Nov 21, 2023 - News

Scoop: A new racetrack redevelopment plan

A rendering of the proposed fairgrounds redevelopment proposal. Image: Courtesy of Fairgrounds Preservation Partners

A group of neighbors, music industry professionals and artists is pitching a new redevelopment vision for the fairgrounds in hopes of leapfrogging the long-discussed NASCAR racetrack plan, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The future of the city-owned racetrack has been a political knife fight spanning five mayors. The debate pits racing enthusiasts who revere the track's history against neighbors and critics worried about noise and city spending on an entertainment venue.

Driving the news: The new proposal is the first in recent memory not to include NASCAR. The plan, which the group has begun pitching to city officials, calls for housing and rehearsal space for artists, a park and a small track for electric car racing.

  • "The group that came together is concerned about the squeezing out of the creative middle class and the fact there are fewer places for working-class people to hone their craft," Mike Kopp, a political consultant and music industry veteran who co-founded the nonprofit group pushing the new concept, tells Axios.

Reality check: Getting the plan approved would be a mammoth undertaking requiring buy-in from the mayor, Metro Council and fair board.

  • Former Mayor John Cooper's racetrack improvement plan stalled in August, leaving new Mayor Freddie O'Connell to navigate a political issue that just won't go away.

Background: The founders of the new nonprofit, Fairground Preservation Partners, began meeting late this summer to put together a three-part redevelopment plan that they say honors the site's history and makes the area more desirable.

  • Those founders include singer-songwriter Ruby Amanfu, artist Carrie Tillis, attorney and former fair board member Kenny Byrd and music licensing executive Josh Collum.
  • The group declined to disclose its donors, but Kopp told Axios that Nashville SC and its lead owner John Ingram are not a part of their group. (The soccer club's stadium is next door, and Ingram opposed the NASCAR plan.)
  • The nonprofit is being advised by attorney Saul Solomon, formerly Metro's director of law, former school board member Will Pinkston and Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association.
The 1981 Busch Nashville 420 NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National Series at the Nashville International Raceway on the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. Photo: David Allio/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Zoom in: The plan calls for most of the racetrack's 23 acres to become a park connected to Browns Creek, in addition to housing, rehearsal space and the electric racetrack. Kopp points out the property was originally park space upon its opening in 1891, not a racetrack or fairgrounds.

  • The focus on artists pays homage to the property's music history as the one-time site of FanFair, now called CMA Fest.
  • And while electric racing would honor the property's racetrack history, Kopp says, it would not bring the noise or crowds of NASCAR.

Amanfu touted the plan's creative campus because, she said, Nashville musicians are running out of places to rehearse, venues to perform in and affordable places to live.

  • A recent survey by a music industry networking group that Collum co-founded concluded musicians and executives are also increasingly considering leaving town because of the high cost of living.
  • Amanfu says she believes the concept aligns with how O'Connell campaigned. One of his slogans was: "I want you to stay."
  • "When he said that, I believed him and I wanted to see that come to fruition. This idea gets at what he was talking about."

Of note: In a press briefing earlier this month prior to the new concept's public release, O'Connell said he came into office "expecting that there would be a long-term future of a speedway in some form."

  • He added the city is not in "an active state of negotiation" on the property.

State of play: In a poll the Fairground Preservation Partners commissioned, 67% of the 600 Nashville respondents preferred the new mixed-use development to a NASCAR track, which 21% supported.

  • The redevelopment concept also has the backing of Shay Sapp, a board member of the influential nearby neighborhood group South Nashville Action People (SNAP) that had opposed the NASCAR proposal.

But, but, but: While the group has already met with O'Connell aide Bob Mendes to share its vision, the mayor's early focus in his tenure has been on the East Bank redevelopment, not the racetrack.

Flashback: The last time the city formally considered demolishing the racetrack in 2011, it resulted in a referendum in which voters overwhelmingly supported keeping it and other fairground activities as is.

What we're watching: Kopp says the group hopes the city falls in love with their concept.

  • But ultimately, he said, they want to jumpstart a conversation about uses besides a NASCAR racetrack.
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