimental to a city’s core.

Ultimately, the Metro Planning Commission shot down the May Town project, and Dean never showed his cards.

Now, in what seems to be one of Dean’s closing arguments for redeveloping the 117-acre fairgrounds, the mayor has gone out of his way to cite the May Town debate to bolster his case before the Metro Council weighs in on two competing bills: One, introduced by the Dean administration, outlines a set of leases that would move the flea market and other expo center events currently held at the fairgrounds to Hickory Hollow Mall in Antioch. The other, filed by Councilman Duane Dominy, seeks to thwart Dean’s plans and preserve the Metro-owned fairgrounds until a new location for a state fair is landed. Presumably, one bill will pass the council, and the other will fail.

Still in character, Dean isn’t saying whether he supported or opposed May Town. In what initially seemed like impromptu remarks, Dean reminded reporters about May Town last Monday during a news conference to unveil a new Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce report that claims retrofitting the fairgrounds property off Nolensville Pike to suit 1 million square feet of corporate office space would generate 6,500 new jobs, $200 million in capital investments and $2.5 billion in overall economic impact for Davidson County.

“Here’s the issue,” Dean said. “The fairgrounds is located two miles from downtown. It has access to all the infrastructure that you need to have a successful business growth area.

“Go back to the May Town debate,” Dean continued. “When folks talked about May Town — and that debate is behind us, and we probably don’t even need to be talking about it, but I will for a second — the debate became about [how] we have to have an area where we can develop and expand our tax base in order for this city to succeed. You can’t sit back and say, ‘We’re never going to do anything anywhere in all of Davidson County. We’re just not going to expand our tax base. We’re not going to be welcoming to new businesses.’ ”

The fairgrounds doesn’t pose the same problems — infrastructural, environmental — as May Town, Dean said, invoking it again. Instead, recasting the fairgrounds would include boosting a neighborhood, restoring polluted Browns Creek, and creating a new 40-acre park.

Infill vs. sprawl

Proponents of May Town argued that Davidson County needed to increase the city’s tax base by building the type of corporate-campus arrangements found in Cool Springs. Opponents, many of whom cited environmental concerns, said the city needed to preserve its open spaces. If you want new corporate office space, opponents maintained, then focus on infill development, and take advantage of underutilized areas within the city’s core.

Redeveloping the fairgrounds property, which clearly qualifies as infill, in some ways falls in line with both arguments.

At first glance, Dean’s comments could be dismissed as the mayor going slightly off-script. But the next evening, at a special fairgrounds meeting organized by a council committee, Alexia Poe, the mayor’s office’s economic and community development director, continued the argument.

Poe cited Volkswagen’s recent plant opening in Chattanooga, Hemlock’s move to Clarksville, the Nissan North America opening in Cool Springs, and West Tennessee’s ongoing pursuit of Toyota as results of a “conscious and strategic decision” on the part of local officials to have “site-ready” locations.

“We are lacking attractive sites for an economic development project,” Poe said. “As the person tasked with selling Davidson County every day, I can tell you firsthand that this puts us at a disadvantage when competing with surrounding counties and other states for job recruitment.”

Then Poe invoked May Town, quoting a council member who supported the proposal at the time:

“We cannot afford to push aside good, quality development,” Poe said, taking words from the council member she did not identify. “I’m concerned about all those people struggling to pay their property taxes at the end of the year. As the property taxes in other towns continue to spiral upward, it is imperative that we seek good, quality development. I would maintain that we have the talent and the ability in this great city to make developments like this happen with the least impact on the people and, in the end, create a better tax base. And at the end of the day, it lessens the burden on all of us as taxpayers.”

The council member Poe paraphrased was Michael Craddock, who made his comments on May 28, 2009, during a public hearing on May Town. Today, Craddock is one of the council’s most outspoken fairgrounds preservationists — and one of those the mayor’s office is trying to put on the defensive by invoking the past debate. If Craddock supported increasing the tax base by building on Bells Bend, the thinking goes, why doesn’t he advocate doing the same by redeveloping the fairgrounds?

Contacted by The City Paper, Craddock said he’s “honored” the mayor’s office chose to quote him. But he said there’s a difference between developing Bells Bend and building at the fairgrounds.

“May Town was a proposal on private property,” Craddock said. “That property was not owned by the taxpayers of Davidson County. He was suspiciously quiet about that. The 117 acres at the fairgrounds is owned by the taxpayers. He’s trying to take it away from them.”

Councilman Mike Jameson, who hasn’t indicated which way he’ll vote on the upcoming bills, called the May Town-fairgrounds connection “a fair comparison,” but said one distinction is that the fairgrounds qualifies as an existing use.

