With the economy going haywire and Metro wrestling with budget issues, questions of what to do with the Tennessee State Fairgrounds seem to have been shuffled into a back room somewhere to be dealt with another day.
At the first of next year, the State Fair Board will hand the land back to the city. It's possible there won’t be much more progress made before then given city leaders’ other distractions. Ideas for mixed-use development, an entertainment complex or a media village may just have to wait.
But what’s also possible is that the fairgrounds site will become the object of more public discussion now that the May Town Center is back in the picture. Having both events in the public eye at the same time needs to ignite more talk about what Nashville wants to be, what kinds of employers it wants to attract and where it will put them.
That would require a viable long-range economic development plan, something many folks say doesn't exist at the moment.
It's not as though the thought hasn't occurred to anyone in Mayor Karl Dean's office. Paul Ney, the director of the Mayor's Office of Economic and Community Development, has gathered a pile of information; the challenge is finding the time and resources to synthesize it.
With Ney attending to day-to-day duties with limited staff and cash, it's a bit difficult to create a 10- or 20-year economic development plan that doesn't get placed on a shelf and forgotten. The idea is to actually create a plan that is implemented.
Some say the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce could do that. After all, the city does help fund the chamber's economic development arm, Partnership 2010. The problem there is that the partnership is a regional effort and is not supposed to sell one city over another. Instead, each city is supposed to give the partnership something to sell.
For years, there have been regular bouts of lamenting about the suburbs snagging employers from Davidson County. Trying to stem that tide — think of big names like Thomas Nelson, Healthways and Verizon — has been a little like playing Whac-A-Mole.
The May Town Center proposal has raised the issue again. It is anchored by the idea that the city needs to provide potential space for large corporate relocations that might otherwise go to the suburbs.
Opponents to that concept say the city should focus on downtown instead of thinking about anything else. If that becomes the consensus, then, well, that's the plan. But it will mean that Nashville will only be in the business of attracting companies considering only a downtown location.
Economic developers and real estate executives would say that's folly. The market for urban-minded corporations is tiny and Nashville would be limiting its ability to expand the tax base. Just as a city's economy needs to be diverse, so does the product it offers to the ECD customer — in this case potential corporate relocations.
It's unlikely, for example, that a tenant eyeing a location like May Town Center would consider the fairgrounds and vice versa. Back-office operations are more likely candidates for the fairgrounds.
For diversification to work, the infrastructure has to be in place: roads, sewer, water, etc. Having those sites is a competitive edge and one of the main reasons Cool Springs developed so quickly. Economic developers love having multiple options.
Another factor in the debate is the idea of having “pad-ready sites,” a favored term in real estate. It means the zoning is in place and the infrastructure in the ground; if a tenant commits, the developer can start to build right away.
As it’s envisaged, May Town Center would have pads ready to go. The fairgrounds would have to be converted, which would mean moving the Tennessee State Fair itself — a challenge that would have to be part of any discussion of a broader economic development plan.
What is probably out of the question for the foreseeable future is the city moving the State Fair — and its still considerable economic impact — to other property it owns and scraping the fairgrounds site to make it more attractive to a potential anchor tenant. That's just not likely when budgets are being cut all around.
Some of the potential solutions pitched for the future of the Fair involve swapping land with the chosen developer putting some money in the bank to develop the new fairgrounds. But with today's credit market, doing anything speculative is very nearly out of the question for a developer.
People familiar with the nuances of this knot say it will take a commitment from an anchor tenant that can wait a little while for its new home. That would allow the developer to commit to helping the Fair find a new site.
But everyone in the ECD arena at least has to know if the fairgrounds — or any other significant sites, for that matter — are available in Nashville. And to do that, getting beyond planning to plan would be most helpful.