by Steven Hale
In the cover story of this week's The City Paper, I tortured several metaphors attempting to illustrate the decidedly unsettled state of all things involving the Tennessee State Fairgrounds.
Let me try another.
At this point, Mayor Karl Dean's relationship with the fairgrounds — the property and the people who most associate themselves with it — is something like that of a husband who comes home and calmly explains to his wife that he's going to have an affair with a woman down the street. Naturally, an argument ensues. There is shouting. Maybe even tears. And then a few days later, the husband decides to back off. He didn't fully understand how it would look from her end, he says, and so he calls off his plans.
The trouble is, he doesn't move out. His wife doesn't move out. The woman down the street still lives there and, from time to time, will walk her dog by the couple's house. And if the husband glances out the window, or happens to be taking out the trash when she walks by, the wife wonders. Does he still want to do it? Did he just go ahead with it, anyway? Last week when he forgot our anniversary, and last month when he worked past dinner most nights — is he trying to get me to divorce him so he can just run off with her, without the guilt?
It's something like that.
Last month, several flea market vendors, racetrack supporters, a lobbyist and a Metro councilman met at a Shoney's to discuss the property’s plight. The group — maybe seven that night, including Dick Dickerson, the president of the Fairgrounds Vendors Association, and Councilman Duane Dominy — represented the leadership of Save Our Fairgrounds.
Over the course of an hour, as the group recalled the last fight over the facility, and described the one they feel is ongoing, it became obvious that a deep distrust of Dean and his administration has cropped up in the wake of the fairgrounds fight. After the facility survived a frontal assault, some in the group fear the fairgrounds has been sentenced to a protracted death by indifference, at the hands of an administration with neither the political capital to finish it off, nor the political will to fully revive it.
In other words, there are some who suspect that Dean and fairgrounds officials are simply letting the fairgrounds die on the vine, if not actively working to kill it.
That sentiment was registered in various tones at the Save Our Fairgrounds gathering. As one might expect from a politician, Dominy’s assessment of the fairgrounds’ predicament was somewhat measured.
“It’s been a troublesome, oftentimes passionate debate, about a piece of Nashville’s history. It’s a part that means a lot, to a lot of people,” he said.
When he asserted that the most significant revenue drains have taken place under the Dean administration, he hedged the remark:
“I’m not suggesting anything in that,” he said. “I’m just making a simple statement of fact.”
Whatever Dominy wasn’t suggesting was stated plainly by others.
“We’ve had two straight fair board chairmen that were right in the mayor’s pocket,” said Dickerson, who represents 800 flea market vendors, and also runs dog shows at the fairgrounds. “They were taking the low bid on everything, so it wouldn’t make money. They were trying to set up failure.”
Dean has said little about the fairgrounds since the citywide fight over the property's fate, and his office declined to make him available for an interview for the CP story. (They did issue a short statement.)
We're disinclined to enable politicians' bunker mentality when dealing with the press by simply making their argument for them, but one thing that cannot be avoided about the fairgrounds: The reasons Dean initially gave for pursuing redevelopment still exist, and in some cases have only grown more apparent. (To extend our earlier metaphor, all that stuff about the wife that made the husband think about stepping out? It's still there too!)
In an Oct. 2009 letter [PDF] to the fair board, announcing his intention to move forward with plans to redevelop the property, Dean said "it is clear that the current course of the State Fair is not sustainable and continuing to run the Fairgrounds until its reserve fund is completely exhausted is not the responsible thing to do."
Well, that day has come. For years, the fairgrounds has been dipping into the reserve fund to cover deficits. The fund was built up by revenues from the days when NASCAR and Fan Fair — now known as the CMA Music Festival — were still hosted at the fairgrounds. Since NASCAR held its last race in Nashville in 1984, and the CMA Fest moved to LP Field in 2001, that fund has been slowly dwindling.
After the Metro Council approved a $378,300 withdrawal from the fund last month to get the fairgrounds through the end of the fiscal year, the fund is all but depleted. Looking ahead at a projected shortfall of more than $700,000 this year, the fair board will inevitably be coming back to the council later this year with a request for supplemental funding. And when it does, there will not be enough left in the reserve fund to cover the deficit. The fairgrounds will need its first taxpayer subsidy in its 109-year history.
But the argument coming from some fairgrounds supporters, and some Metro Councilmen, is that Dean has in effect created a scenario that would prove him right about the fairgrounds. They point to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in business lost as a result of his attempt to close them, and the struggle to bring business in with uncertainty still looming. They note that while other Metro enterprise funds — like the Nashville Farmers' Market and Municipal Auditorium — have received subsidies and capital improvement funding, the fairgrounds has not. And they say by withholding a subsidy to the property — as Dean's proposed budget for next year does — that he increases the chances that the fairgrounds' deficits will be even larger later on.
All that simmers as the interested parties wait for the council to take up the Fairgrounds Master Plan, which will likely have to wait until after the budget. The Master Plan includes a variety of scenarios, including maintaining the current uses of the property, moving those uses to another location, or allowing private redevelopment.
And that's why it's all still a little awkward.