Shannon McCullough, a resident near Nashville’s fairgrounds for decades, has some ideas to improve an institution she loves: Incorporate urban farming, build a partnership with the neighboring elementary school, and update plumbing and electrical wiring at its expo-center buildings.
“It’s been 20 to 30 years of neglect,” McCullough said of the Metro-owned Tennessee State Fairgrounds.
Bob Borzak of East Nashville goes straight to the point: “Bulldoze it and bring it back to where it needs to be, just like any other big city,” he said. “I think it’s embarrassing what we have right now.”
Then there are people like Jen Trail, a member of a group of fairgrounds neighbors who cringe at noise of the fairgrounds speedway and hope the 117-acre property can one day be developed.
“As a resident, I don’t feel like it’s really an asset to our neighborhood,” Trail said. “There are other things that the community and Nashville larger could enjoy there.”
Nashvillians had their say Monday at a Metro-sponsored open house designed to gather community feedback to a create a new fairgrounds master plan, a “data-driven” document that will recommend options for fairgrounds and expo center operations, its physical location and the surrounding area near Wedgewood Avenue and Nolensville Pike.
“What would it look like if we had a higher-quality fair and exposition center here — if investment were made into it?” said Ann Hammond, assistant executive director of the Metro Planning Department, which is spearheading the master-planning process alongside Metro Parks & Recreation and the fair board.
“What would the economics be? To do a good job of figuring that out, you need to hear from the public,” she said.
The fairgrounds — and whether to transform it to a mixed-use development — turned into the city’s most contentious issue a year ago, but the politics has largely subsided.
In 2011, Davidson County residents voted overwhelmingly to approve a Metro charter amendment to require a new 27-vote council majority to change the property’s existing functions. The referendum came after the council foiled Mayor Karl Dean’s plans to redevelop the fairgrounds, opting to also spare the property’s racetrack from demolition.
Gov. Bill Haslam in May signed into law  a bill that allows the state agriculture commissioner to appoint a state fair advisory commission to oversee the annual state fair. The move has raised some uncertainty over Metro’s future role with the event, but fair operators have not indicated they plan to move the event outside Davidson County.
The notion of a fairgrounds master plan originated from an approved amendment put forth by Councilman Jason Holleman during last year’s definitive council vote.
“The turnout tonight and the level of participation by people in the community is exactly what I wanted to see,” Holleman said.
Citizens in attendance at Monday’s open house took seats at roundtables with maps of the existing fairgrounds in front of them. They filled out comment cards. Flanking one side of the room were stands highlighting information of other state fair facilities in South Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and elsewhere.
Metro officials have divided the master plan into two phases — one for the fairgrounds and its expo center operations, the other to explore potential development opportunities at the site.
The city has hired Minnesota-based Conventions, Sports and Leisure International to work on the initial phase. Nashville’s EDGE Planning, Landscape, Architecture and Graphic Design will work on phase two.
“We’re going to create two concept plans,” said Hammond of the planning department. “The key to this is not the urban design and the pretty drawings. They key to this is the economics of it. We’ve never had that information. This is a data driven study.”
Project leaders are to undertake a range of fairground analyses in advance of a final product. Areas to be covered include: existing market conditions for the fairgrounds operations; best practices; market demand; program, site and event; costs/benefit and business and funding.
The mayor and council would then review the final master plan document, and decide which if any parts to pursue.
The fairgrounds site has been the subject of several “highest and best use” studies in the past. But Buck Dozier, executive director of Metro’s fairgrounds, believes this latest master plan can have a lasting impact.
“Despite all the controversy, whatever the recommendations are will jumpstart the final solution,” Dozier said. “This one, I believe, won’t sit and gather dust. The recommendations will have to be addressed.”