Representatives for the Tennessee State Fairgrounds and the Nashville Farmers’ Market arrived at day one of this year’s budget hearings to tell Mayor Karl Dean they’re coming up short.
Neither presentation came as a surprise, of course. Both facilities have struggled financially for years, but as Dean listened and discussed their respective plights, along with Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote and Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling, there was a palpable difference in tone between the two.
Having just emerged from lease negotiations for this year’s state fair — in which breaking even was never really a possibility — the Metro Board of Fair Commissioners is looking ahead at a significant financial shortfall, and an uncertain future. Fairgrounds director Buck Dozier presented a request for a $791,000 subsidy to make up the difference between next year’s expenses and projected revenue, and to pay for a staffer focused on marketing.
In the past, the fair board has been able to tap into a reserve fund to close the gap between expenses and revenue. That fund will be all but depleted, though, after this year, assuming a supplemental budget request filed by the administration last week is approved.
Dozier told the mayor that one of the biggest challenges the fairgrounds faces is its aging facilities.
“The greatest thing about the fairgrounds is it’s 107 years old, the worst thing about it is it’s 107 years old,” he said.
The other is an uncertain future, which Dozier said largely hinges on what the Metro Council does with the new master plan for the facility, which was submitted last month.
The Farmers’ Market presentation, however, was a largely optimistic one, focused on untapped potential. The facility has also faced financial problems, and will need $482,000 — also included in the administration’s recent supplemental budget request — to make it through the current fiscal year. Nancy Whittemore, director of Metro General Services, who has been acting as interim director at the market ever since Jeff Themm stepped down from the role last year after a damaging finance and management review, said projections show the facility would face a similar deficit next year.
But Dean was full of praise for some existing features at the market, such as the popular Night Market events, and anticipation for what they could be down the line.
(The Night Market events, typically held one evening a month during the market’s high season, feature a festive atmosphere with farmers, artisans, food trucks, wine and other beverages, and live music.)
“If you go to the Night Market once, I think you fall in love with the concept and think what a great thing this could be if we could do this more frequently,” Dean said. “The issue for us is how you get there.”
Metro officials explored the possibility of privatizing the market, but a request for proposals earlier this year yielded no takers. But Dean and his aides discussed the possibility of authorizing the market to find an executive director, whose full-time job it would be to work on enacting a vision for the facility. They also entertained the idea of eventually enclosing the market’s two outdoor sheds, which Whittemore said would cost about $330,000, but would make it easier to rent space in those areas throughout the year.
With the right vision and execution, Dean said, “it could be one of the most unique, special things in the city.”