When Fair Board Commissioner Jason Bergeron called the board’s January meeting to order, he didn’t expect it would be his last as chair. By the end of the meeting, Commissioner Sheri Weiner had replaced him, effectively pushing Bergeron out of ongoing negotiations with Bristol Motor Speedway over a plan to demolish the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and put a NASCAR-ready track in its place.
The Fair Board, a five-member body that oversees The Fairgrounds Nashville, has been at the center of controversy for more than a decade, as multiple mayoral administrations have struggled to define the future of the fairgrounds while maintaining existing uses of the site. At its core, the board is responsible for putting on a fair. A Metro Charter amendment in 2011 required continued operation of expo center events, flea markets and auto racing in perpetuity.
Since then, the board has been legally bound to maintain auto racing at an aging speedway that has seen little investment in recent years. Bristol Motor Speedway parent company Speedway Motorsports — owner of the Nashville Superspeedway in nearby Wilson County — came to Nashville looking to change that.
After a year of closed-door talks and with no notice to Fair Board commissioners, Mayor John Cooper announced in March 2021 that he had signed a letter of intent with BMS outlining the broad strokes of a potential deal. The letter of intent had a tight timeline — one that sources familiar with the negotiations say was driven in part by Cooper’s desire to move on to the next big deal: renegotiating the Titans’ lease.
That timeline — which aimed to finalize a deal by July 31, 2021 — proved unfeasible. Nearly a year after the letter of intent was signed, the administration has yet to present a fully formed proposal to the Fair Board for approval. And the Fair Board review is the first in a series of hurdles the administration will have to clear to solidify the deal.
After the Fair Board reviews it, the deal will go before the Sports Authority, which is responsible for issuing the bonds that would fund the project. Even if both bodies approve the terms, the project can’t move forward without final approval by the Metro Council.
In November, Cooper announced an agreement in principle with a BMS proposal that the mayor said would fund the project at no cost to taxpayers. Two draft terms sheets obtained by the Scene — one from March 2021 and another from October 2021 — tell a different story. As drafted, should BMS decide to leave the fairgrounds or otherwise default on the agreement, they would be responsible only for yearly lease payments. This could leave taxpayers on the hook for tens of millions of dollars. Joe Hall, a public relations consultant for BMS, declined to comment on how the financial terms of the deal Cooper announced in November might differ from the draft terms sheets.
Since the November announcement, the deal’s momentum has again stalled. Ben Eagles, Cooper’s senior adviser, appeared at the Fair Board’s January meeting promising a formal proposal by the week of Jan. 31. As of press time, no such proposal has materialized. Asked about an updated timeline, Cooper spokesperson Andrea Fanta says a proposal will be available when all documents are finalized. Hall has said he expects that BMS will present the proposal to the Fair Board in March, but cautioned that the mayor’s office controls the timeline.
Commissioner Bergeron and Councilmember Colby Sledge — who represents District 17, where the fairgrounds are located — claim the city could invest its own money into renovating the speedway, expanding the possibilities for non-racing revenue-producing events. They say prolonged negotiations with BMS have put potential investments on hold and have contributed to continued deterioration and use limitations. Fanta didn’t exactly deny this assertion. “Our approach,” Fanta writes in a statement, “has been to work with the best operator in the industry on a long-term solution to restore the speedway to its national prominence.”
Commissioners at the table during both the 2018 Nashville Soccer Club negotiations and the current negotiations with BMS describe drastically different experiences. Previous mayoral administrations and NSC representatives invited collaboration and were responsive to concerns, commissioners say, even making last-minute concessions in the hours preceding the Fair Board’s vote on the NSC lease. The Cooper administration and BMS, however, have been slow to reveal details of their plans and quick to dismiss questions from Fair Board members with vague or nonresponsive answers.
Bergeron, a Megan Barry appointee, has been particularly vocal in his frustration with BMS and the mayor’s office. That frustration — and the way it bubbled out in public meetings through pointed questions and tense exchanges with BMS representatives — led Weiner to seek to replace him as chair. Discussing her decision, Weiner cites her ability to negotiate with a level head and resolve conflict without acrimony. She says her knack for divorcing an issue from “hyperbole and emotion” factored into Cooper’s decision to appoint her to the board.
In Weiner, the Cooper administration will have a more amicable negotiating partner. Having served on the Metro Council, Weiner knows the council will likely relitigate terms agreed to by the Fair Board. Unless the proposal is “egregious,” Weiner says, the Fair Board should simply take a vote and let the council work out the details.
For his part, Bergeron — who was chair for a few months before being ousted — thought he was making progress. He left a lengthy meeting with BMS’ general counsel in November feeling hopeful about the future of the negotiations. “I didn’t plan to do anything abrupt or inappropriate,” Bergeron says. “They haven’t really been very collaborative, and so that’s what I was planning to do — to be collaborative.”
With the recent resignation of Commissioner Caleb Hemmer, Bergeron is the only remaining commissioner not appointed by Cooper. Bergeron’s current term ends in April, and the mayor has not decided whether he will be reappointed.