A statement issued by mayor Karl Dean that apparently sealed the fate of the Fairgrounds — along with the State Fair, the historical racetrack and other long-running events — drew boos from a packed house during an emotion-charged meeting of the Board of Fair Commissioners on Tuesday.
Dean’s statement, (available at this link) read to the audience by a board member, said he has “instructed the Metro Finance Department to prepare to take control of the Fairground property at the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, 2010.”
He said he has “already asked the Human Resources department to help locate new positions for displaced employees.”
Dean said the State Fair is not sustainable at its current location, but he hopes to find “suitable replacement venues” for such events as the Flea Market, Christmas Village and other long-time tenants.
As for the State Fair, Dean said it can’t continue on the current site and that developing a new site would be too costly.
As for the racetrack, track operator Danny Denson said there is no way to relocate it, and unless he can convince the Finance Department to extend Dean’s June 30 deadline, it will fold.
“Obviously I can’t go with a half-season,” Denson said. “If I can’t get a lease [beyond the June 30 date] then I guess I’ll buy a lawn mower and help Buck cut the grass.”
The reference is to Buck Dozier, Fair executive director, who argued that the State Fair and other events can be made viable on the current site. Dozier said attendance at last month’s State Fair dropped one percent from the previous year, but that was due to several nights of rain.
Dean wants to redevelop the Fairgrounds site, but exact plans for its future use remain vague.
Many in Tuesday’s audience expressed support for the racetrack that opened in 1958. The first documented auto race at the site was run on a dirt track in 1904.
“They were racing at the Fairgrounds long before they were racing in Indianapolis,” Denson said. “Some of the greatest drivers in history have come through Nashville. It’s hard to believe that the city will allow all that tradition to simply vanish. It would be a travesty to lose this track.”
As the commissioners discussed the issue — and indicated that their hands were tied by the mayor’s edict — boos came from the crowd. At one point Chairman James Weaver threatened “to end this meeting” if the disruptions continued.
Several proponents of saving the State Fair and the racetrack were allowed to address the board and one — Terrell Davis, a longtime racing supporter — called Dean’s claims “bogus.”
Davis said the racetrack has always been self-supporting and receives no tax dollars, “while Metro is pouring millions into LP Field and the Sommet Center.”
A woman who identified herself as “an antiques dealer from Dickson said, “We almost lost the Ryman. Now we’re about to lose another Tennessee treasure. This is a piece of history we’re about to lose.”
Sutherlin Marlin, a racer whose father and grandfather were track champions, said “this is hallowed ground.”
As for neighborhood noise complaints, she said: “Unless someone is over 105 years old, racing was here before they were.”
There were questions about whether the mayor has the authority to arbitrarily disband the Fair Board and earmark the Fairgrounds site for uses other than originally chartered.
Veteran Board member Alex Joyce said he was “not sure” about such legal issues.
What is sure is that Dean has made up his mind.
“I am well aware of how difficult this decision is for some, given the long history of the State Fair and the natural consequences that my decision will have on the race track,” his statement read. “While both venues have a long history in the city, given the inability of either event to support itself financially, it is simply time for us, as a city and community, to move on.”