Supporters of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds have just 20 days to collect more than 15,000 petition signatures to add a special referendum to August’s local election on whether to retain all existing activities at the 117-acre much-disputed property.
It’s a tight time frame to pull off a feat that requires more signatures than two recent memorable Metro petition efforts.
Three years ago, Metro Councilman Eric Crafton successfully collected more than the necessary 10,103 signatures during his initial English-only referendum push, before besting a 2,475-signature mark during a subsequent effort that ultimately led to a special election. One year later in 2009, Councilman Jamie Hollin turned in nearly 1,000 signatures to hold a special recall election to oust sitting East Nashville Councilwoman Pam Murray.
Hollin, as it turns out, is the mastermind behind the fairgrounds referendum, working alongside Save My Fairgrounds, a group funded by the likes of Sterling Marlin and Darrell Waltrip and that proved effective last winter in derailing Mayor Karl Dean’s desire to redevelop the fairgrounds property.
Hollin said organizers sent out letters seeking signatures last Thursday and Friday, meaning they should have arrived in mailboxes Saturday and Monday. Hollin declined to say who paid for the postage expenses, but said Nashvillians would fund the petition drive.
If put on the Aug. 4 ballot, Hollin said voters would be weighing in on whether to keep the state fair, auto racing, flea markets and other events permanently at the current fairgrounds site off Nolensville Pike.
“It would keep the bulldozers away from the fairgrounds, by charter,” Hollin said, adding that, if approved, the council could still vote by resolution to alter the charter amendment. “There’s reasonable flexibility.”
Hollin’s referendum push comes four months after the council voted in January to spare the fairgrounds speedway from demolition and to create a new master plan to decide the future of the site. The council’s vote came while a record 3,000 visitors, mostly fairgrounds supporters, watched from overflow areas throughout Metro’s courthouse.
“I think it would unwise to believe that the end result wouldn’t be predetermined,” Hollin said of the master plan, which the Board of Fair Commissioners is overseeing.
“It was near Herculean to defeat the mayor and his administration on [the fairgrounds issue],” Hollin said. “Notwithstanding the fact that the clear majority of Nashvillians were against his plan. So, let’s just end it once and for all. If enough people sign the petition, it will be on the ballot Aug. 4.”
Organizing a referendum in Metro requires signatures from 10 percent of the number of voters who took part in the previous election. In this case, 157,019 Davidson County registered voters participated in November’s election.
Supporters must submit signatures 80 days before the election, which creates a May 16 deadline. The Davidson County Election Commission would have to certify the signatures.
Hollin said he’s confident fairgrounds supporters have enough time to collect the necessary signatures, adding that organizers plan to use mailers, travel door-to-door and rely on social media.
“Nobody will miss an opportunity to sign if they want to sign,” Hollin said.
If added to the August ballot, the referendum could provide a major jolt to Metro’s council and mayor’s races, which would occur the same day.
Perhaps the greatest beneficiary would be Councilman Michael Craddock, who is trying to overcome huge odds and a massive financial disadvantage to unseat Dean’s hold on the mayor’s office.
Craddock, who represents parts of Madison, has been an outspoken supporter for preserving the Metro-owned fairgrounds and an equally vocal critic of Dean. The referendum would figure to attract fairgrounds preservationists to the polls, voters who could be inclined to vote for Craddock.