“You have to consider the level of use and popularity of an existing use,” Jameson said. “I think that’s where the rub is, or where the debate is on the fairgrounds.”

The sudden re-emergence of the May Town debate, the East Nashville councilman added, also raises the question of whether there are more viable places to build.

“What selfishly comes to my mind is the East Bank, where you wouldn’t be ridding Nashville of an institution that is beloved, at least by some. You would be ridding an institution that’s an environmental catastrophe and loved by few if any,” Jameson said, referring to the PSC Metals Inc. site, long seen as an eyesore.

Still, other council members see the May Town-fairgrounds comparison much the same way as Dean.

“When May Town came, the arguments were used that Davidson County could not compete to get companies to relocate because companies did not want to go downtown,” At-large Councilman Jerry Maynard said. “One of the reasons why people were opposed to May Town was because of sprawl, because of the issue of competing with downtown, and the issue of interfering with one of the last frontiers of green space.

“The fairgrounds to me solves a lot of those issues,” Maynard continued. “It allows us to go after corporations that are looking to relocate, who are not looking to go downtown for a skyscraper but are looking to have a corporate campus environment. You don’t have the sprawling because it’s infill.” 

Filed under: City News

16 Comments on this post:

By: MAmom on 11/12/10 at 9:23

Maytown is a distraction. It is only being spoken of now because of it's connection to Michael Craddock. More sleight of hand by Dean.

In his campaign to EXPLOIT the Fairgrounds Dean has:
-made a lot of unsubstantiated claims about why it should be done.
-has understated the financial position of the Fairgrounds,
-has understated the cost of implementing his "redevelopment" plans,
-has overstated the financial contribution to the city of "redevelopment",
-has spread innuendo about those who oppose his plans.
-has shown himself to be a sneaky, manipulative, dishonorable man only sees Dollar Signs when he looks at the Fairgrounds.
-and it doesn’t matter to him that over 60,000 people - most of whom have been in Tennessee a lot longer than him - want to save the Fairgrounds.


Save-the-Fairgrounds people want to PROTECT and take care of the Fairgrounds for current and future Nashvillians. It is valuable to us – but not because of it’s “redevelopment” potential. It is valuable to us for non-monetary reasons – because it is a wonderful, rustic place that gives people a place to do really neat things and has sentimental value to many. We know that if preserved – one day soon it will be an oasis in a sea of buildings and concrete.

Sad to say that except for the Citypaper and WSMV, coverage of the Fairgrounds fight by the local media has been miserable. Tthe Tennessean bears particular guilt. They endorsed the Deans plan & effectively shut down public conversation about the issue. They did little more than parrot press releases that came out of Dean's office...no or little investigation into the truth of his assertions was made or reported on.

I guess local journalists are naiive enough to believe politicians are always truthful.

By: lisaleeds2008 on 11/13/10 at 9:29

Come help us May Town people. Help us Save the Tennessee State Fairgrounds and keep it right where it is. By Law that is is where it is to be.. http://fairgroundsheritage.org/index.php?p=le

I think that the Mayor and his Cronies need to try reading the law in the city charter...

By: yucchhii on 11/15/10 at 8:28

There should be NO debate or arguements over the fairgrounds...It's PLAIN AND SIMPLE...LEAVE THE FAIRGROUNDS WELL ENOUGH "ALONE!" No one should dispute it at all! It belongs to the PEOPLE OF THE STATE! Some people don't understand why the politicians have to mess with things that they like and was working for them all those years! The ONLY reason "IF THERE WAS ANY" to mess with the fairgrounds should be that the PEOPLE of the state told the politicians to tear it down! BUT, there were none!!! "LEAVE the fairgrounds alone!" BUNCH OF GREEDY BASTARD POLITICIANS!!

By: NewYorker1 on 11/15/10 at 9:39

I think the fairgrounds should be redeveloped. That area looks like one would be stabbed ten times in the chest and neck. That area is blighted and needs new and very expensive shopping venues.

By: Loretta Bridge on 11/15/10 at 9:43

All I know is that there is too many vacant buildings and unused property in Nashville and surrounding areas to build ANYTHING new. Update and renew what is already here like the Bellevue Mall. At least it is in a nice area of Nashville.
I also know that I do not have to go all the way to Hickory Hollow Mall to get mugged or shot. I don't understand why they just can't update or build a better
building on the same fairground property. Never went to a race but it is still sad to see that taken away from the life long fans that loved it. DID MAYOR DEAN GROW UP IN THE REAL NASHVILLE OR DID HE MOVE HERE WHEN HE BECAME A POLITICIAN?

