By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — Attorney Jim Roberts, who represents Save Our Fairgrounds, is a bit like Don Quixote dueling with windmills. Unlike the protagonist in the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes, Roberts’ enemies are quite real.
He is up against a phalanx of lawyers from Metro’s Legal Department who procrastinate until the last minute and then complain the litigation is taking too long.
That lawsuit is now almost four months old and may not get heard in Chancellor Ellen Lyle’s court until next Spring. Roberts also represents Flea Market vendors who want the city to build the MLS stadium someplace else.
“They’ve hit me with a blizzard of paper,” Roberts told the Tribune. He has to plough through all of it, find witnesses, subpoena them, take depositions, inspect relevant documents, and find more money to keep the office lights on. Fighting City Hall can be an expensive proposition.
“Metro wants to streamline the case but there are six or seven issues, each one of which, is a separate mini-trial,” he said.
Roberts wants Metro’s lawyers to explain how a dog park benefits the Fairgrounds. It is near the corner of Craighead and Bransford Avenue, a small piece of 22 acres Metro is making over into soccer fields.
“Why is the developer making $12-15 million a year and the Fairgrounds is only getting $200,000?” Roberts wants to know. “And that is actually just a refund of parking revenues they are stealing from the Fairgrounds,” he added.
Roberts is about to get an ally in his war against progress. Like the Titanic hitting an iceberg, Metro is steaming full speed ahead into another lawsuit. This time one of the plaintiffs will be a US Congressman, Rep. John Rose (R-TN 6th District).
“I expect we will file a separate suit because our issue is not the same,” said Rose, who is also President of the Tennessee State Fair Association (TSFA). Like the vendors, he wants to know how a $225 million MLS soccer stadium benefits the Fairgrounds, the site of the Tennessee State Fair for more than 100 years that now may be forced to move.
“The stadium construction is not a temporary interruption to the State Fair. It is a permanent interruption,” he said.
Roberts says major league soccer will cause too much traffic and won’t have enough parking to support the Flea Market and other events.
Flea Market spokesperson Shane Smiley says vendors will lose about 60 acres of parking if the stadium is built and Fair Park is completed. “There is no mention of what they are going to do with the outdoor vendors,” he said. Shane says the people who usually set up booths on the parking lot make up a quarter of all Flea Market vendors.
Last week Formosa Productions and the Bristol Motor Speedway announced a partnership to upgrade the speedway and bring NASCAR racing back to the Fairgrounds. They will need crew parking and a motorhome lot. Bigtime racing also needs space for festivals and “meet and greet” events where fans can talk to the drivers. In the current plan, a MLS stadium will take up 8 acres right next to the track. Private development will take another 10 acres.
On October 10, Roberts told the court that his clients would not object to a stadium at the Fairgrounds if the city went about it the right way. He claims they haven’t and argues that the City Charter and a 1923 state law are on the plaintiffs’ side.
“If they want to let Ingram develop public land at the Fairgrounds they should sell it to him,” he said.
Chancellor Lyle is reviewing the legal briefs submitted by both sides and she will rule on the trial’s scope at the next hearing on January 18. Rose says there are only two ways the city can be relieved of its legal duty to put on the State Fair: either a referendum or a change in state law.
The city contends Nashville can have it all: MLS stadium and a State Fair, flea market, racing, and other events. In August, Briley told the Tribune the Fairgrounds will have a MLS stadium and will also have a wonderful place to stage an annual fair. Metro is moving full speed ahead to finish the new Expo facility by mid-2019.
“We are not stopping construction as the chancellor denied the plaintiff’s motion for a temporary injunction that would have halted the work,” said Briley spokesman Thomas Mulgrew. “Since the project is on a very tight timeline, we are proceeding as planned.”
“There is no way we can put on a fair this year and I doubt there will ever be another one if they build the stadium,” Rose said. Metro’s design for new Expo building has the same square footage as the old ones but it’s a bad design, Rose said.
The new Expo building has only one entrance and one exit. The old staging area is spread out among several buildings and cows, goats, and pigs can be led to their pens easily. The current arrangement also has space for a midway with rides and other attractions to draw big crowds to the fair. Rose is not happy with its new location.
“They are sticking it in the one place in the Fairgrounds it will fit and allow the soccer people to do the things they want,” he said.
Rose wants to know why Metro is spending $25 million on new Expo facilities if the TSFA will have to find another venue for the State Fair. He said Wilson and Williamson County aren’t interested because they already have their own fairs. On the other hand, If the stadium is relocated, Mayor Briley would have to renegotiate with MLS team owner John Ingram.
Governor Elect Bill Lee owns a cattle farm and has shown his stock at the State Fair before. Roberts spoke with Lee, got no assurances, but is going to amend his complaint to list Attorney General Herbert Slatery as a plaintiff in the case before the next hearing January 18.
The Fairgrounds is a multi-purpose place where events do not take place every day. In other words, a Fairground is a sometimes thing. Commercial development with shops, hotel, restaurants, and apartments will function 24-7 and fundamentally change the Fairgrounds and how it operates. The case is all about whether the city can legally do what it is dead set on doing.
If the Tennessee State Fair Association and the vendors are right and the State of Tennessee joins the fray, then at some point reality will have to set in at City Hall. The longer the controversy continues, the more Mayor Briley is looking like an errant knight tilting with windmills.