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The War of the Fairgrounds

November 6, 2010

It’s no secret that I have been skeptical of the proposal to close down the existing fairgrounds. Certainly some of this is based in nostalgia for my past, with fond memories of riding the Skyliner at Fair Park and seeing pre-airplane crash Lynyrd Skynyrd at the racetrack in the ‘70’s.  In recent years, our family was part of the slowly growing group of folks who were reclaiming the fair, and I will carry memories of walking the midway with my girls, and wandering through the exhibit halls with them experiencing a segment of life foreign to most urban teenagers. Yes, sentimentality is part of the reason why letting go is hard.

However, nostalgia rarely justifies holding on to something that needs to go, and my concerns go far beyond nostalgia. The concerns that I continue to hold are based in a continuing state of confusion regarding the complete facts of the financial situation of the property, including economic impact, whether financial deficits are due only to the fair portion of the work of the Expo Center with little consideration of the other activities of the property. While I recognize the frustration local residents have with the racetrack (I’ve heard the roaring engines in the middle of the night too!), I find it odd that the only solutions have been to tear it down rather than consider alternative creative options such as leading the way nationally with the first ever electric car (generally silent) racing series, or transforming the existing grandstands into the smaller outdoor concert and entertainment venue that Nashville needs. More than anything, I find myself worried about the lack of information being provided regarding the proposed move of existing Expo Center functions to the Dillards building at Hickory Hollow. While I have been a long proponent of redevelopment at Hickory Hollow, there are enough remaining questions to make me uneasy.

What is most frustrating about this move is the unwillingness of city leaders to talk intelligently and provide facts regarding a plan for success in regards to both the existing property and the proposed new Expo Center. The move to push through the lease agreements as an “all or nothing” proposal is a cynical act designed more to rush this through the process than to seriously provide a climate for success. The concern among some is that ANY resistance to the administration’s plans puts the good parts of the proposal at risk. And yet, such an attitude could lead to even greater problems for the Hickory Hollow property through an ill conceived plan for the Flea Market which is doomed for failure. There needs to be a plan for success, and when that plan is created, then the council and residents can make informed decisions on whether or not to support the project.

I wasn’t always a preacher. Prior to my becoming a “man of the cloth” I worked doing event management for the United Methodist Church. In that role I spent a lot of time interfacing with convention centers, designing room setups, and thinking about load-in/out considerations. It’s the questions that arise in my past experience that lead me to wonder about things currently unsaid, and I fear unconsidered by folks in the mayor’s office that have no experience in these things. “Look, the Dillards building has more square footage than the buildings at the current fairgrounds,” they say. What they fail to realize is that there is a difference between square footage and usable space. There are also considerations of access to vendors, electrical drops, water and other services, and vendor parking. All of those issues may be under consideration, but they are intimately involved in determining whether the project has any chance of success, and making decisions that involve millions of dollars without a plan in place is simply short sited and bad stewardship of the city’s resources.

Here are a few of the questions I find myself asking that remain unanswered:

  • Will the management and operation of the new Expo Center at Hickory Hollow involve the current expo center staff (Buck Dozier and his team) or will it require the creation of a new group with little experience in managing the types of projects currently at the fairgrounds?
  • Are there examples from other cities of a periodic flea market such as ours being located in an existing big box store? I have found examples of big box stores turned into flea markets, but they involve vendors leasing permanent booth space. Our flea market features traveling vendors that only come in for a weekend and have unique load-in/out requirements. Are there other successful examples of an existing space like Dillard’s being able to meet these requirements?
  • What is the ratio of current flea market vendors using indoor space to those using outdoor (cattle shed) spaces? Will those currently outdoors have their needs met in the new space?
  • How many vehicles are parked on-site on an average flea market weekend at the current site, and will the Hickory Hollow lot be able to meet those requirements? Everyone talks about “ample” parking at Hickory Hollow, but few recognize that stores like Macy’s and Sear’s control access to “their” lots, and they will be unwilling to give up space for their customers. Also, the community center proposal (which I support) will remove significant existing parking space on the upper side of the property, leading to more pressure on parking closer to the proposed Expo Center. Has anyone really counted cars (and more importantly trucks and trailers) to see how the two compare?
  • How many existing shows or projects will be unable to utilize the Hickory Hollow property?
  • Are there any considerations for accommodating RV’s such as currently happens on the existing site? Many flea market vendors depend on these hookups and that will become a consideration in determining whether they will make the move?

There is all sorts of hyperbole being thrown about in our current War of the Fairgrounds, driven in large part by an administration that seems to no particularly trust the public that elected them to serve. The only way to keep this from being a war is through a judicious use of facts and engaged planning, leading to fruitful conversation regarding the future of part of our history, and our ability to transform an existing property in decline into something successful.

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