By: pswindle on 11/15/10 at 9:53

I would like to know the real reason behnd Dean's determination to get his hands on the fairgrounds.

By: airvols on 11/15/10 at 10:00

The fairground needs to go, and the debate should end now. The only people interested in the fairgrounds are the ones who have a vested interest in their pocketbook. They could care less about future jobs and redevelopment of the site for future generations, 6,500 jobs has got to take pirority. I think the mayor has a good plan in place to take care of most events that were housed there. The race track needs to go and move to other available sites in the area. My vote goes to redevelopment!

By: Oy Vey on 11/15/10 at 10:03

billionaire?? please, please get a grip

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

#1 - stop with the "new business will increase our tax base" You know as well as I that every new tenant will be ensured tax incentives and breaks. Same day less money.

#2 @ Mamom - Rustic? The place is a dump.

I do wish the best to all who live on Wedgewood though. Things gonna get a lot busier real soon~!

By: racer84 on 11/15/10 at 10:19

Airvols- I realize I'm asking for the impossible here but could you please explain what leads you and the mayor to actually believe that statement about 6,500 jobs, and twice the annual metro budget will be created if the fairgrounds is demolished.

I'm looking for an educated response. Honestly.

If you can't back up your statement that will say a lot about your previous and future posts.

By: airvols on 11/15/10 at 2:20

Racer84 that was the number the Chamber introduced in their discussion for the area. This is a public report, if you were current on the information you would know the numbers were quoted in that article. I point you to the above article, this is actually the topic we are discussing. I didn't pull that number out of the air, but I'm sure I'm about to hear about why we need to keep the race track. By the way how much do you make off the track?

By: gohomenow on 11/15/10 at 2:29

Loretta Bridge - King Ding moved here when he became a politician, and will move back up north when he is done robbing, raping, and pillaging our city - leaving us with high unemployment from all of his failed projects.

By: racer84 on 11/15/10 at 3:06

Thank you airvols for confirming you cannot think for yourself and will believe anything people say when trying to sell you something you do not need, nor can afford. You didn't pull that number out of the air, but someone sure did. They can't back it up, and you've just stated you cannot either.

I competed in and won 2 events this year on the track, I think the winnings were a little less than $2,000. Any work I've done for the track the last 20 years has been on a volunteer basis....and I've done plenty.

My winnings went to my car owner as he spent about $5k in order for us to compete. He is a davidson county resident with an annual income over 7 figures, He has spent over 6 figures every year for the last 6-7 years to compete at the Fairgrounds, and he is one of many that has done so.

I also spent a little less than $1,000 over the course of last year at several different events. I also spent 2 days with no pay doing clean up at the fairgrounds after the floods. Spent the day after winning one of my events and picked up the entire infield by myself. So I'm very involved, but everyone's agenda isn't about padding their own pockets. It's about enjoying something that makes you feel good.

I've been going to fair board and council meetings related to the property for more than 10 years. I've reviewed years of the financials, and spoken to others who worked for the fairgrounds and really know what's going on.

I've been in the neighborhoods and talked to residents WHILE the races were going on to address the noise complaints. Those are way overstated and we proved that.

I think I'm far more well informed about what's going on than you are.

Just wanted to make the point, Those who are against this move are educated about the process that's been going on for years and who is behind it.

Those FOR the move, cannot speak intelligently about what's going on and have no facts to base their opinion on other than the proven lies from the mayors office.

By: pswindle on 11/15/10 at 3:55

It is now time for the people of Nashville to stand tall and tell Dean to leave our fairgrounds alone. He seems to have millions for his pet projects, how come?

By: @antiochchicken on 11/15/10 at 10:22


By: RickTNRebel on 11/18/10 at 12:41

I think shutting down the racetrack in Lebanon and focusing on developing the "Bristol" possibilities of the fairgrounds speedway would be the smartest and most profitable thing to do.
Nascar is heading away from the "super" speedways... the SHORT TRACKS are the money makers...I believe it has something to do with the fans becoming aware of carbon footprints and the large speedways are environmentally "Gaudy" and "Vulgar". Short Tracks provide more excitement and are easier on the concience!
Nashville's Race Track is historic and was once known as "the world's fastest 5/8ths mile track!" Stock Car Racing, Country Music, Honky-Tonks and Tennessee Whiskey have a long connection to each other. I think, as an entertainment destination, we are missing the boat on the new face of racing and we have the perfect track with an ALREADY famous history.
Secondly; Office spaces as we know them will cease to exist...it makes no sense to build more office buildings when everyone knows the "office" is now in cyberspace or in the employee's home...that needs to be considered. Stop thinking with a 1950's "Urban Sprawl-Unlimited Fossil Fuels" brain!