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.