Nov 10, 2022 - Politics

Cooper pushes racetrack renovation

Photo illustration of Nashville Mayor John Cooper with lines radiating from him.

Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: Leah Puttkammer/Getty Images

Just as Mayor John Cooper settles in for a political rock fight over a proposed $2.1 billion stadium for the Titans, his administration is speeding ahead with plans to renovate the historic fairgrounds racetrack.

Why it matters: Cooper is pitching a partnership with Bristol Motor Speedway and the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. to transform the 118-year-old track into a multipurpose entertainment complex that will bring NASCAR back to Music City.

Yes, but: Stakeholders are surprised by the timing. Cooper, who promised on the campaign trail in 2019 that he'd be a "neighborhoods first" mayor, is now on a dual track of seeking council backing for two pro sports venues.

  • Cooper's administration has touted its capital spending plans, which included millions of dollars in neighborhood investments.

Details: Cooper and Bristol Motor Speedway agreed to the racetrack deal in principle about a year ago.

  • The state and the CVC are each committing $17 million to the project, according to the Cooper administration's presentation Tuesday evening to the fair board.
  • The plan also relies on over $1 million in annual rent payments by Bristol Motor Speedway, ticket taxes and sales tax collected within the facility. Bristol would share sponsorship and event revenue with the city. The CVC would also pay $650,000 annually in rent payments.
  • The most recent capital improvement budget earmarked $100 million in revenue bonds for the project, but the project is likely to cost less than that.

Zoom in: The concept of renovating the racetrack has been discussed for over a decade. NASCAR last raced at the venue — which is beloved by motorsports enthusiasts, including famous drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. — in 2000.

  • To assuage neighbors' concerns about noise, Bristol is promising a noise mitigation system and to hold no more than 10 races annually. Bristol will rent the track out for test drives, which are noisy, no more than 20 days per year.

Ironically, a charter amendment measure designed to save the racetrack will now make it more difficult for Cooper to get the plan approved by the Metro Council.

  • A 2011 referendum, approved with 71% support, preserved the track and required at least 27 Metro Council votes to demolish it or make major changes.
  • It may be a tough sell for Cooper to procure 27 votes in support, especially since Metro Councilmember Colby Sledge, who represents the area, is among the project's chief skeptics.
  • In addition to the council, the fair board and the Metro Sports Authority must approve the plan.

The racetrack is a crown jewel among NASCAR fans. Generations of star drivers got their start at the fairgrounds. There's been some form of racing there since 1891 when it was home to harness horse racing.

  • It became a dirt track for auto racing in 1904 and then was paved in 1958.

What they're saying: "Recognizing our obligation to maintain the track, we are leveraging investments from the state, the tourism industry, and facility users to make this a financial success for the city," Cooper said in a quote included in Tuesday's presentation.

The other side: Cooper's political rival Metro Councilmember Freddie O'Connell, who is running for mayor, criticized the plan as a departure from city priorities like cost of living, housing, transit and safety.

  • "The mayor's priorities are huge public investments in stadiums and race tracks ..." O'Connell said on Twitter.

Read the Cooper administration's presentation to the fair board

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