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OK, so the Dean team didn't consider that there were people who were going to balk at his idea, which was fatal enough. But he also badly lost control of the messaging. The old Clinton mantra of "It's the economy, stupid" carried the day during the Music City Center tussle, when the recession was near its lowest ebb. That message wasn't nearly as compelling, however, in the fairgrounds fight.
While Dean's team was making a fuzzy pitch about best-value land use — a kind of anti-Field of Dreams "Tear it down, and they will come," and about as inspiring as that sounds — their opponents seized upon a potent mixture of nostalgia and class resentment. The sentiment that carried could be found in a Nov. 1, 2009, City Paper cover story penned by longtime racing scribe Larry Woody, shortly after the mayor introduced the fairgrounds closure. It was titled, "Did elitism doom the fairgrounds?"
In it, Woody wrote, "Folks who make these types of Metro-centric decisions aren't interested in stock car racing, fairs or flea markets. And they don't know Coo Coo Marlin from a corn dog." That line of discourse never really ceased, and Dean's opponents are still hanging onto it. Although the Times reporter who covered the public hearing suggested there were more people protesting the racetrack's possible loss than had attended some recent races, they paint racing as a low-cost tradition for working folk.
"You spend more going to the movies with your family than you do taking them to a race on a Saturday night," says Copeland, the Save My Fairgrounds organizer.
Yet was Dean outflanked by a citizens' brigade, or outfoxed by a well-funded, better organized PR campaign? While he won't release the names or donation amounts of the group's funders — though he has acknowledged the Waltrips and Marlins — Copeland insists that speculation about high fees for his work and tens of thousands spent on the opposition are grossly overstated.
"I think everybody would laugh if they knew what the finances were," he says. "We were scraping together this thing selling T-shirts and taking donations, passing the hat at 5 and 10 and 25 bucks a pop to cobble enough together to get this online, to get a website together, to generate calls. This is a complete shoestring. It was just dedicated volunteers and good social media and grassroots stuff. Everybody says it was AstroTurf. It wasn't that at all."
In the end, it didn't matter that many of Dean's supporters were working families who lived near the racetrack, where concerns about noise and the declining facility had been brushed off for many years. Nor did it matter that the racetrack proponents included well-heeled supporters such as music-biz heavyweight Mike Curb, George Gruhn, and influential racing superstars (some of whom don't even live in Davidson County). With so much class/culture rhetoric in the air, the Dean machine either didn't try — or simply failed miserably — to fire back with a populist message of its own, which could have been persuasive.
"The travesty of this whole thing is it became a working man/working woman's issue," says one Metro observer who notes that the fairgrounds employs only 17 full-time employees. "If you use that site for something real, then how many jobs do you have ending up there? A lot — hundreds, maybe even a couple of thousand. If anything, redevelopment is a pro-working man's concept. How it tilted in the other direction is beyond me."
In an environment of 10 percent unemployment, Dean would have done well to argue more vigorously, and in a more focused way, that the fairgrounds issue was about jobs. He needed to explain it differently if he had a prayer of overcoming failure to run the traps in the first place about who would support the proposal and who wouldn't.
After all, argues Fair Board chairman and Dean political ally James Weaver, the mayor was right to push redevelopment.
"The administration's focus on preparing urban versions of TVA's highly successful 'mega sites' — large development sites that are 'ready' for corporate relocations and expansions before the projects come knocking on our door — is exactly the right approach to a huge problem we have in Nashville," Weaver says. "For way too long we've watched great projects go to other counties because we can't offer big campus-type sites that are ready to go in terms of development potential. Saying to a big company looking to move or expand here that we will get this great site ready for you in 12 to 14 months — if we can change the zoning and community plan, have 15 neighborhood meetings, get NES and Public Works and the Water, Planning and stormwater folks to all agree, have a Planning Commission vote or two and after three readings at council — is not exactly a prescription for success."
The competition, he says, just "laughs" at Nashville. "At some point, we as a city have to belly up to the bar or get out of the game for these type projects," he says. "Seems to me that the mayor is saying that walking away from being able to effectively compete for these projects is dumb. He's of course right."
Now, only the short track's short-term future is in doubt, as the fair, flea market and expo center will all keep their home for two years on the current site pending the release of a master plan being commissioned by the Metro Fair Board. The mayor's murky vision for the property is all but dead for a good long while, given over to a planning process that, ironically, may very well conclude that the current fairgrounds site is the wrong place for a state fair — something that the fair board pretty much determined in 2008.
"[Back then], all the fair board said was two really simple things. One: If you look at the land use patterns around the fairgrounds, you conclude that this probably shouldn't be a fairgrounds," says Weaver, who is about to rotate off the board. "Two: A real state fair should be drawing hundreds of thousands of people to Nashville from outside the city. We were all about, how do we take this thing we've been entrusted with and make it something we can all be proud of ... and make it something that is Nashville. We don't have that now. We have a marginal county fair."
Metro Councilman Jason Holleman, who voted against the mayor's redevelopment proposal, predicts that the master planning process will lead to a keep-it-but-put-it-somewhere-else resolution. "My guess is that what comes out of the master plan is that there's a better plan for that piece of property than what we have now," he says. "And if you take that and you come up with a long-term transition plan that involves finding a place in Davidson County for there to be a state fair, I think that's important. That's probably the most important thing to me."
And to Weaver too, who says he's been baffled at times about how the fairgrounds issue has played out.
"I've never understood this history argument" about saving the fairgrounds on the current site, he says. "These are 1950-era block buildings. This is not the Ryman. Hank Williams has not thrown up in any of these buildings. If he has, we'll find that block and we'll save it. Now there is clearly history around the track, I freely admit. And to people who are racing aficionados, it's damn near sacred, and I'm sympathetic to that."
In the meantime, Dean's office has been out recruiting a couple of former Bredesen aides to join the administration, which may amount to some tacit acknowledgement of his office's weaknesses.
"I know it's enormously hard. And it's not a great deal of pleasure Monday morning quarterbacking a failure, because I know myself that I couldn't have done any better," says one Metro Council member. "But I know there are people who can. Purcell tapped them. Bredesen tapped them, and there's a lot of speculation as to what it all means that Dean is now tapping all of these old-timers who are going to make the mayor's office look like a scene from Cocoon in the next few months. It's because he thinks he needs this experience that he hasn't been getting before."
It couldn't come a moment too soon. As I write, Dean is in Japan, of all places — commingling an economic development trip with a spring break family getaway. Think about that for a minute. The country first suffers an earthquake, then a tsunami that causes more damage than the earthquake. So the mayor's response is to call and ask whether he should postpone his economic development trip? "The mayor conferred with the consul general of Japan in Nashville before proceeding with the trip," a mayoral press release Friday read. "Consul General Hiroshi Sato ensured Mayor Dean he would not be in the way."
So Dean packed up his iPod and his rep ties and hopped aboard a flight to Asia, a move any freshman political science student would find misguided.
"Karl Dean, our little ol' mayor, is over there running around the Japanese countryside!" Craddock practically exclaims. "I just don't understand that to save my life. I just told my wife, I don't know who advises the mayor, but surely they'd have told him, 'Postpone your trip, brother. This is no time to go to Japan.' There is a pattern to this kind of behavior."
That may be the first time I've ever agreed with Michael Craddock.
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