The local attorney hired by the preservation group dedicated to fighting the decision to close the State Fairgrounds believes he could be ready to move on potential legal action within weeks.
Robert W. Rutherford, a 10-year veteran of Metro's Legal department and now an attorney in private practice, told The City Paper he has been hired by Fairgrounds Heritage Preservation Group to examine the legal basis of their opposition and file a lawsuit should the arguments have a firm foundation.
“These folks are very serious about protecting this historical property,” Rutherford said. “This is a legacy that shouldn't be sloughed off on a different county or just shut down entirely.”
The attorney said he plans to examine whether or not the Mayor's office and Fair Board followed proper procedure when they determined to close down the property. Rutherford is particularly interested in Mayor Karl Dean's October letter to the board, a document the administration claims only contained the mayor's suggestions for the future of the property while others have insisted is worded as a dictum.
“The initial effort looked like it sort of ignored the reality of it, which said this is not the mayor's baby to dictate,” Rutherford said. “Then [the Mayor's office] backed off and said this was just a request or suggestion. I'm still concerned they are not following the necessary requirements.”
The heritage group's other sticking point involves the original 90-year-old legislation passed to start the State Fair, law they claim that states a fair must be permanently held at the site.
“The question is: Is this consistent with that? I'm not sure it is,” Rutherford said. “It will probably take a court finding to find our what the actual legislative intent was. There's a reason the legislature wanted a permanent state fair, and it's that it's an asset to this community, in ways that really aren't measurable in dollars and cents.”
But Dean remains convinced his recommendation to close down the fair (including the racetrack, flea market, Christmas Village and other fairgrounds’ events) and resell the property was a financially prudent choice.
In a conversation with the editorial staff of The City Paper’s parent company, SouthComm, this week, Dean reiterated his reasons for steering the property in a different direction.
“I've watched for the time I've been mayor that every year the amount of funds left in the reserve dwindle because every year we lose money,” he said. “At some point, we had to do something different.”
Feasibility studies conducted before Dean's election found the fair could not be profitable in its current location, the mayor explained. The city's ultimate choice was to close the property or relocate the fair to a new site in Davidson County, a move and rebuild projected to cost $30 million.
“I think the better option is to do something else,” Dean said. “I didn't anticipate that everybody would be necessarily happy with the decision, but I thought a decision had to be made.”
The mayor declined to talk about any specific plans currently in the works for the redevelopment of the site, but did mention that a variety of interested parties have contracted his office. Dean said he would like to see some portion of the land turned into green space and the restoration of a creek that once ran through the property.
“We have the opportunity to sit back and think how we're going to do this,” he said. “This could be a tremendous thing for the city.”