More than two years after Mayor Karl Dean called off the bulldozers in the face of historic public pressure, things are anything but settled at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds.
Due in large part to the truce that ended a citywide fight over its fate — which delayed the decision and put it in the hands of the Metro Council — and exacerbated by persistent financial struggles, a contentious situation has remained decidedly unresolved. And that has made it nearly impossible for some wounds to heal.
That much was evident in the backroom of a Shoney’s in South Nashville one Monday night last month, where several flea market vendors, racetrack supporters, a lobbyist and a Metro councilman had convened to discuss the property’s plight. The group — maybe seven that night, including Dick Dickerson, the president of the Fairgrounds Vendors Association, and Councilman Duane Dominy — represents the leadership of Save Our Fairgrounds. As indicated by their name, they still believe the fairgrounds needs saving.
Over the course of an hour, as the group recalled the last fight over the facility, and described the one they feel is ongoing, it became obvious that a deep distrust of Dean and his administration has cropped up in the wake of the fairgrounds fight. After the facility survived a frontal assault, some in the group fear the fairgrounds has been sentenced to a protracted death by indifference, at the hands of an administration with neither the political capital to finish it off, nor the political will to fully revive it.
In other words, there are some who suspect that Dean and fairgrounds officials are simply letting the fairgrounds die on the vine, if not actively working to kill it.
That sentiment was registered in various tones at the Save Our Fairgrounds gathering. As one might expect from a politician, Dominy’s assessment of the fairgrounds’ predicament was somewhat measured.
“It’s been a troublesome, oftentimes passionate debate, about a piece of Nashville’s history. It’s a part that means a lot, to a lot of people,” he said.
When he asserted that the most significant revenue drains have taken place under the Dean administration, he hedged the remark:
“I’m not suggesting anything in that,” he said. “I’m just making a simple statement of fact.”
Whatever Dominy wasn’t suggesting was stated plainly by others.
“We’ve had two straight fair board chairmen that were right in the mayor’s pocket,” said Dickerson, who represents 800 flea market vendors, and also runs dog shows at the fairgrounds. “They were taking the low bid on everything, so it wouldn’t make money. They were trying to set up failure.”
Dean’s office declined to make the Mayor available for comment but issued the following statement through a spokesperson:
“The Metro Council requested that a study be undertaken to determine the best use of the property. The master plan was completed earlier this year and presented to the Council, and it’s now up to the Council to decide how they wish to proceed. Mayor Dean’s concern is not with the nature of the current uses of the property but with the impact on the Metro budget of supporting those uses now that the Fairground’s reserve fund has been almost completely exhausted.”
Dean does not currently plan on giving a single dollar to the fairgrounds. Along with the Nashville Farmers’ Market and the Municipal Auditorium, the facility would be asked to fully cover its costs with its revenues. That would be a problem, since fairgrounds officials project they will have a deficit of more than $700,000 in the 2013-14 fiscal year.
During the presentation of this year’s proposed budget to the Council, Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling said the move would keep the pressure on the three departments to get creative about increasing revenues and cutting costs where possible. He and Dean both left the door open for additional funds down the line, and said they understood that all three facilities would likely need them.
But while the administration has said the Farmers’ Market and Municipal Auditorium still have “ample” funds remaining in their respective reserves, the fairgrounds’ reserve fund — which it has been using for years to mitigate deficits — is all but depleted. If fairgrounds officials come to the council later this year seeking additional funds, they will be requesting the first taxpayer subsidy ever granted to the facility.
When asked directly by a council member about the possibility of closing any of the facilities, Riebeling said, “I don’t think we’ve come to that bridge at this point.”
Of course, the Dean administration has already come to that bridge. Faced with a disapproving public, they hit the brakes. But there is a strong feeling among some of the most ardent fairgrounds supporters that the mayor’s team never actually pulled a U-turn.
It all started in late 2009, when Dean announced that his administration would be moving ahead with plans to redevelop the fairgrounds. The tension was ratcheted up as the details, and their implications, were revealed: The state fair would have to find a new home, in Davidson County if possible, but more likely somewhere else, for the first time in more than 100 years. The expo center, which hosts the monthly flea market and other events, would be moved to the Hickory Hollow Mall in Antioch. And the Fairgrounds Speedway, itself more than a century old and rich with auto-racing history, would be demolished.
The plan wasn’t borne out of pure spite, though. With the cost of operating an aging facility increasing, and various revenue streams receding, the financial picture at the fairgrounds was bleak. By embracing redevelopment, the Dean administration argued, the city would be putting down an entity that, while beloved, would soon be unable to sustain itself. That would make way, they said, for a corporate office park where 1 million square feet of office space would house 6,500 jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact.
