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.”