The first Tennessee State Fair held where Nashvillians know it today, on 117 acres at Nolensville Pike and Wedgewood Avenue, was noted for its spectacular display of electric lights that illuminated the sky at night, a rare sight in those times.
One hundred and four years later, the lights are going out at Nashville’s fairgrounds. This week, the grounds will open up to state fair-goers for the final time, with the 10-day event set to run Sept. 10-19.
The state fair in Nashville — and its staple mix of livestock, agriculture and creative arts displays and competitions — dates back as early as 1855. Locations moved frequently, however, and interest floundered.
At the turn of the 19th century, a group of Nashville businessmen began to eye the property at Nolensville Pike and Wedgewood Avenue, then known as Cumberland Park, as a chance for the fair’s revival. Grounds featured an elaborate 7,000-seat grandstand for horseracing and a lavish clubhouse that would become the Woman’s Building. The site was also coveted for its location, with streetcars able to drop off passengers at its doorstep.
By 1906, the location would become synonymous with the Tennessee State Fair, eventually becoming a city government-operated event. Today, longtime Nashvillians fondly recall a time when, as children, they were given a free ticket to the fair and permitted to miss school. Famous acts like Sonny and Cher and comedian Bob Hope performed there during its heyday. The site also featured the first night flight in the history of aviation, and ushered in Nashville’s era of NASCAR racing.
But cities change, and so has Nashville.
After years of declining attendance figures and dwindling revenue, Mayor Karl Dean and Metro have opted out of the state fair business. Instead, fair producer North American Midway Entertainment signed a $100,000 contract with the city earlier this year to hold a final state fair at the old fairgrounds site. Fair organizers are encouraging Nashvillians to “be a part of history.”
The demise of the state fair at the current site has produced some major questions regarding the outlook for a state fair in Davidson County, as well as the future of the Metro-owned fairgrounds site itself.
A group of Tennesseans dedicated to the continuation of the fair is hoping to strike a deal to prolong the event at an alternative location, ideally in Davidson County. Meanwhile, Dean has made clear his desire that the fairgrounds property be redeveloped, having appointed a 10-member task force earlier this year to study the future of the site. Their report is expected to be released this week. At the same time, corporations are eyeing the land for relocating or expanding their businesses.
After two years of confusion and impassioned debate over the future of the fairgrounds, answers appear closer than ever to taking form.
This year’s fair
It’s an admittedly strange time for Buck Dozier, executive director of the Tennessee State Fair.
Though the former fire chief, at-large councilman and candidate for mayor still holds the title of director of the fairgrounds, the clock is ticking. By Dec. 31, all operations and events held at the property are set to cease. After that point, the five-member fair board will continue to meet periodically, but it would likely be tasked with overseeing the flea market and other expo events — provided a new location for them is landed — as opposed to managing the property.
Right now, Dozier said he’s focused on finding work for his department’s 17 employees, who stand to lose their jobs in just four months.
“Normally, at this time of year, we are very busy with getting ready [for the state fair],” Dozier said. “So, it’s a little weird that we’re not as actively involved, and we’re going to sit back and watch somebody else do it. In one sense, it’s a relief, but in another sense, we miss it.”
With Metro not overseeing production of the state fair as it has in the past, North American Midway Entertainment — in partnership with Nashville-based Rockhouse Partners, an entertainment agency — is running the show.
“From the fair’s perspective, this year’s really important to bring back all of what you’re accustomed to,” said Chrysty Fortner of Rockhouse Partners. “We also added a little flair.”
That means attendees can expect a familiar assortment of rides, games, music, agriculture shows and creative arts competitions that they’ve enjoyed in the past, organizers say, along with new events such as hula-hoop and egg-toss contests, as well as soccer-ball juggling.
Admission fees have been rolled back to 2008 prices. There’s also a “9/11 night” on Sept. 11, when military veterans are welcomed free, and separate evenings designated for free admission to seniors and youth.
“We’re really working hard at making this the most affordable fun a family can have,” Fortner said. “That was our whole idea. Get people coming back to the fair, get them comfortable with coming back to the fair, and remind them what the fair’s all about, and let them be a part of history.”
The goal is to attract around 200,000 visitors over the course of the 10-day event, but they’ll have to overcome a few obstacles. For starters, there’s general confusion over whether the state fair is actually taking place this year.
Then there’s declining attendance. Last year, the Tennessee State Fair had disappointing numbers, a fact widely attributed to the steady rainfall that hampered the event. More recently, in August, the Wilson County Fair’s attendance dropped from the previous year, with organizers pointing to extreme heat as the cause.
“In down economic times, fairs and festivals really do great,” Fortner said. “I think Wilson got caught with what we got caught with last year. You can’t fight Mother Nature. I don’t know what the final numbers were they reported, but it wasn’t because people didn’t want to go out.”
Earlier this year, a group of agricultural and tourism leaders that included state Sen. Joe Haynes and state Rep. Stratton Bone formed the Tennessee State Fair Association to try to launch a reinvigorated event beginning in 2011. (The same state fair association is also responsible for overseeing the agricultural offerings this week — livestock competitions and creative arts, for example.)
“As far as relocation, we are looking at all available sites, preferably in Davidson County,” said Joe Gaines, assistant commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, who serves on the new fair association’s board. “I think everyone is committed to exhausting every effort to keep the state fair in or near the state capital.”
