Fixing up state fairgrounds would cost $150M, study says

5:08 PM, Nov 8, 2012   |    comments
Shoppers make their way through the flea market at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. / George Walker IV / File / The Tennessean
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By Joey Garrison / The Tennessean 

Bringing the outdated Metro-owned fairgrounds in Nashville and its racetrack up to the level of comparable facilities by redeveloping the 117-acre site would cost at least $150 million, consultants told Metro officials and fairgoers Wednesday night.

The finding - not necessarily a recommendation - came from the Minnesota-based planning firm Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, working with two other consultants, as part of the first phase of a new Fairgrounds Master Plan. When complete, the plan will put forth a roadmap for the politically-charged site.

An upcoming second phase is set to explore potential mixed-use development that would transform the fairgrounds. But for now, consultants have first drafted a "fair and event analysis" that examined racing, flea market, state fair and other existing fairgrounds events and how they could be enhanced.

"Average-wise, I would say that's about right to get us up to today's industry standards," Buck Dozier, director of the state fairgrounds, said of the $150 million forecast, before pointing to other options.

Updating the fairgrounds while ridding it of its speedway would cost $143 million, according to the report, which consultants unveiled to a crowd of about 100 Wednesday. The study also looked at making no changes to the fairgrounds, making only modest repairs or moving the state fairgrounds and racetrack to an unidentified "greenfield," a move that would carry an estimated price tag of $333 million.

The Metro Council would have to approve the master plan.

Consultants found that Metro's state fairgrounds is lacking - in area, building size and even attendance - compared to those in other states. Nashville ranks near the very bottom in total exhibit space. Tennessee's state fair beats only the state fairs of Vermont and Wyoming in attendance.

Unlike similar fairgrounds, Nashville's facility at Wedgewood Avenue and Nolensville Pike features no horse and livestock stalls, very few RV hookups and only one indoor arena.

If the fairgrounds were redeveloped to continue the same functions, only the property's creative arts building would be worth keeping, according to David Greusel, an architect at Convergence Design, also tasked with the master plan. New fairgrounds buildings would avoid the nearby Browns Creek, which is prone to flooding.

No speedway

Best practices would not include incorporating a paved motor sports track with the fairgrounds, the report reads, a finding that upsets speedway supporters.

"The fact is, every fairgrounds is unique," said Metro Councilman Duane Dominy, who has sponsored legislation that would gauge interest from the private sector to operate the fairgrounds. "This is part of the history and heritage of this community."

A group of state tourism and agriculture leaders called the Tennessee State Fair Association operated the state fair this past September through a contract with the Metro fair board. The same organization is looking to run the fair again in 2013, but the agreement would have to come from a new state commission created by a law passed this spring.

"The fairgrounds has not been updated in many years and no outside money has come into it," said John Rose, the association's chair, who nonetheless wants to hold the annual state fair in Nashville next year. "For us to have a successful fair there and other events in the long run, investments have to be made."

The creation of a fairgrounds master plan to dictate the best uses of the site originated with the Metro Council as a deal-breaker, of sorts, when it defeated Mayor Karl Dean's plans to redevelop the site in early 2011. Dean had hoped to turn the property into a corporate campus.

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