How Mayor Karl Dean lost the wheel of the fairgrounds controversy — and what the subsequent pileup reveals about his administration 

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There he was, not many months' distance from civic sainthood in the aftermath of the epic May flood. Rightly or wrongly, even those who'd heretofore been critics were regarding Karl Dean as virtual mayoral royalty. His administration's reaction to a catastrophe that killed at least 10 people in Nashville and created some $2 billion in property damage — and that would take years from which to fully recover — earned him heaping praise and a moratorium on pot shots for a good long spell.

Before that, he'd won overwhelming legislative, if not public, support for the most expensive public project in Tennessee's history — the $585 million Music City Center. That debate had been well under way long before Dean sauntered into the courthouse in his oversized Land's End loafers. But at a time when new big box convention centers were no longer slam-dunks for major metros, he and his administration would have faced a drubbing if they couldn't pull it off. In the end, when the vote arrived, he and a phalanx of monied business interests managed to herd members of a relatively untamed legislative body into the right chute. Praise be to the man who'd always struck opponents (and some supporters) as the Fred Flintstone of Nashville politics.

And then Darrell Waltrip and a coterie of carnies showed up — and they lapped the Mustang-driving Dean like he was standing still. He's still choking on the dust.

What the hell happened?

It is time to say what has been becoming apparent for a while now, and I have both the luxury and the shame of doing it from a safe distance, having recently moved away after 21 years in Nashville: Karl Dean's administration is an undisciplined, disorganized machine lacking in managerial sophistication, which is not to say it lacks talented, capable people. This is perfectly illustrated by the fiasco that followed Dean's proposal to redevelop the 117-acre Nashville fairgrounds property in favor of a corporate office park — or, well, something.

I take no joy in concluding so. After all, I once led the editorial team of this newspaper and was responsible, to the dramatic disappointment of many past and current Dean critics, for endorsing the mayor. What's more, my husband worked for the Dean administration and enjoys good relationships there to this day. But while I have never once attended the Tennessee State Fair and feel no personal loss for having missed seeing the Snake Lady, shifty characters running heavy equipment, or sanctioned animal exploitation — and, by the way, I wouldn't know the Busch Series from Busch Gardens — even I can see clear as day that, on this, it was amateur hour at the mayor's office. The breadth and depth of miscalculations and incompetence on their part in dealing with this hot-button cultural issue are staggering.

Where and how did the wheels fall off?

To begin with, consider the first-term context — these two so-called achievements that have marked Dean's first three-and-a-half years in office. We'll grant him, right off the bat, props for acquitting himself just fine in the flood's aftermath, which is significant. And it was a score to close a deal for a privately funded convention center hotel. But despite the vocal opposition from a legislative minority, approval for convention center funding was never really in doubt (though public support for it was). And it wasn't so much an accomplishment of the Dean administration as of a huge coalition who'd been working for years — while Dean was still issuing legal opinions for then-Mayor Bill Purcell — to fund the Music City Center.

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce had vetted every single member of the current Metro Council on the issue during the 2007 election. It wasn't a mystery to anybody but the tragically uninformed, the desperately delusional or the hopelessly optimistic how this body was going to come down.

"It was like a train sitting on a very steep grade pointing downhill," says one insider. "They reached in and pulled off the brake and — guess what? — it rolled downhill. Of course it did. The only questions ever about the convention center were would the recession kill it, and were they getting 25 or 30-odd votes. It was never in doubt. It was done."

Which is an important point when considering Dean's handling of the fairgrounds. Because it's not as though the mayor's office had moved mountains to achieve the MCC victory. In other words, perhaps the embarrassing political fumbling that took place on the fairgrounds issue isn't the exception for this administration, but the rule.

While there may be few willing to offer such criticisms on the record, the sentiment is rampant among those who work with, in and around Metro government. Worse, it's no longer coming just from Dean's opponents, but even from many of his early supporters and defenders.

"If you are going to talk about a project this large, the first thing you do is consider the stakeholders," one longtime Dean supporter says. "If you were putting together a plan to move this idea from incubation to fruition, you would talk to these people first. You wouldn't have them read about it in the newspaper or hear about it secondhand. But [Dean's administration] had just come off a huge and important win with the convention center and apparently didn't think there were many people who cared about this. Add in a management style that's very silo-oriented, and it was a perfect storm."

As much as the progressive and business classes have backed Dean and wanted to view him as a city patrician with the same sort of heft and gravitas as his two predecessors, Bill Purcell and Phil Bredesen, there is just no escaping that he's no Purcell or Bredesen — and that he doesn't hold tight reins on the office. Instead, staff members who often don't talk even to one another, much less to important constituencies, work their various issues without much internal input, collaboration or support for each other.

