Lease negotiations between the Metro Board of Fair Commissioners and the Tennessee State Fair Association are at an impasse that could put this year’s state fair in jeopardy.
Buck Dozier, executive director of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, told TSFA chairman John Rose that the 2013 fair was “in peril,” in a letter obtained by The City Paper. If the two sides cannot reach a deal, the event could move out of Davidson County for the first time in its 106-year history.
“It has been, and remains so, our intent to work towards a suitable conclusion to this matter,” Dozier wrote, in the letter dated Feb. 1. “The 2013 State Fair is in peril quite frankly, and if we cannot agree on our promised compromise before the next Fair Board meeting then it is highly likely the Board will be forced to find alternative events for the weekends typically reserved for the Fair.”
The fair board’s next meeting is Tuesday.
Last year, Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill authorizing the state to form a commission that would run the annual event, duties that had been in Metro hands since the 1920s. Fair board members feel the move also freed Metro from the legal requirement to host the state fair each year.
In November, the new state commission — the Tennessee State Fair and Exposition Commission — selected the nonprofit TSFA to run the 2013 fair, as it had in 2011 and 2012.
According to both sides, representatives from the fair board, which oversees the fairgrounds, and the TSFA came to terms on a deal in November that would have brought in around $150,000 for the fairgrounds, an increase from last year’s deal that resulted in approximately $108,000 in revenue. But when presented with that deal, the full fair board rejected it. Since then, the TSFA board has been unwilling to go any further.
“We don’t have anywhere to turn to really for subsidization of the fair at this [point], beyond the sponsors and supporters that we already have,” said Rose, who confirmed to The City Paper that he received Dozier’s letter. “And while we think we can grow that over time, and we think that would be mutually beneficial to both the cause of having a state fair and to the cause of helping the fairgrounds rectify its financial issues, that’s just so far we can go so fast.”
Ned Horton, chairman of the fair board, said the sticking point is how to split ticket sales. The TSFA, he said, has offered to give the fairgrounds $2 per ticket for the first 50,000 attendees, and $3 per ticket after that. The fair board is pushing for $3 per ticket for all attendees.
The fair board believes, Horton said, based on a variety of factors, that it should cost $300,000 to rent the fairgrounds for the 10-day fair. He said they’re trying to get to at least $200,000 with the TSFA. If they can’t get there, the board could entertain other options to fill that part of the calendar, something they hadn’t been able to do prior to the state taking over operation of the fair.
“I would think that if we don’t do something pretty quickly, the facility should probably move forward with booking those dates with other things,” he said. “We can’t just sit there forever and have unsold inventory and we don’t want to necessarily be painted into a corner with this arrangement that we don’t think is equitable.”
Horton said if both sides start working together, the event could be successful at the fairgrounds.
“They are in charge now of the success of the event,” he said. “That’s in their hands. We want to work together with them in any way, shape, form, or fashion we can to make it a very, very successful event. We both have to get on the same side of the equation. I think our proposal and numbers do that.”
Rose said he was hopeful that a compromise could be worked out, but reiterated that the TSFA did not have outside funding sources to call upon.
“Our group has always believed, and we still believe, that the fair should be in Davidson County,” he said. “However, I would say — in a very sober way I would say — that if they vote to lease the grounds to someone else, that would almost certainly mean the fair has to leave Davidson County.”