In an ideal world, Gaines said an adequate property to house a state fair would need to be around 120 acres, featuring open space, parking and necessary facilities. One property that’s been bandied about by observers is the old Clover Bottom Developmental site at Stewarts Ferry Pike near Lebanon Pike, which Gaines said he’s also heard suggested. Some sort of public-private partnership also appears to be an option.
“We have gotten some very favorable feedback from both Metro and state government about willingness to discuss any existing public properties within Davidson County,” Gaines said. “We’ve not gotten to the point yet of looking at those and evaluating, or that type of thing.”
For next year’s fair, Gaines said there’s a possibility the midway/games/rides component could be held at one location, with the agriculture portion at another.
“It’s going to take more than a year to find a site and develop even a minimal amount of facilities to be able to host what we picture a state fair being,” Gaines said. “So, my forecast, for lack of a better word, is that there may be some interim, temporary 2011 Tennessee State Fair.
“It would have been nice if we’d been given a couple of years to vacate the fairgrounds, but it looks like they’re going to do something immediate with that,” he said.
What will they do?
The fate of the fairgrounds has stirred passions for many.
Over the past several months, a task force appointed by Dean has solicited public input, tapping the land-use nonprofit Nashville Civic Design Center to conduct a series of community meetings.
On occasion, those meetings have been flooded with fairgrounds preservationists and racing enthusiasts who seem convinced there’s still an ongoing debate. Despite their emotional, sometimes tearful pleas, the property will cease to be the fairgrounds by the end of the year.
The task force, which includes the mayor’s Economic and Community Development Director Alexia Poe, last week put the final touches on an 87-page comprehensive report on the future of the fairgrounds, which includes recommendations and recurring themes as suggested by participants
of the various community gatherings.
The task force recommends an economic feasibility study be conducted to evaluate proposed uses for the site and that a professional planning firm be hired to create a master plan.
Recurring themes, as highlighted in the report, include the desire that the revamped fairgrounds site establish an opportunity for shops and retail; improve street-connectivity with the surrounding neighborhood and various landmarks; embrace environmental sustainability; create green space; generate opportunities for local jobs; and provide outlets for recreational activity.
Meanwhile, Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute has teamed up with the mayor’s office and Metro officials over the past year to study infill development along some of Nashville’s barren corridors. The institute, which is funding the study, is conducting similar fellowships in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Phoenix. By no accident, Nashville’s study is focused on Fourth and Eighth avenues — streets that sandwich the fairgrounds.
“We’re going to take the [task force report], the previous studies that have been done on the fairgrounds and the work that the ULI [Urban Land Institute] did, and look at those three things together to determine how we go forward,” Dean said.
There’s also been a concentrated effort by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to showcase the fairgrounds land to corporations looking to either relocate or expand. Efforts have included on-site corporate visits led by the chamber of commerce and even aerial helicopter tours.
“We have thrown it out as a possibility ever since the word came up that it may be in play, and we do that for all kinds of sites,” said Janet Miller, the chamber’s chief economic development and marketing officer. “We have not made formal proposals on it because we’ve been very careful and clear that we need to honor the Metro process.”
Above all, corporate interest appears to be the result of its location — the site sits near exits to Interstates 65 and 440, and in close range to downtown and flourishing communities like the Belmont neighborhood.
“From a transit standpoint, it’s got a lot of possibilities for anything from corporate headquarters to back office and customer care centers,” Miller said. “If you draw a circle around it, you can reach a lot of rooftops in a short radius, so I’d say it’s a highly desirable piece of real estate, but I also know there’s a lot of different views on what the highest and best use could be.”
According to real estate experts, the fairgrounds could be worth as much as $20 million, though that kind of price tag could require the state or Metro to invest in street and access improvements near the property.
In the past, Nashville-based Hospital Corporation of America, known better as HCA, explored the site, an interest that is believed to still exist. Another suitor had been Harley-Davidson, but that match never gained momentum.
Some in real estate circles say as many as three corporate relocation or expansion proposals have been presented to Metro, ranging from projects sized between 200,000 to 1 million square feet of space. The City Paper couldn’t confirm names of companies or the legitimacy of the talks because ongoing real estate deals are not subject to open records laws.
“I will say this,” Dean said. “On a daily basis almost — maybe it’s four times a week — I’m working on economic development issues and talking to businesses that are either located within the county and want to expand, or businesses located somewhere else who want to come to Nashville. One of the issues that we confront is having available land or space to show them. To create jobs, to create additional tax revenue for the city –– where we can properly fund our schools, properly fund public safety — that is something I’m very interested in.”
In light of May’s flood, it appears likely that part of the property’s redevelopment would include a park around Brown’s Creek. An estimated 30 to 40 acres on the site fall within a floodplain. The idea of a new park in the area, which currently lacks one, has been suggested at some of the task force’s community gatherings.
Rather than allowing the fairgrounds site to sit vacant for too long, conventional wisdom suggests it would be politically wise for Dean to announce plans for the property sooner than later — whether that’s a mixed-used development, a corporate relocation, neither, or perhaps a combination of both.
If the mayor has a quick timeframe in mind, he could present something — Dean hinted it would be the new park — in a revamped capital spending plan for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. The administration had previously postponed this year’s spending plan following the flood and is expected to release it this fall.
Besides the redevelopment of the fairgrounds, there’s also the matter of finding a site to relocate non-state-fair events traditionally held at the expo center, which include the flea market, lawn and garden shows, antiques shows and Christmas Village. Dean has said he hopes to find a location for them to continue.
“I don’t have an announcement to make right now, but I’m hopeful that as we move forward, particularly as we announce our capital plan, that we’ll have space identified to perform that exposition role,” Dean said.