But the folks who care about the fairgrounds care about it deeply. So with their interests for once acutely aligned, a coalition of flea market vendors and shoppers, racing enthusiasts and state fair lovers emerged in opposition to the mayor, his plan, and anyone else who supported it. The result was a frequently bitter public debate complete with allegations of “astroturf” activism, and colors assigned to each side and worn by citizens as a declaration of allegiance.
The fairgrounds became a battleground in an ongoing philosophical fight about whether Nashville’s past, its ascendant present, and its future can all fit inside the I-440 loop — a theme crystallized by The New York Times’ Campbell Robertson, who described what he found in Nashville as “a custody battle over a neighborhood that could just as well have been … over the city itself.”
That meant it was personal. Calling for the redevelopment of the fairgrounds was different than proposing that the city raze an abandoned building to allow for infill development. To the people who most associate themselves with the property, it felt like an eviction. When Dean said the city should move on from the fairgrounds, it felt to them like he was saying the city should move on from them, too.
Dean, who was raised in Massachusetts, has been in Nashville since the late 1970s, when he attended Vanderbilt University Law School — an institution that has undoubtedly provided a local anchor for many in the city’s political circles. But his out-of-town roots added to the resentment of some who felt targeted by his vision for the fairgrounds.
“I’ve been to 71 state fairs in Nashville, Tenn., out of 72 years of my life,” Dickerson said. “It’s a tradition that people care about. My dad and mother went. My aunts and uncles. Grandparents, great-grandparents. The mayor will never understand that. He doesn’t have the roots here. He doesn’t have the feeling about it. He doesn’t remember all the things growing up — going out there, the excitement.”
The battle ultimately ended in defeat for the mayor, and what seemed at the time like victory for the fairgrounds.
In January 2011, after thousands of citizens crowded the Metro Courthouse for what was likely the largest public hearing in Nashville history, the Metro Council stripped a bill of a provision enacting the demolition of the racetrack, and passed what remained, keeping the expo center at its current location, calling for the property to host the state fair through 2012, and requesting the creation of a master plan for the future of the grounds.
Later that year, voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum inserting language into the Metro Charter dictating that current uses of the fairgrounds — hosting a state fair, expo center, flea market and auto racing — would continue, and requiring 27 votes from the 40-member council before those uses could be abandoned.
But the fight over the fairgrounds has had lingering political and financial effects. Fairgrounds officials said the facility lost around a quarter-million dollars in business in reaction to Dean’s initial decision to close the facility.
The same election in which 71 percent of voters cast their ballots to preserve the fairgrounds also put Dean and nearly all of the council back in office, all but ensuring that the political tension, and questions about the future of the property, would remain.
The fairgrounds is more like a solar system than a planet. The entities contained within its winding chain-link border — the racetrack, the flea market, the state fair and the gun shows, dog shows and other events hosted their throughout the year — face a variety of challenges, and to a large extent, have their own politics.
But just as the threat of closure aligned their interests several years ago, they are all facing two common problems now: uncertainty and old age.
Buck Dozier, executive director of the Metropolitan Board of Fair Commissioners, said that of the three facilities that were denied subsidies in the mayor’s proposed budget, the fairgrounds is the only one stuck under a cloud of uncertainty.
“We’re the only one that has this kind of black cloud over us,” he said. “The impending chance that we could be closed. That makes it difficult for us out here, because of the uncertainty, people are a little apprehensive about booking with us sometimes. Especially for the long-term.”
Dozier summed up the facility’s other primary challenge during his presentation at the mayor’s budget hearings in March: “The greatest thing about the fairgrounds is it’s 107 years old,” he said, “the worst thing about it is it’s 107 years old.” On that front as well, Dozier drew a distinction between the fairgrounds and the other entities seeking subsidies from the Metro government.
“The only other thing that makes it difficult for us here, in revenues, is the condition of the property, the condition of the buildings, and so forth,” he said. “And of course, we have not had any capital money spent on our place here. The Farmers’ Market and Municipal over the years have had capital spent on them, and I think it’s time that we look, if we’re going to remain here, that we’re going to have to spend some money here to get it back up to speed. We’re doing the best we can without that kind of money or improvements, or ability to improve the property and the buildings here.”
The effects of an uncertain future played out most recently during lease negotiations for this year’s state fair — that episode of political and legislative wrangling has been a saga of its own in recent years. While fair board chairman Ned Horton and board member Kenny Byrd both favored approving a three-year lease with the Tennessee State Fair Association, other board members were hesitant, in part, because of the uncertain future of the property.
