Dec 1, 2021 - News

Mayor Cooper announces fairgrounds racetrack deal

An aerial rendering of proposed renovations to the Nashville fairgrounds racetrack.
A rendering of proposed renovations to the Nashville fairgrounds racetrack. Image courtesy of the mayor's office.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced an agreement with Bristol Motor Speedway on Tuesday, setting the stage for fairgrounds racetrack renovations and the return of NASCAR.

Why it matters: The agreement follows years of negotiations and behind-the-scenes work by Cooper to integrate a renovated racetrack into the fairgrounds property while putting the financial burden on Bristol Motor Speedway.

What they're saying: The announcement came with the endorsement of legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who said in a press release he fell in love with the short-track after driving his first lap at the fairgrounds decades ago.

  • "Nashville Fairgrounds is a historic and iconic venue, and Bristol Motor Speedway is the very best partner to continue that storied history," Earnhardt said. "I'm looking forward to witnessing the next chapter in the life of this historic landmark."

Details: The renovation will be paid for with revenues generated at the facility, including ticket fees, sales tax collections, and lease payments by Bristol Motor Speedway.

  • A Cooper spokesperson tells Axios the plan is to amend the capital improvement budget to allow for a $75 million revenue bond issuance, which will be repaid using those revenue streams.
  • Cooper will reveal more details of the financial plan after it is vetted by an independent sports finance consultant, according to the press release.

Yes, but: The same referendum that preserved the fairgrounds racetrack a decade ago will now make it more difficult to pass a renovation plan through the Metro Council.

  • The 2011 charter amendment referendum, widely approved by voters, requires 27 council votes to approve plans to demolish the racetrack. The high bar was put in place to make it harder for mayors to raze the facility.

Between the lines: Cooper will need to convince an unwieldy Metro Council the project should be approved and garnering votes will be no easy task.

  • Metro Councilmember Colby Sledge, who represents the fairgrounds area, arrived on the Nashville political scene as a neighborhood activist who supported then-Mayor Karl Dean's plan a decade ago to demolish the racetrack.
  • Neighbors have concerns about noise — though Bristol has vowed to hold fewer racetrack events and build a new sound wall.
  • Metro Councilmember Bob Mendes tells Axios he is especially interested in the traffic and parking plan to accommodate 30,000 people.

How it works: The Fair Board, which also must approve the plan, is in a state of flux. Fair Board commissioner Jason Bergeron tells Axios in an email, "There are still many steps and a lot of work ahead, including much more public engagement."

  • Cooper missed several deadlines to nominate people to city boards and commissions, including the Fair Board. That meant the nominations fell to Vice Mayor Jim Shulman.
  • Two nominees have been rejected by the Metro Council after some members pushed for a Hispanic nominee. Complicating the issue, chairperson Erin McAnally recently resigned her seat on the board, creating two vacancies.
  • In the announcement, Cooper said he will wait until those vacancies are filled before advancing his plan for approval.
A rendering of proposed renovated entrance to the Nashville fairgrounds.
A rendering of proposed renovations to the Nashville fairgrounds. Image courtesy of the mayor's office.
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