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VOL. 35 | NO. 31 | Friday, August 5, 2011

Voters make it tougher to develop TN fairgrounds

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Voters by a healthy margin on Thursday made it tougher for Nashville officials to make changes to the century-old Tennessee State Fairgrounds.

All 164 precincts reported unofficial results. Some 22,000 voted in favor of ratifying an amendment that would increase the number of Metro Council votes needed to make changes to the 106-year-old exhibition grounds. About 8,300 voted against it. Early voting results were similar.

Also, Mayor Karl Dean won a second term. He had 24,600 votes to his next closest opponent who had about 3,600. Dean had no notable opposition.

Developing the fairgrounds into more than a place for the state fair, race track and flea market was a favorite issue for Dean. But he ran into unexpectedly strong opposition from auto racing fans and others who don't like his ideas to move the state fair and tear down the racetrack where drivers like Darrell Waltrip and Sterling Marlin got their start.

Still, he was happy for a second term.

"Let's get back to work," Dean said in his victory speech. "I can't wait for tomorrow."

The referendum on the fairgrounds caps a lengthy political debate over whether urban voters have enough nostalgia to preserve it from proposed redevelopment.

"I want to keep it," retired teacher Lois Ervin, 86, said of the fairgrounds after voting on Thursday.

"When our children were little, we took them to the fairgrounds. And when I taught school, I carried my class to the fair," she said. "It's a part of Nashville's history, I think. And I don't think we need any more condos."

Her opinion seemed to carry the day in the voting booths.

Some candidates for Metro Council have made the fairgrounds a major talking point in ads running up to the election.

After voting on Thursday, Dale Gray, 66, expressed mixed feelings about the redevelopment plan.

"I'm against amending the Metro charter to deal with this one issue," said the retired social worker who used to live near the fairgrounds. "I think the people in the neighborhood should have a say. But there's also the consideration of how often the space is used."

The 117-acre site sits vacant most of the week. Dean had wanted to turn it into a mixed-use development anchored by a corporate tenant and a public park, while relocating the state fair and flea market.

Victor McGavock, 51, said he voted on Thursday for keeping the fairgrounds as is. He lives nearby and works at the racetrack selling sports items.

"Who's going to complain about the noise from the racetrack?" he asked. "It's been here since before anyone ever lived here. You'd have to have been here 100 years."

Legislation approved by the Nashville Metro Council earlier this year requires that the fair be held at the fairgrounds this year and in 2012 and the State Fair Board signed a lease agreement with Fairgrounds Speedway USA, owned by former NASCAR drivers Bobby Hamilton Jr. and Chad Chaffin, to operate the Fairgrounds Speedway for 2011 and 2012. But there's no guarantee the events will continue as the council ordered the development of a master plan for the city-owned property.

Colby Sledge, a member of Neighbors for Progress, a group of south Nashville residents who have complained about the noise and pollution from the racetrack, said the next steps are to get more input on what residents want at the facility and try to reach an agreement that everyone can be happy with.

"We'll try to see if we can come to a consensus that's been elusive in this whole process," Sledge said.

The amendment would increase the number of votes required to make changes from 21 to 27, but Sledge says that's not an insurmountable barrier.

"We are convinced if you get a good plan, you can get that level of support," he said.

Councilman Jaime Hollin, who is not running for re-election, is a leader in the Save My Fairgrounds group that has opposed Dean's plan.

He said supporters of the fairgrounds have been characterized as outsiders trying to influence the city's development, but he thinks the outpouring of supporters at council meetings this year has shown local elected officials there are plenty of residents who want the facility preserved.

"I think it's symbolic of the widely held belief that no one in government is listening to the people it serves," Hollin said.