Loud voices from auto racing enthusiasts, expo center vendors and others has proved a powerful force as Mayor Karl Dean pushes forward his plan to redevelop the 117-acre fairgrounds off Nolensville Pike.
For the last month, there’s also been a bit of public relations professionalism working behind the scenes.
In October, fairgrounds preservationists hired Nashville-based The Calvert Street Group, a public relations/lobbying company headed by consultant Darden Copeland. The organization’s work –– channeled into an effort called Save My Fairgrounds LLC –– continues as Dean’s fairgrounds plans reaches a pivotal stage, with the Metro Council next week set to weigh in on the second of three votes a bill that would turn Antioch’s Hickory Hollow Mall into the new home of the city’s expo center.
In an interview with The City Paper, Copeland said his group’s fairgrounds work is funded from a combination of financial contributors whose interests are auto racing, the fairgrounds’ expo center or the Tennessee State Fair. He declined to reveal specific donors.
“They’ve got a powerful constituency behind them, and I think they wanted a little bit of help getting them focused and organized, and making their voice heard,” Copeland said of his hire. “That’s what we do.
“You could call it grassroots lobbying,” Copeland added. “This is a political campaign in a sense. The Calvert Street Group has a background in running political campaigns and organizing citizens around an issue. That’s kind of what this is. It’s a land-use issue. It’s a public policy issue. But at its core, it’s a local political issue.”
Copeland, a former Democratic Party operative, has a history of engaging in contentious land-use issues in Nashville. Before founding The Calvert Street Group, Copeland worked for Saint Consulting Group, a company that “specializes in winning zoning and land-use battles,” according to the company’s website. In 2009, Saint Consulting worked on behalf of the developers of the controversial May Town Center, a mixed-use development proposed for the rural Bells Bend community that drew the ire of neighbors before the Metro Planning Commission defeated it.
Though observers have speculated on Copeland’s May Town involvement, he declined to confirm or deny his role to The City Paper.
Some proponents of Dean’s fairgrounds plans — though not denying resistance to the mayor’s plans started long before Copeland’s arrival — have suggested his organization is functioning as an “Astroturf group.” The term is generally used negatively to describe a lobbying group that creates artificial grassroots support for a particular initiative.
“His [Copeland’s] involvement is indicative of a group that is not the sort of grassroots initiative that they would like to say that they are,” said Colby Sledge, who co-chairs the neighborhood organization South Nashville Action People and supports Dean’s plans.
“The truth is, there’s significant financial support that they have from outside the county, and then there’s this sort of political operative who’s working with them who’s ginning up the support,” Sledge said. “I think it’s created a bigger support base than actually exists, at least within Davidson County.”
But Copeland describes a group that’s providing an organizational structure to funnel sentiments that already exist. “We’re just making sure that citizens who have a voice and want to be heard know where to direct that,” he said.
For example, Copeland said some fairgrounds supporters didn’t realize there was a way to simultaneously e-mail all 40 council members. He showed them how. They’ve also carried out simple tasks such as launching the “Save My Fairgrounds” website, he said, while helping build upon District Councilman Duane Dominy’s petition to save the fairgrounds, which he said currently stands at nearly 45,000 signatures.
“There’s nothing ‘Astroturf’ about 45,000 signatures,” Copeland said, while acknowledging not all signatures are those of Davidson County residents.
Using an approach often used in political campaigns, Copeland said his group has a data-entry team that is recording where Davidson County voters stand on the fairgrounds in their electronic voting file. The idea is to document the “voting block” of fairgrounds supporters inside each council district and later engage to help defeat council members who support Dean’s plan during their re-election bids in August 2011.
“If you don’t hear them now, you’re going to hear them at the ballot box,” Copeland said.