What’s The Deal with the Fairgrounds?

Recently I’ve been following the Nashville Neighborhoods Google Group, hearing about some of the issues that are of importance to neighborhood groups throughout the city. Last week the buzz was all about the Electronic Sign Zoning which seems to be a big concern, however since that was deferred indefinitely, the buzz has moved back to a discussion on the fate of the Fairgrounds.

As I’ve been watching the debate since Mayor Dean first sent his letter to the Fairgrounds Board telling them to close down (something that he has since said was a recommendation and not an order, since he has no authority over the Fair Board), I have sensed that the mayor was providing a solution without really articulating a problem. “It’s losing money,” he said in general terms, without ever noting that the fairgrounds receives no money from the city (as I understand the financing). The reserves are getting low, primarily due to a couple of fairs which struggled with rain, but the rest of the operation brings income into the city. The mayor has stated that they are working at absorbing these money generating operations into other city facilities, but the fact is that we don’t have any other facilities that have the unique characteristics of the fairgrounds, nor can meet the pricing of that organization. So we are going to close down this operation without really ever knowing for sure what the problem is.

Of course, one answer might be found in discerning whether the city and administration anticipate receiving revenues from the sale and development of the properties. This administration is looking for revenues in any place possible to forestall a tax increase, especially as we come up to an election year. Just as the selling of the parking meter concession could bring a large influx of cash into Metro up front, the sale of the fairgrounds property could do likewise, temporarily alleviating the need to raise taxes.

But in all thinking, I find myself wondering if this isn’t ultimately an issue of social class, or more specifically the divisions between the “new south” transplants to Nashville and the “old south” natives who experience Nashville in a different way?

Of course, I am making huge generalizations in this thinking that aren’t 100% true, but I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to surmise that the average East Nashville living liberal or Belle Meade conservative doesn’t hang out at the fairgrounds very much. The fairgrounds has always been a place for middle class to working class folks, often with a rural background and mindset, and not a particularly high faluting kind of place. You won’t find any wine bars or gourmet cheese at the fairground; rather it’s a place focused on funnel cakes, fresh squeezed lemonade, and polish sausage. The fairgrounds is a place where they would fry the cole slaw if they could figure out how to do it; a place where gas fumes from race cars seems natural. I frankly can’t see our Mayor wandering around the fairgrounds in a t-shirt and jeans chomping on a fried Goo-Goo cluster while watching the racing pigs. And yet, there is a large population in Nashville who enjoys those activities, who sees them as a connection to the past, part of our heritage, and not easily discarded. These folks wonder why we can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars advocating for a new convention center, but aren’t willing to even entertain a substantial conversation on the worth of the fairgrounds to our city. They recognize that roller derby and gunshows may perpetuate media stereotypes about the south, but they really don’t care, for these things are as much a part of who we are as the gentrified East Nashville club scene.

I confess that I’m not a regular fairgrounds goer. The kids and I have started taking in the fair every year and have had a great time (Buck Dozier really pulled it together this year and I hate that the rain hampered what would have been a great event for our city). I used to regularly attend the flea market and think that it is something that more folks should check out. My contact with the racing track was seeing Lynard Skynard there in the ’70’s (my first concert at age 14) and hearing the motors rev on Saturday nights from far away. But even though my life doesn’t intersect with the fairgrounds on a more regular basis, I think there is something worthwhile to hold on to that piece of our heritage.

So, how about a real conversation on the future of the fairgrounds. Is there a real problem that needs to be addressed, or is this a solution in search of a problem? It would be nice to know.


5 thoughts on “What’s The Deal with the Fairgrounds?

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  1. Jay, I think you are correct about the mayor’s charge on the fairgrounds being explained by declining Metro revenues and class differences.

    May Town, the convention center, development of the fairgrounds, as well as the not-yet-announced projects are on the mayor’s list because they will bring in sales and/or tax dollars.

    Most of the the dozens of activities at the fairground are for the middle and working classes. The builders, bankers and brokers are not, as you point out, of those classes.

    My contribution at last week’s meeting at the fairgrounds was that we need to oppose May Town as fundamentally at odds with the rural and natural character of the area (as documented by the district plan); let the Mayor have the convention center in hopes it does help downtown renewal; and fight hard for keeping a “people’s park” of distinction.

