A few hundred racing enthusiasts clad in red T-shirts lifted themselves from their seats the moment the Metro Council voted last Tuesday to spare the Fairgrounds Speedway from demolition and walked out the door.
They’d just witnessed an impressive victory over the mayor’s office and council members who wanted to close the Fairgrounds Speedway in favor of a sketched-out redevelopment plan, and they had no further reason to watch council members press sausage.
The council’s vote on third reading last week was the final approval to spare the much-disputed racetrack from bulldozers. It also broadsided Mayor Karl Dean’s plan to redevelop the 117-acre fairgrounds. The bill, which awaits Dean’s signature, also keeps the state fair at the site off Nolensville Pike through 2012, and it retains the property’s expo center and flea market for at least one more year.
The bill calls for a new “master plan” to determine the future of the fairgrounds. With that, the battle for the long-term survival of the racetrack now depends on this plan, which the council would have to approve through an ordinance.
On the surface, the odds seem to be against the city’s racing community.
The five-member Board of Fair Commissioners, which has repeatedly said racing long-term at the fairgrounds isn’t the “highest and best use” of the property, will oversee the master plan development. The fair board is to work with the Metro Planning Department and Metro Parks & Recreation, both of which have a record of soliciting public input to draft community plans. The parks department could help incorporate existing plans for an already-approved 40-acre park slated for the site’s floodplain.
Assuming the fair board hires a third-party consultant to manage the creation of the master plan, which appears likely, this isn’t something entirely new. Similar studies have gauged the viability and potential of the fairgrounds, and none of them advocate racing.
In 2008, Minnesota-based Markin Consulting, hired by the fair board, found the site “inadequate” for a “true state fair.” Though it didn’t overtly recommend that racing cease, the consultants who studied the fairgrounds expressed “reservations about the long-term market and financial viability” of weekly auto racing. Two years later, the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute — which had an obvious pro-development slant — found the fairgrounds “underused and incompatible” with the surrounding neighborhood. Its report said the racetrack has “significantly affected development in that area.” Most recently, the Nashville Civic Design Center, charged by Dean’s Fairgrounds Task Force to review the site, failed to truly consider the racetrack as an option, presupposing its days were numbered.
Racetrack proponents say the process for the new master plan will be different. It won’t predetermine the facility’s demise, they say.
But if those developing a new master plan take cues from these reports, this whole ordeal might merely delay the next big bout: when some 3,000 fairgrounds preservationists show up at the council chambers several months from now and demand that their elected officials vote against it.
Fair board gets discretion
For now, there are just as many questions about how the master plan will come to be as the future of the fairgrounds itself. There is no timeline. There is no requirement that public hearings be held. In fact, there are very few mandates at all.
Master-plan stipulations are geared toward areas the report must address: the construction of the park, the restoration of nearby Browns Creek, the future of existing facilities including the racetrack, and the possible addition of mixed-used development and necessary zoning changes. The master plan is also supposed to consider the existing reports on the fairgrounds.
“As long as the fair board is following the expressed directives regarding what the master plan is to include and which departments are to be involved in preparing it, then the rest of it is really at their discretion,” council attorney Jon Cooper said.
Fair board chair James Weaver, who plans to conclude his five-year tenure when his term expires in April, said the board would discuss the master plan at its March meeting. Though he’s still awaiting word from Metro legal counsel on the board’s master-plan responsibilities, he said the board would hire a consultant to help.
“It won’t be something that the board will do,” Weaver said. “We’re a volunteer board, obviously. Our staff out there at the fairgrounds is pretty well engaged running the fairgrounds. We don’t have anybody that’s a master planner.
“It will take as long as it takes,” he said of a timeline. Asked about the possibility that racing could be recommended, he said he didn’t want to “prejudge” the report.
Weaver, who pointed out that this will be the fourth study on the fairgrounds site in recent years, said the board, in combination with a consultant, needs to “decide right up front” whether the point is to “find a consensus or find the right the answer.”
“Are we asking them to try to find a consensus?” he said. “I don’t think we are. I think we’re asking them, ‘What’s the right answer, given all these various factors, all the various viewpoints, and all of the various biases that people bring into this?’ The economic developers want land to develop. The racers want a racetrack. The flea market people want a place to have a flea market. People who want a state fair want flat dirt. Everybody comes to this with a different set of biases.”
Darden Copeland, who heads the group Save My Fairgrounds, is going to remain in his role as the paid leader of the opposition to Dean’s fairgrounds plans in the month ahead. Some credit Copeland with turning the resistance into a finely tuned machine.
“I think the council has heard us loud and clear,” Copeland said. “We’ve got an army of people that are ready to take part in the master-planning process, whatever that may be.”
Copeland said public hearings and community meetings should be part of the process. He said the city shouldn’t rely on “old data,” referring to previous studies.
“As long as we’re not going into it looking for the ‘highest and best use,’ then I think we’ll absolutely get a fair shake at this,” he said. “Highest and best use is defined by the [Urban Land Institute] or the chamber of commerce as how much money can we squeeze out of this property.”
Some council members say the body will be paying more attention to this than previous studies.
“It’s going to work entirely differently from how it has in the past because the council is clearly watching,” Councilman Jamie Hollin said, alluding to previous studies. “If they’re seeking direction of the council — and the council gave it to them — then all parties and all groups should be at the table in an open and deliberative process.”
Duane Dominy, one of the council’s most outspoken voices for the preservation of the fairgrounds and racetrack, said he intends to be involved in the planning process. He echoed Hollin’s call for “all voices” to be part of it.
Dominy scoffed at last year’s community meetings held by the civic design center, which had presupposed the fairgrounds would be razed. Those meetings were often packed with preservationists who weren’t really given the chance to make their case for the facility to remain. Ultimately, more than $30,000 in taxpayer dollars paid for a study that doesn’t seem to have had any effect.
“If the recommendations come back, and they are based strongly on [eliminating existing fairgrounds uses], it will become an issue on the council floor,” Dominy said.