Metro Closes Fairgrounds, Judge Says ‘Not So Fast’

Artist rendering of new Expo buildings at State Fairgrounds. Mayor David Briley and Fair Board Commissioners broke ground at the site Thursday, November 1.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN – With a court case, All-American 400 stock car race, Flea Market, and Christmas Village all scheduled this month, Metro closed access to the Fairgrounds from Nolensville Rd. last week. City crews posted a large “Road Closed” sign at the Wedgewood Ave entrance and set up barriers and construction fencing along Walsh Road. 

“If all this is closed off and not available, the flea market will be killed,” said Shane Smiley Chairman of Nashville Flea Market Vendors Association. “You’re talking 300-600 parking spaces for customers at the Flea Market and that’s not sustainable,” he said.

Smiley said 8,000 cars parked at the Fairgrounds for the October Flea Market from Fri-Sun, Oct 26-28. With the Walsh lot closed the available parking falls short by about 2700 parking spaces just for the Flea Market. 

Mayor David Briley, Fair Board commissioners, and a few city councilmen broke ground on the new Expo buildings site November 1. 

“Today is an important step forward in what will soon be brand-new and modern expo facilities at the Fairgrounds,” said Briley. Construction was supposed to begin in early November and finish in the Summer 2019. Construction of a MLS soccer stadium would begin after the old Expo buildings are torn down.

But last month Chancellor Ellen Hobbes Lyle threw a monkey wrench in that plan and the bulldozers will remain silent at least until the Flea Market vendors have their day in court.

Lyle found that a legal conflict exists and that the plaintiffs have standing to present evidence on two of three claims. Those have to do with Metro’s plans to develop the Fairgrounds in ways that vendors claim violates the City Charter, harm their businesses, and impede other traditional uses at the Fairgrounds.

“If we prove our case at trial we can hopefully stop the rape of Nashville caused by the MLS Stadium and the giveaway of 10 acres of prime real estate for mixed-use development,” said Save Our Fairgrounds attorney Jim Roberts.

It was not a slam dunk for the Flea Market vendors. Lyle denied their request for a writ of mandamus, which orders an official to do something required in their job description which they have not done.

Lyle ruled that Metro officials have lots of discretion when it comes to dealing with a scenario as complicated as the Fairgrounds soccer deal. In short, Lyle ruled a writ of mandamus does not apply to the facts and violations of law alleged by the vendors. She did not rule on the merits of the vendors’ complaints. 

The plaintiffs filed for a restraining order November 2 to stop the closure of the Walsh parking lot where the new Expo building is planned and which now provides 3500 parking spaces for Fairgrounds events. 

Smiley said Metro keeps talking about how much they respect the existing uses at the Fairgrounds but they don’t act like it. “It’s time they show that respect and put a stop to all this until the lawsuit brought by the people who utilize the Fairgrounds is heard but Metro continues to act as if this train is rolling down the tracks and ‘stop me if you can politics’ is in order,” he said.

Lyle did not grant the restraining order but did schedule a two-day emergency hearing November 13-14. Both sides will present their cases and provide witnesses and then Lyle will decide whether she will grant an injunction to stop construction until after the December trial is concluded. The trial could go either way regardless of what Lyle decides in the evidentiary hearing next week. 

The plaintiffs want to stop Metro from eliminating current parking spaces and giving away 10 acres to MLS team owner, John Ingram. If they prove their case, they will get a court order and that will likely send the MLS stadium deal back to the drawing board. 

In September, Metro announced it would award a construction contract to a joint venture between two construction firms: Mortensen, based in Minneapolis and Messer, based in Nashville. 

The Tennessean reported Barton Malow Co. protested the decision and another bidder, Skanska-AECOM Hunt, considered filing a protest but didn’t. As the Tribune has reported, the bidding and letting of city contracts has been rife with discrimination and favoritism for years. 

The soccer deal is reminiscent of the one the Barry administration had with Bert Mathews to develop Fort Negley.  After a prolonged protest from one of the Fort Negley bidders and considerable pushback from others, Mathews withdrew from the project. 

As the Tribune has previously reported, building a stadium at the Fairgrounds was not John Ingram’s idea. He said former mayor Megan Barry insisted on a MLS stadium at the Fairgrounds. Current Mayor David Briley backed Barry’s plan and the City Council has since approved it. But Metro officials and the City Council will have a lot of egg on their faces if Lyle decides the deal was unlawful in the first place and orders it scrapped.

In order for City Hall to prevail now, it has to prove that a MLS stadium at the Fairgrounds will not kill off the vendors, the State Fair, and other Expo events. Scott Jones, long-standing operator of the State Fair, told the Tribune that there just wouldn’t be enough room for the State Fair with all the exhibits, animal pens, and midway attractions if a soccer stadium and 10 acres of private development were built at the Fairgrounds. He also said traffic and parking for a crowd of fair-goers isn’t like traffic and parking for something like a soccer game.

People come and go all during a day at the state fair. MLS matches and NFL football games would have heavy traffic two times a day, coming and going to the games.

“Parking is going to be their downfall,” said former Councilman Duane Dominy. He said the city now has to show the additional uses will not interfere with protected uses and the city’s plan eliminates 6000 parking spaces. The city has already taken away 20 acres of Fairgrounds parking to build Fair Park. Even without 10 acres of development or a 30,000-seat stadium, parking has become difficult at the Fairgrounds.

“None of the existing uses nor the soccer stadium can be successful with what they have proposed,” Dominy said.

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