    Sadly, some opponents of the traditional fairgrounds (most with financial interest in expected development) are trying to drive wedges between racing and the other activities. It would be better if all wanting to keep the fairgrounds for ‘folks” would push together for a nationwide study of best uses and practices and sizes for 21st Century parks.

    Thanks for comments. Ken

  2. As a neighbor of the fairgrounds and someone generally in favor historic preservation, it’s not the fair, the gun shows, the roller derby, or the general lack of aesthetics that put me on the other side of this issue- it’s the race track. The noise… oh how I under-estimated it. How’d you like it in your backyard?

    I’d love to save the fairgrounds portion and redevelop the track into something useful (green space perhaps). Of course, that’s not an issue on the table so I happily jump squarely in the redevelopment box.

    If you polled the area residents and asked the right questions, I’m sure nearly everyone around here would agree – it’s not the spinning of the ferris wheel that bothers us, it’s the zooming/fuming of the cars.

  3. Steph,
    Hey, I understand the problems with the track. I used to be able to hear the cars running from my apartment on Lealand Lane several miles away, and I think a conversation about whether it is appropriate to have an auto racing track in what has become an urban area is appropriate. The problem comes in the all or nothing approach that seems to be embraced by our leaders which I am afraid is driven by the thought of quick dollars in the city coffers combined with an inability to see the events of the fairgrounds as valuable.

  4. I just wanted to say thanks for encouraging an insightful discussion on this issue. As a resident of the fairgrounds neighborhood, I have been to the meetings. The tone of most of the people speaking at them is extremely off-putting and does nothing for progressive conversation.

    I do regret that some people are seeing this as an issue of social class. I think that you will find many long-time neighbors of the fairgrounds say that they would like to see redevelopment, or atleast improvements made to the property. I have nothing against the flea market and am truly going to miss the Roller Derby, but I do get a little excited at the thought of possibly living next to a greener, more attractive, more appropriate for an urban area, space. It’s not about property value for me, it’s about neighborhood pride. And the acres of concrete, miles of barbwire fence and large metal buildings just aren’t doing it for me.

  5. Some of you may know that I am the chairman of the Fairgrounds Heritage Preservation Group.

    And our group, as well as me personally would agree with much, but perhaps not all, of what has been said here so far.

    In 2008 we sent a proposal to the Fair Board as a response to their RFP, that urged a greener, more user-friendly fairgrounds that included picnic areas, greenways, and some major renovations.

    Of course it was pretty much ignored, but that’s basically our vision.

    As Jay pointed out, the fairgrounds are a connection to our heritage, both past and present, since Tennessee is still one of the top 10 agricultural states. And after all, it *is* the *State* fairgrounds. There are times that Nashville, as the state capitol, must represent all of the state as well as it’s own citizens.

    However, it’s also, as someone has called it, “the common man’s civic center.” It’s where we have the flea market, christmas show, guitar show, bead show, and all those other events that just couldn’t fit into any other venue in this county.

    And frankly, with approximately $60 million in economic impact each year, it’s earning it’s keep, and costing Metro nothing in the deal!

    And we have been doing research on the more successful state fairgrounds, such as Kentucky, Iowa, Indiana, and Wisconsin to see what can be used to upgrade our fairground’s operations.

    But the first thing we really have to do, is make sure that the fairgrounds is secure. We can have all sorts of plans, but it’s no good to anyone if Metro divests itself of this gem. We have to enforce that legislation, written over 100 years ago, by men who forsaw that sometime in the future, greed and avarice would put the fairgrounds in peril.

    And I also agree with those above who have commented that many are attempting to use the race track as an “all or none” wedge into this issue.

    But now is not really the time to discuss that. That discussion should come after the property is safe.

    As I pointed out in the Neighborhoods Newsgroup, there is nothing in the legislation or the Charter that requires auto racing at the fairgrounds. That is strictly a decision of the fair board, and it’s a question that should be addressed to them.

    But please let’s not toss out the fairgrounds on that issue– there are other, better ways to resolve that.

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