Saturday, September 19, 2009
Tennessee State Fair's future in air as Nashville bails out
Mayor says event no longer can make enough money at State Fairgrounds By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • September 19, 2009 After a century of running the Tennessee State Fair, the city of Nashville is calling it quits. Mayor Karl Dean said Thursday that the city will stop putting on the fair because the fairgrounds is the wrong place for it. Metro won't run the financially struggling event in 2010 and doesn't plan to build an expensive facility. "The fair has had a great run, but I think at this point the determination has been made that there will not be a Tennessee State Fair at that location next year," Dean said. "The Tennessee State Fair itself, that designation, might be somewhere else. But I don't see us having a fair backed by the city and Davidson County in the foreseeable future." The decision, which comes as Metro continues to look at redeveloping the fairgrounds, could silence a 103-year tradition of games, rides, livestock, corn dogs and canned goods. But the chairman of the fair's board said other organizations, whether public, private or nonprofit, could pick up the banner after this year's fair ends Sunday. "More than one entity has expressed an interest in taking a shot at it," said James Weaver, who declined to identify the parties. The fair regularly loses money, and its board has burned through most of its cash reserves to make up annual losses at the fairgrounds a few miles south of downtown. City officials said it doesn't make sense to keep subsidizing a failing enterprise until the reserves, now at about $1.3 million, are gone. The city also is looking at the future of the fairgrounds, which critics consider too small and hilly for the fair. A consultant said last fall that Metro would have to relocate the fair to make it a truly viable statewide event. But the city doesn't plan to spend the $30 million or more it would cost to acquire about 100 acres and develop a new fair site. "That's not something I'm interested in pursuing," Dean said. News of the move upset longtime fairgoers like Andy Haley, a concert roadie who lives near the fairgrounds. "As a citizen of that area, it's really disappointing to hear that they would move it," Haley said. "It seems like something to be really proud of. It really saddens me to think that they want to put shopping and condos there." Haley said he wouldn't hold his breath waiting for the fair to re-emerge in another form. "I don't trust that anybody's going to step up and start a new one," he said. Annie Ehrhart and Barbara DuVall, Nashville natives who were at the fair Thursday afternoon, fondly recalled getting a day off from school more than 50 years ago to attend the fair. "I'd hate to see them do away with it," said Ehrhart, 67. "It's just a tradition to me." First-day attendance upThe fair is a self-sustaining unit of Metro government, meaning it must make its revenues match its expenses or else cover the difference from reserves. That arrangement has put a strain on the fair in recent years, when the event's reputation for being unsafe and unclean hurt attendance and revenues. Even in 2008, when attendance increased 9 percent under new management, revenues declined as $4-a-gallon gas prices cut into spending on rides, officials said. The fair lost about $200,000 last year. But Buck Dozier, the fairgrounds' executive director for the past 18 months, said his staff's moves to "reinvent" the fair — cleaner, greener, safer and more family-friendly — have been working. Dozier said this year's fair would have broken every record for attendance and revenues if rain hadn't overtaken the past few days. Management responded to the weather Wednesday by moving most activities indoors and lowering ticket prices through Friday. Attendance was up 34 percent from 2008 on Sept. 11, the first day of the event, and the crowd included many more families than in previous years, Dozier said. "We know this: The people of Nashville will come back to the fair when we have a good product," he said. "We've proven that. … People who wrote off the Tennessee State Fair need to come back and see something totally different." Weaver said Dozier's team has put on "the best fair I think we've had in anybody's memory." While the annual 10-day fair gets most of the attention, the fairgrounds also has more exhibit space than any other place in Nashville except Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. Dozier said he would propose this fall that the fair board change the name of the site to "The Nashville Exposition Center, home of the Tennessee State Fair." Dozier called the fair's future "the million-dollar question." "If it's not coming back here, where, and how long will it take to do that?" he said. No plans for groundsWeaver said the fairgrounds is simply too small for the fair. The fair board decided last fall to hold one more fair and one more season at the racetrack on site, then turn the issue over to Dean. "We've been playing a football game on a basketball court," Weaver said. Dean said there are no specific plans yet for redeveloping the fairgrounds. The mayor said the flea market and Christmas Village will stay "as long as we're working through what will happen next." Audrey Moss of Tulsa, Okla., who puts on the "Tropical Illusions" traveling magic show, said she hopes the fair will continue somewhere. It's smaller than similar events in some other places but has just as much to offer, said Moss, whose mother grew up in Gallatin. "They need to keep a fairgrounds going," she said Thursday. "Because you lose a lot of history when you get rid of things like this."
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