Some in the Save Our Fairgrounds crowd, including Councilmen Dominy, Duvall and Tony Tenpenny, who frequently attend fair board meetings, were frustrated at times during the negotiations. Instead of working to pry $50,000 more dollars out of the Tennessee State Fair Association — which had been awarded the state fair contract from the state — they said the board should have paid more attention to Universal Fairs, a Memphis operator offering far more money.
In their defense, board members cited the fair’s long-running history in Davidson County — as well as many unanswered questions about the Memphis operator — and suggested that folks criticizing their approach to the negotiations would be beating down the doors if the board lost the state fair. Furthermore, they said, Universal Fairs was more than welcome to book an event at any other point during the year. But to some, it was another instance of Metro officials sandbagging the fairgrounds.
“Both the city and the fair board purposely has picked the wrong group to put on the fair for, this will be the fourth time,” Dickerson said that night at Shoney’s. “And it will be the fourth failure. And we’re so sad about it, because we could have had a vendor that would’ve paid four times as much money, has a track record of great success, and instead the politics played in, and we got a guy that is going to put on a fourth-rate county type of fair.”
Dozier shares in the frustration about the damaging effects of the property’s uncertain fate, but rejected any ideas about ulterior motives amongst fairgrounds officials or the administration.
“There’s a conspiracy theory that’s happening,” he said, “and at one time it was the intent to close it. But I have not seen that in the last few years. I have not seen a willingness on the part of anyone to do that. And that still lingers in some of those people’s minds, and everything that happens that they think is negative, it automatically goes to the conspiracy theory that everything is designed to close it down. I have not seen that, I have not felt that at all.”
If the council takes up the master plan at all, it will likely be after the budget process. That process will likely include some pushback on the lack of funding for the fairgrounds.
“To be blunt, the mayor’s proposed budget does not honor the wishes of 71 percent of the voters in this county,” Dominy said of the administration’s presentation to the council. “They made it clear that they want the current uses to remain. Those current uses are in jeopardy, much due to the mayor’s actions over the last three years.”
With the mayor punting to the council, and the council likely still months from even beginning to consider the future of the fairgrounds, the issue rests in the lap of the fair board for now.
“While we wait on the people with the power to tackle the fairgrounds head on,” said fair board member Kenny Byrd, in an email to The City Paper, “it falls on the fair board — who has neither the power of the purse or the ability to approve Metro legislation — to be the best possible stewards of the property that we can on behalf of the stakeholders and the public. Every member of the fair board is committed to doing everything in our power to do just that.”
Byrd suggested that all sides may be in a state of denial — whether genuine or politically convenient — about what’s really going on at the fairgrounds. Indeed, while in some cases fairgrounds preservationists seem to have taken their political victory as validation that the property can survive on its own, the mayor’s office has seemed content to proceed as if the fairgrounds aren’t there. Byrd said everyone needs to “acknowledge the financial reality of the situation.”
“Those who vehemently opposed the mayor’s office in the past need to be ready to acknowledge the same current events and uses are not financially self-sustainable absent substantial changes,” he said. “Thus, keeping the general status quo at the fairgrounds will likely require annual government funds for capital improvements and regular budgetary needs, since the fairgrounds have not been financially self-sustaining for at least a decade. That indeed may be what we all decide as a community is appropriate, but it’s a decision we will face. On the flip side, the Metro Council and the mayor’s office need to become active again in promoting open discussion and viable options to affirmatively address the financial situation facing the fairgrounds and the concerns of those who greatly depend on its future.”
But the most recent fair board meeting showed that the issue of what to do with the fairgrounds remains as politically radioactive as it ever was.
Last week, Byrd presented the board with a completed Request for Information document. The RFI, which had been in the works for months, seeks information from private entities interested in investing in the fairgrounds, either in connection with one of the scenarios outlined in the master plan, or through some other means should the council decline to pursue any of those options.
As the small but dedicated group of people who attend just about every fair board meeting looked on, Commissioner John Ray Clemmons reiterated a concern he had raised previously about the solicitation of interested investors. Given that one of the options in the master plan, and therefore in the RFI, was the pursuit of some form of private mixed-used redevelopment on the property, Clemmons said he worried the RFI might give the impression that the board was open to alternative uses for the property.
If that signal were sent, he said, it could “put a bull’s-eye on the back of this board.”
Eventually, the commissioners approved the RFI, but with a disclaimer. So the fair board sought information about the possible future of the fairgrounds without taking a position on said future, something that remains murky.