According to sources familiar with the workings of the mayor's office, there isn't even a true standing staff meeting — which is staggering, considering everything that a Metro mayor's office is charged with doing. (One current staffer who didn't want to be identified says that's "sort of" true, but that senior staff do meet with the mayor weekly.) Meanwhile, Dean — smart, friendly and even by the reckoning of some of his most ardent detractors, someone who seems to care deeply about the city and progressive issues — often leaves people with the impression that he's not running the show, and that he shows no passion about the things he has the unique ability to accomplish.

"You can say what you want about Bill Purcell," says one Metro Council member who didn't want to be named, "but when they arrived in the office in the morning, they had a plan. This bunch does not have a plan."

That has been evident in many smaller ways throughout Dean's term — the wishy-washy response to the Belmont controversy, or the failure to overcome tone-deafness long enough to foresee that hiring former Metro Parks Director Jim Fyke, however beloved, for an undefined $64,000-a-year part-time job might strike people the wrong way amid a 10 percent unemployment environment.

But there was generally something to deflect attention from it, something bigger to watch — an impending budget, the Music City Center vote, a devastating flood, the state of Metro schools. But when Dean unleashed redevelopment plans for the fairgrounds, the exposed cracks were an inch thick.

"So the proponents of demolition kept repeating these proposals for a luxury quasi-park/corporate office space, but there hadn't been any commitments from developers, much less financing," says Metro Councilman Mike Jameson, who has frequently clashed with the mayor. "And I'm sitting there talking to these people and saying, 'Don't make my mistake.' I shed blood and lost dear friends trying to get things that never materialized. We rezoned Lower Broadway to get a Westin hotel — and yeah, we got a historic overlay out of the compromise — but today there's no Westin. Why? Because I moved ahead without a guarantee that the deal would ever materialize.

"So before you sign off on these pledges and bring on the bulldozers, make sure something's actually coming. At the fairgrounds, we didn't even have the base zoning to get that in the first place. So c'mon guys, at least get that in order. It belied and revealed all of the weaknesses you would have predicted."

Redevelopment supporters suggest that Jameson and those who share his point of view were simply unaware of how these things work. But that's not to say that the Dean administration handled it well.

"It's not realistic to think that a company is going to want to go there until the site is ready," says Alexia Poe, who recently left her job as director of the Mayor's Office of Economic and Community Development to become Gov. Bill Haslam's communications director. "There was some education that needed to be done about how economic development works, and that was actually a bit of a surprise, so we may have underestimated how much education there was to do."

One Dean insider — a Dean supporter, by the way — allows how the administration was clearly "outhustled" and underestimated the range and influence of opponents. But it was a lot worse than that.

There was no strong coalition of support for what Dean wanted to do, no clear or specific plan for what he envisioned. There were, however, plenty of folks united only by their use of the facility — drivers, racing fans, fair boosters, Christmas Village organizers, herb ladies, blind cyclers who use the track, vendors, comic-book nerds and on and on. Unlike Dean, they could see — and communicate — very clearly what to do with the fairgrounds.

Dean staffers say that the mayor was ready to dispense with the whole issue in November, when it was clear he wasn't getting anywhere with the Metro Council, and that the office did not collaborate with Metro Council member Megan Barry, who filed legislation to bulldoze the racetrack. "It may have seemed coordinated, but it wasn't," one says.

Nevertheless, that legislation followed from what the mayor had started in the first place. Before he knew it, Dean's gauzy idea had inspired the hiring of a political organizer, and the likes of Darrell Waltrip and Sterling Marlin were helping to amass opponents to his doomed damn-the-fairgrounds vision. Three thousand people showed up to the Metro Courthouse the night of the public hearing — by all accounts, more than on any prior issue before the local legislative body — and while an official tally would have been all but impossible, red-shirted protesters visibly outnumbered their yellow-clad foes. Even The New York Times covered the story, casting the debate as "a custody battle over a neighborhood that could just as well have been over the city itself."

Dean nemesis Michael Craddock, the Metro Council member who has filed to run against the former law director in August, describes the fairgrounds debacle this way: "It's almost as though Dean had a fifth-grade class in his office making policy for him. It was just insane."

Though mayoral insiders have speculated that the kind of opposition that surfaced to oppose the fairgrounds redevelopment back in January was "procured" or "AstroTurf" — in other words, people were asked or enticed to show up — Craddock and many others think otherwise, that the average Nashvillian cares deeply about the property.

"I think there are a lot of folks in Davidson County, certainly folks who are kind of older that are longer-term residents, and they remember Fair Park and the swimming pool out there, but they also remember things like Opryland and the theme park, and I think they see Nashville changing in a lot of good ways, but I think they also see it changing in a lot of ways that don't respect our culture and the heritage and history," says Darden Copeland, the political/land-use organizer hired by the opposition group Save My Fairgrounds, who moved to Nashville from San Francisco two years ago. "The highest and best use for that property for many people in Nashville means keeping things a little bit country and keeping things culturally how they have been and maybe upgrading the facility instead of paving over it. I think people just think enough is enough."

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