Some 10 years ago, a Fair Board commissioner named Richard Riebeling walked into the office of then-Mayor Bill Purcell with an idea to redevelop the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. The city was eventually going to lose money on the whole operation, Riebeling told him. High-profile racing interests had already moved to a new track in Wilson County, and remaining events weren't drawing the way they used to. Rather than take the financial punch they saw coming, Riebeling and other commissioners wanted to lean on the ropes, assess their options and make a different move.
The board hired consultants, who helped conceive the ill-fated idea to build a new baseball stadium for the Sounds on the 117-acre property. According to a former board member who served at the time, Riebeling and others discussed putting a public park on the property, and perhaps offices or housing. Riebeling had a mockup made of a redeveloped fairgrounds property that he later presented to the mayor. What was clear, strange though it might seem, was that continuing to hold the state fair there was near the bottom of a long list of concerns for many of the commissioners. Move it to Wilson County, they said.
Not on Purcell's watch. The mayor remembered for the immoderate attention he paid the city's smaller constituencies said no.
"He clearly was not interested in pursuing it," Riebeling says. "It was his prerogative. He was the mayor. And so it ended."
Until June 30 of this year. That's when Mayor Karl Dean officially signed the fairgrounds property over to his administration's finance department — of which Richard Riebeling is in charge.
For the last few months, the administration has pushed hard on a concept that's not dissimilar from others to have come before, but for some details added recently: Move fairgrounds events to Hickory Hollow Mall, and partner with a private entity at a cost of as much as $10 million over the course of the lease. Build a park on the fairgrounds' 40-acre floodplain. Give up on racing. And finally, let someone else decide the fate of the state fair. That's in exchange for a 1 million-square-foot corporate office park that would bring 6,500 new jobs and $200 million in economic bounce to Davidson County, according to figures the administration is using to make its case.
But in stark contrast to the Dean administration's superbly coordinated effort to sell the public and Metro Council members on the $585 million Music City Center, the unveiling of the fairgrounds redevelopment concept has been clumsy and unfocused. The administration has at times seemed disorganized in its presentation. Dean's enthusiasm level appears to have reached a Vince Young kind of low — it is obvious the issue wasn't on his radar until it had to be — and the in-house public relations team that less than a year ago sold a massive development project with militaristic precision is now scrambling in the face of underestimated resistance.
Much has been made of the dearth of details. If you listen carefully to the administration's message, the idea for redeveloping the fairgrounds is that there is an idea for redeveloping the fairgrounds. There is no anchor tenant. There is no rendering of what would be a massive complex, just a map showing the swath to be developed at some future date. There is certainly no vast buy-in from the public or other elected officials. Nor is there a well-timed endorsement from the whole of the downtown crowd. In fact, it is the conspicuous absence of well-heeled entities such as the Convention and Visitors Bureau — whose muscle helped keep the convention center on track — that has let the fairgrounds pitch run askew.
"What is patently obvious to everyone is that the move to Hickory Hollow and the redevelopment of Hickory Hollow is a last-minute response to what is inevitable public pressure," Councilwoman Emily Evans told economic development director Alexia Poe during a Nov. 9 committee meeting on the fairgrounds. "... If it wasn't a last-ditch effort, Alexia, you should've shared more information with us earlier than today."
But Poe says this kind of speculative environment is well-worn territory for developers and local government officials. To recruit the caliber of corporate heavy-hitters Metro wants for the fairgrounds, she explains, the city doesn't court a company first and try to find it a home. The city finds a choice location with a sackful of deal sweeteners as bait, then casts a net to land the best tenant.
"It's a little, to me, either disingenuous or uninformed about how the process works in saying that that's incomplete in not being able to say what company or what project or whatever is going there, because that's just not how it works," Poe says, with a note of exasperation. She does add, however, that corporate interest in Nashville "keeps growing."
For his part, Riebeling insists that there is no more prudent financial outcome than to relieve Metro of using its general fund to pay for fairgrounds events. But as neighborhood residents, fairgrounds advocates and opponents of the Hickory Hollow deal form a chorus of growing disapproval, administration officials are getting frustrated to the point they're losing control of the debate — if they haven't already. Much as they did (successfully) during the PR battle over the convention center, they paint opposition to their plan as a sort of black operation funded by outside interests and waged by hired media guns.
Riebeling, Poe and Dean spokeswoman Janel Lacy each suggested as much to the Scene, raising allegations of well-funded adversaries and Astroturf opponent groups. They say the seven public meetings they've held since work began in the summer of 2007 are enough. No more talking.
But those who oppose the deal — and the administration's handling of it — are just clearing their throats.
"As I review the last three years, to me, this is the only glitch [for the Dean administration]," At-large Councilman Charlie Tygard says. "I had real problems with a lot of [the Bill Purcell administration's] actions that I considered really heavy-handed — it's-our-way-or-the-highway type of comments. I don't think this is totally reminiscent of those type of actions, but it's the closest thing."
Tygard is one of several council members frustrating the mayor's office by messing with its plan. He says he met with Mayor Dean recently to discuss an idea he pitched in a recent Tennessean op-ed, in which he offered new locations for the fairgrounds' Expo Center and other attractions. Tygard, who is up for re-election this year, suggested the city build a new facility for the events rather than bail out a failing mall. He says the mayor and staff were polite but dismissive.
Another thorn in the administration's side is Councilman Sam Coleman, whose district includes Hickory Hollow Mall. Coleman has talked extensively about his plan to split the administration's bill into three amendments — a move that would allow council members to vote for leases to move government services to Hickory Hollow, yet presumably enable them to vote against the now-toxic Expo Center portion. The council will get a chance to vote that way.
Then there's District 28 Councilman Duane Dominy, who somewhat ignominiously introduced a bill to maintain the status quo at the fairgrounds. In so doing, he failed to put the bill through the standard legal handiwork. He withdrew it after the council's counsel said it wouldn't float. Administration officials suggested Dominy, who was a candidate for a state House seat at the time, introduced the bill solely to curry favor with voters — yet that would seem to indicate the fairgrounds supporters represent a significant block of votes.
Other council members, however, have been just as conspicuous by their silence. Councilwoman Sandra Moore, who just over a month ago penned a ride-the-fence op-ed for The City Paper, did not return repeated calls from the Scene. The fairgrounds are in her district. And Councilwoman Anna Page, whose district is nearby, was similarly reticent to respond. Both members are up for re-election, and both may worry they'll suffer the wrath of an angry and divided constituency — regardless of what happens to the fairgrounds.
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