Ten months from now, the first Tennessee State Fair at its new location is set to begin. Where the 104-year-old event will call home is still unclear, but it probably won’t be in Davidson County.
With Mayor Karl Dean taking Metro out of the state fair business as he moves forward with plans to redevelop the 117-acre property off Nolensville Pike, a group of state tourism, agriculture and political leaders have launched the nonprofit Tennessee State Fair Association to oversee a revamped state fair. The first task of the group’s 15-member board is to find a new location for the fair, ideally in Davidson County. But association leaders say that’s been problematic.
“As we look at 2011, and even 2012, it’s really difficult to find a site [in Davidson County] that can accommodate the traditional activities of the Tennessee State Fair,” said John Rose, who chairs the group. “Among those activities that are hard to locate, probably the most difficult would be animal and agricultural exhibits. You can’t just go to a parking lot or a mall or a green field somewhere and have those types of events.
“Frankly, there really aren’t any facilities in Davidson County, aside from the current state fairgrounds facilities, that would make that very possible,” he said. “All of that said, I think for 2011, there’s a real conundrum of how we have a fair.”
That the state fair isn’t going away but rather switching hands has been a central point of Dean’s as he makes arguably the toughest political sales pitch of his three years in office. He has faced unprecedented public criticism, as well as attempts at insurgency by Metro Council members, especially in the past few months.
Dean frequently cites Minnesota-based Markin Consulting, which in 2007 conducted a “highest and best use” study of the fairgrounds and found that the current facility is “too hilly” and essentially insufficient to hold a top-notch fair.
But testifying earlier this month before the Metro Council’s Codes, Fair and Farmers’ Market Committee, Rose delivered some grim news on the status of the search. In a subsequent interview with The City Paper, Rose talked candidly about his group’s obstacles and indicated time is of the essence. Realistically, he said, a new site must be secured within the next “30 to 60 days” for a 2011 Tennessee State Fair to take place.
“All of the folks we’ve talked to around the country who are involved in producing state fairs have said the last thing we want to do is miss a year, because if you let it lapse a year then you might as well just start all over,” Rose said. “That raises the likelihood that we have to look outside of Davidson County.”
The state fair association is trying to eventually secure some sort of public-private deal to either lease or purchase a new home, Rose said. So far, financial resources have come via a grant from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and from board members themselves. As of last week, Rose estimates the group has an available balance of less than $100,000 to pull off a project that would exceed that figure considerably.
“We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars of facilities that are getting ready to be destroyed,” Rose said, referring to the Metro-owned fairgrounds. “That’s one of the things that has been lost in this debate. The purpose of our group is to try to figure out how do we replicate what already exists, recognizing that we’ll certainly be looking to try and build a better site going forward. … It won’t be inexpensive.”
The group has informally looked at a handful of locations in Davidson County. They include long-term possibilities such as the former Clover Bottom Developmental Center off Lebanon Pike and Metro-owned land on County Hospital Road, as well as temporary options such as the Ellington Agricultural Center and Moss-Wright Park in Goodlettsville.
“We really haven’t looked at any sites in what I would say is a really serious fashion,” Rose said. “There have been lots of sites discussed, and there’s kind of been a superficial assessment of sites.”
The site inside Davidson County best suited to hold a state fair is its historic location, Rose said, adding that the Metro-owned fairgrounds animal/agriculture facilities are “among the best in the state.” Keeping the fairgrounds operating one more year isn’t on Dean’s radar, however.
“[Mayor Dean] supports the state fair and thought it would be great if it could be in Davidson County, but history, topography and the Markin report show clearly that the current site does not work as a fairgrounds,” Janel Lacy, Dean’s spokeswoman, said.
It appears increasingly likely next year’s state fair will be held in one of Davidson’s surrounding counties. Rose said a few possibilities are the Williamson County Agricultural Exposition Park; the site of the Wilson County Fair in Lebanon; Middle Tennessee State University’s agricultural facilities; Nashville Superspeedway in Mt. Juliet; and farmland in Manchester where the popular music festival Bonnaroo is held. Rose said his group could decide to split the midway and agricultural-based events between two different locations.
To become financially viable, Rose said the new Tennessee State Fair location would likely need to hold flea market and similar events over the course of the year. Dean is currently pushing legislation through the council that would turn parts of Hickory Hollow Mall into the city’s new expo center. Presumably, a
new state fair expo center could compete with Metro’s expo center.
“Are we going to want to have activities like those that could be held elsewhere?” Rose said, referring to the planned expo center at Hickory Hollow Mall. “I think the answer to that is obviously yes, because the whole reason you have those activities is because you don’t want a multi-million-dollar facility [sitting] idle.”
In a 30-minute conversation with The City Paper, Rose seemed frustrated that his group has had to take a unilateral approach in its search.
“We haven’t,” Rose said when asked if his group has received the type of support it would like from the mayor’s office. “I say that with a little bit of hesitation. They haven’t told us to go away and never come back. They have been cordial, but I think you can draw from what you see publicly. Their interest in the Tennessee State Fair is nil at the present.”
Lacy said Dean is leaving it up to the group.
“Mayor Dean met with representatives from the Tennessee State Fair Association in October and told the group at that time he thought they were doing exactly what needed to be done to transform the fair into a true state fair as recommended by the Markin report,” she said.
Councilwoman Emily Evans, who has criticized Dean’s handling of the fairgrounds issue, said the state fair should logically be held in Nashville given its status as Tennessee’s capital city. She would be disappointed if that doesn’t materialize.
“It seems like more energy has gone into ending the fair and talking about what will happen at the fairgrounds than has gone into developing a proper transition plan for the functions that currently occupy the fairgrounds, like the Tennessee State Fair,” Evans said of the mayor’s approach. “I think that’s becoming more and more evident.”
But At-large Councilman Charlie Tygard, who penned a column in The Tennessean calling for Dean to take a “time out” from his current plans to consider constructing a built-from-scratch expo center, suggested losing the state fair to Williamson or Wilson counties wouldn’t be so terrible.
“Based on the public sentiment and what we’re hearing, the expo market seems to be far and away the hot button for the majority of citizens,” Tygard said. “And then there’s a certain amount of interest in the racetrack. And then way behind is an, ‘Oh by the way, the fair has nice memories for us’ type of thing.”