“You should have seen the back up of traffic just this weekend because of the flea market. They were backed up from the entrance to the Fairgrounds all the way to 440. And you’re telling me it’s an underused property and you’re trying to surplus it?” asked Sharon Melman, a disgusted flea market vendor. Photo courtesy of Flea Market Vendors Association.

NASHVILLE, TN ­­­– The City Council approves hundreds of zoning changes every year. During the last decade, Nashville has grown in leaps and bounds but the stock of single-family homes has dwindled to the point where people of modest means can no longer afford to live here.

Monday night the City Council approved a zoning change to permit residential and commercial construction at the State Fairgrounds, including some set asides for affordable housing, on 10 acres the city is leasing to John Ingram as an inducement to bring a MLS team to Nashville.

Ingram plans to build restaurants, retail stores, a hotel as well as artist studios and commercial office space next to the stadium. Jennifer Carlat, Chief Policy Office of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce told the Council the project will create 3500 construction jobs and 1900 permanent operational jobs and give a $77 million boost to the local economy.

Ingram announced a Community Benefit Agreement (CBA) with Stand Up Nashville (SUN), a coalition of labor unions, churches, and community groups. The CBA guarantees $15/hr. jobs and a child care center at the Fairgrounds.

“I am painfully aware that trust has been in short supply,” John Ingram told the Council.“When you approve this deal I will personally be responsible to see we follow through on our commitments…all of them,” he said.

The city has no part in the CBA but getting one has convinced a key number of council members to support the project. Without those votes, the deal would not be approved.

“We have a football, a baseball and a hockey stadium and none of those needed a ten-acre site to help them be built and to help them continue so I don’t believe that the ten-acre site on the Fairgrounds is necessary,” said Shannon McCullough, a neighborhood resident.

“A city is either growing or it’s dying,” said David Bone, a stadium supporter. “This plan ensures that our Fairgrounds will not die. I look forward to the preservation and expansion of the Fairgrounds as part of our growth.”

Flea Market vendors are overwhelmingly opposed to the soccer deal as are race fans. Soccer fans are overwhelmingly in favor of it.

After listening to both sides for about four hours, the Council voted 20-9-4 to approve a mixed-use development on those 10 acres. It will take 27 votes Tuesday, September 4, to approve the demolition of existing Expo buildings so a stadium can be built there. Other parts of the deal have already passed with simple majority votes. If there are not 27 “yes” votes next Tuesday, the stadium deal is dead, at least at the Fairgrounds.

A Public Private Partnership Forged in Private

WSMV’s Nancy Amons reported that Metro’s COO Rich Reibling and a consultant, Larry Atema, were working on the stadium deal more than a year before former Mayor Megan Barry announced it in January 2017. Amons dug into emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request and discovered secret meetings were held between Reibling, Fairgrounds officials, and others months before the city council knew about the plan.

In October, 2017 soccer supporters packed a public hearing at the Fairgrounds. It was great PR for Ingram’s soccer deal which Reibling had been ploughing the ground for with his group of City Hall insiders for almost two years.

In November 2017 the City Council voted to spend $275 million to build a soccer stadium at the Fairgrounds with a ten-acre inducement to Ingram he could develop privately. Fifty million was earmarked to improve existing Expo facilities and widen roads. At that time, Megan Barry was mayor and the MLS franchise had not yet been awarded to Nashville.

In December 2017 the franchise was awarded to Nashville. Former Mayor Barry resigned March 6, 2018 and David Briley was sworn in.

“The city voted overwhelmingly 31-6 to do this. The details had to be worked out once the franchise was awarded,” Briley told the Tribune.

Briley said that is what the city is doing now. Various pieces of the deal have been approved by the City Council in the last several weeks.

“There was an opportunity to redo the deal and not do a taking but he (Briley) didn’t want to rock the boat,” said At Large Councilman John Cooper. But it may get rocked anyway. Cooper wants to build a stadium downtown.

Soccer Deal May Face Legal Challenges

Taking ten acres for Ingram’s development at the Fairgrounds may expose the city to a legal challenge. City property no longer used or wanted must be declared “surplus” before it is offered to another department or sold. The Director of Public Property disposes of surplus property and most recently it has done an appraisal of the ten acres.

District 12 Councilman Steve Glover sponsored a bill that became law March 6. It requires Metro property leased for longer than 50 years to first become surplus property. Metro Legal Director Jon Cooper said the Fair Board has already declared the property surplus and since the property will be repurposed, not sold or transferred, the surplus issue goes away if the Council approves the stadium deal. Maybe it will but probably not. Even if the council approves the deal Tuesday, a lawsuit will likely be filed to stop it from being built.

“The referendum in 2011 was explicitly clear… and the original charter clearly stated that mixed use and housing are not appropriate on the Fairgrounds,” George Gruhn told the council.

“They have crossed more lines in legal matters than Carter has little liver pills,” Glover said.

Stand Up Nashville

“The council voted 31-6 to award a deal that’s not as good as the one that’s in front of them right now. I expect they should vote 31-6 in favor of this one because it’s an improvement on what they supported back in November,” Briley said.

Briley has good reason to be optimistic. So far everything has gone his way as bits and pieces of the deal have been approved by the council.

But on Wednesday, SUN sent out a press release saying they won’t sign a CBA unless it improves working conditions and better pay for all construction workers and the city promises to do more business with minority firms. That could throw a monkey wrench into the works and derail a soccer deal at the Fairgrounds.

A Divided Community

it is clear the proposal has split the city not unified it as Briley had hoped. Daniel Baron lives on Bransford Avenue. He surveyed 366 people in his neighborhood about changing the land use from “Open Space” at the Fairgrounds to “T4 Urban Community Center” which would permit mixed development. Only 13 people, or 3.5 percent, approved of the change.

Vendors collected 7,500 signatures from patrons and visitors to preserve the current footprint and uses at the Fairgrounds. They presented copies of the petitions to council members Monday night.

Mayor Briley claims most people want the deal. The neighborhood poll and petitions say otherwise. Many who spoke against the deal said they want a MLS soccer stadium but felt dismayed because their pleas to build it elsewhere have gone unheeded.

“It’s not really needed at the Fairgrounds. Fairground’s got enough down there. It’s needed in our district,” said Dan Simmons.

Still others disapproved of spending so much on a stadium when the city can’t even give cost-of-living allowances to its first-responders.  Others said the plan will ruin current events at the Fairgrounds and make traffic worse than it already is in the neighborhood.

Most speakers in favor of the deal talked about soccer and their love of the game. Others said it would be good for business. A few said they wanted a stadium at the Fairgrounds because they wanted it developed, liked the jobs and CBA benefits it would provide. No supporters questioned whether the stadium should be built in another location.

“It’s not really needed at the Fairgrounds. Fairground’s got enough down there,” Dan Simmons told the council. Simmons said the stadium would fit well in District 1, 2, or 3, largely black districts, that have not gotten enough city investment to promote development and jobs.

“You really have a chance to act for our community. You really have a chance to allow us to be a part, to be represented, even though we are the minorities. We are asking you now to bring that industry to Metro Center.” So far, the city council hasn’t even considered the idea.