What is Wrong at the Fairgrounds?

This is what the Fairgrounds will look like after the stadium and mixed- use development are completed. The State Fair is one of the current “existing uses” Metro says it will continue. Where is there room?

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — City Hall dodged a bullet in January when Chancellor Ellen Hobbes Lyle ruled against the flea market vendors and dismissed their lawsuit against Metro. Her decision did not settle matters at the Fairgrounds, however, because the vendors are preparing an appeal.

Last week, the vendors asked Lyle to reopen the lawsuit. At an expedited hearing scheduled for March 21, Attorney Jim Roberts will argue that Chancellor Lyle rushed to judgment before the facts in the case had been established.

In dismissing the case Lyle said that “as a matter of law”, Metro officials, including the Mayor, the City Council, the Fair Board, and the Sports Authority, acted within their authority and that the plaintiffs, the vendors, did not demonstrate they have been harmed by Metro’s plan to build a MLS stadium at the Fairgrounds. 

“The nonmoving party ‘must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.’ The nonmoving party must demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record which could lead a rational trier of fact to find in favor of the nonmoving party,” Lyle wrote, quoting a 2015 Memphis case. 

Metro wants the controversy settled quickly because the stadium construction is on a tight schedule. Despite City Hall’s urgency to get on with it, the Tribune has learned that six contracts related to the lease, construction, and operation of MLS at the Fairgrounds have not been signed yet. 

Nashville SC team owner John Ingram isn’t waiting. His team will play its first season at the Titans stadium in 2020. Without any real crisis for Ingram needing a place for his team to play, Roberts said he wants Lyle to reconsider and let the vendors lawsuit proceed so they can bring their evidence to court.

“Now there is no reason the construction could not be delayed until the lawsuit is resolved,” Roberts said. There are facts in dispute like whether the new stadium will reduce vendors’ income. 

Fairground financial reports show annual Flea Market revenues of $1.5m in 2013, $1.7m in 2014, $1.8m in 2015.  Fairgrounds spokeswoman Holly McCall said revenues have held steady at about $1.7m for the last three years. 

But Shane Smiley, Chairman Nashville Flea Market Vendors Association, said the number of vendors at the Fairgrounds dropped sharply in recent months. Flea market revenues in March 2017 were $494,345. A year later in March 2018 they were only $292,278, according to reports.

Smiley blames Metro for the fall-off in vendor sales, which bring in 1.2 million customers annually. That’s more than twice the number of soccer fans that will attend games at the stadium even if they sell every seat for every match. Roberts, the vendors’ attorney, said the proposed stadium deal allows Ingram to steal half of the parking fees collected by the vendors. That’s one reason vendors sued.

John Rose, President of the Tennessee State Fair Association (TSFA), recently withdrew a separate Fairgrounds lawsuit and is reportedly in talks with City Hall. Scott Jones, the State Fair operator, is negotiating with city officials to put on at least one more State Fair at the Fairgrounds. 

“It won’t do to have ten acres here and another ten acres there. It has to be one large piece of land,” he said. Before the stadium and private development are built that might be possible. An artist’s rendering of the Fairgrounds with a new soccer stadium shows no room for a big fair with rides and a midway. 

A Fool and His Money Are Soon Parted

Lyle said she could not rule on Metro’s gift of 10 acres to John Ingram to develop as he likes. “The allegedly poor economic judgement of Metro is one of policy which courts are not authorized to decide,” Lyle wrote. But it is an example of the same insider deal-making that characterized both the Barry and Dean administrations before Briley.

Roberts said Metro has spit-balled the costs of the Fairground development and its plan is vague about key issues like traffic congestion. 

It is unclear what it will actually cost to build a stadium with adequate parking, or how much it will cost to widen roads, construct a parking garage, and finish new Expo facilities. Foundations have been laid for new Expo buildings and $15,342,106 has been spent so far under a 5-year contract with Skansa USA Building, Inc. The original contract, signed Nov 1, 2016, had a value of $27m. It was increased by $20m on October 30, 2018 and is now worth $39,665,000.  Metro has budgeted $25m in general obligation bonds to pay for Fairgrounds improvements. Ingram’s company will pay up to $25m, also. So far, they are within the $50m budget.

Under the proposed terms of several unsigned contracts the team pays for cost overruns only for the Expo buildings and the stadium. Taxpayers will be on the hook for everything else.

“The total cost associated with this project will be certainly much higher than was projected, probably not a surprise,” said At Large Councilman John Cooper. Cooper voted against the stadium and development at the Fairgrounds. He thinks building it next to the Titans stadium is a much better idea. go to: https://tntribune.com/featured/cooper-build-it-downtown-and-they-will-come/

Shady, Cocky, and Incompetent

The way Metro officials handled the soccer deal has been marked by boosterism, irregularities, and missed deadlines ever since former Mayor Megan Barry announced her plan to build a MLS stadium at the Fairgrounds in January 2017.

For example, $225m in revenue bonds to build the stadium were supposed to be issued late last year. They have not been issued yet. Final stadium construction plans were supposed to be submitted to MLS last month. They weren’t. Phone calls to the architect, Populous, Nashville SC, and Ingram’s management firm, ICON Venue Group, were not returned.

One sheet showing the ten acres the City Council gifted to John Ingram for private development had no survey data, no map, no description of any kind. It was left blank. The Fair Board approved the surplus giveaway to Ingram of the ten acres without a legal description of the property in August 2018. 

Neiman-Ross Associates, Inc, a real estate appraisal firm, estimated the bare land value of the ten acres at between $15-$18m in August 2017. A year later it did another appraisal and valued the land at just $13m. Eighteen million or thirteen million, it didn’t matter, the City Council voted to give the ten acres to Ingram anyway by a vote of 34 to 3 in September 2018.

The Fairgrounds stadium deal is similar to the scheme to privatize Fort Negley which was stopped by public outcry before Megan Barry resigned. The same insider favoritism that marred Barry’s tenure in City Hall infects the Fairgrounds deal. Former Chief Operating Officer Rich Riebeling was a key player in both development schemes. Briley got rid of Riebeling but has embraced the deal. He faces re-election in August.

Smiley said Metro pulled a bait and switch on them. New Expo facilities were originally planned on the top of the hill where the old ones are now. Vendors gave Metro their support for that plan. But the final design pushed the Expo facility and the vendors off the hill into one corner of the 117-acre Fairgrounds near the intersection of Bransford Ave and Craighead St. That’s another reason why they sued.

“Whatever they know about animal barns they didn’t learn from us,” said TSFA’s Rose. He met with Metro planners several times but they never asked for TSFA’s input about animal care. 

“There’s been no arrangement made for how the Expo facility will accommodate livestock waste. They haven’t planned that into the facility,” Rose said.

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