When Metro Council attorney Jon Cooper opined nearly two weeks ago that the Tennessee State Fairgrounds could not be redeveloped without an amendment to the Metro Charter, the property’s tireless supporters declared it a “big victory.”
In the two years since a countywide referendum on the fairgrounds passed with 71 percent of the vote, many — in the media, the public and the government — believed the bar for pursuing redevelopment was 27 votes on the 40-member council.
Cooper’s opinion means it’s higher than that, and would ultimately require another vote from the public to undo what they did in 2011. The political capital that would have to be spent just to get a redevelopment proposal to that point, on top of the public’s previous strong support of the property, seem to suggest that’d be a longshot.
So the fairgrounds, in all likelihood, will be the fairgrounds for the foreseeable future. And yet it’s not entirely clear what that means.
Council members have called for additional meetings to focus only on the scenarios in the Fairgrounds Master Plan that would preserve the property. Among them are plans for leaving the grounds as they are now, implementing minor upgrades or significantly revamping the facilities on the current site.
However, consideration of those plans will not take place before next month, after new council committee chairs are appointed. Support among the full body for any of the potential scenarios remains to be seen, and the council is not required to adopt any of the plans.
In monthly meetings from an office building overlooking the speedway, the Metro Board of Fair Commissioners — otherwise known as the fair board — has also been trying to work out what comes next for the aging property. In May, the board sent out a Request for Information, seeking feedback from private entities interested in investing in the fairgrounds in some way. They received one submission, from N&S Events, LLC, whose CEO and president, Neil Chaffin, is a former fair board chairman. The group also includes Rick Williams, a lobbyist and director of Save Our Fairgrounds.
At this past week’s fair board meeting, Chaffin presented commissioners with his idea: lease the fairgrounds to a private company — in this case, N&S, although Chaffin conceded that there might be someone better suited for the role — who would invest in the property and manage it under the supervision of the fair board. Chaffin said his group would want a lease of no less than 25 years, a long-term agreement that he said would remove the uncertainty that has plagued the fairgrounds.
The idea, vague as it is at this early stage, was met with general interest by the board.
“I think the concept is definitely something worth putting on the table,” said board chairman Ned Horton after the meeting. “If government doesn’t have the wherewithal to address the project, there might be private enterprise that would be willing to invest in the property for some return, and continue to serve useful purposes here for people that are citizens.”
Horton reiterated that any such arrangement is far off. For one thing, the board would have to issue a formal Request for Proposals soliciting more detailed plans from N&S and any other interested parties.
Asked if Cooper’s opinion removed the dark cloud over the fairgrounds that supporters so often mention, Horton’s response can be summed up with another phrase frequently heard around the grounds: it’s not clear yet.
“I think there’s a lot more work to be done and questions to be answered,” he said. “Obviously the facility needs attention and some capital improvements. Just to make things better here. Make people want to bring their events here, make people want to come here. It’s served a long life, it’s tired and it needs a little bit of rehab.”
On that front, though, there may indeed be a ray of light. For weeks before Cooper’s legal clarification, discussions had been ongoing between members of the council and Mayor Karl Dean’s administration about securing some emergency funds for long-needed repairs at the fairgrounds.
The details are still being finalized, but Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling told The City Paper that the administration intended to file a bill Friday with the council that would appropriate money from the 4 percent reserve fund, which contains funds set aside from the General Fund to be used for things like maintenance and repairs.
Riebeling said the appropriations would include funds for the fairgrounds, likely in the $300,000 to $400,000 range.
“The idea is we want to give them enough funding to replace the annex building and some money towards HVAC and just some general repairs at the facility,” he said.