Politics heat up as state fair opens gates: Legislation sparks confusion, backlash
The Tennessee State Fair will kick off this week as questions surround legislation that handed control of the fair to the state for the first time in nearly 90 years.
The fair will be held Sept. 7-16 at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville and will feature several new events- including live music, a green-collar exhibit focusing on sustainable farming, an equestrian arena and an agricultural museum, said Katie Radel, the marketing specialist for the Tennessee State Fair Association, a not-for-profit group that is operating the fair.
“The quality of the fair is better than ever,” Radel said.
While the festivities ramp up, uncertainty about the future of the historic event is also on the rise.
The Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation authorizing a state commission to oversee the state fair.
It marks the first time the state of Tennessee could run the fair since 1923, according to a history published by the Friends of Metro Archives, a chapter of the Friends of the Public Library of Nashville and Davidson County.
What that means for the fair as it exists is unclear to many outside observers- although legislators have said the fair should stay in Nashville.
“I don’t know a whole lot about it because everyone is trying to figure out exactly what that legislation does,” said Buck Dozier, the executive director of the fairgrounds. “There is legislation that seems to say they appointed a board of people from across the state that tries to keep the Tennessee State Fair alive. They say they want to keep the fair in Nashville, but we’ll have to see if that’s true.”
The state commission effectively removed all authority from the Metropolitan Board of Fair Commissioners, which oversaw the fair for decades and most recently contracted the fair to private groups. The metropolitan board now oversees just the flea market, races and other events held at the fairgrounds, Dozier said.
But some have questions about who supported the legislation and for what reason.
Sen. Joe Haynes, a Democrat from Nashville, sponsored the bill to create the state commission. Haynes also sits on the board of the Tennessee State Fair Association, which is in its second year of operating the event.
Under the terms of the legislation, the new state commission would have the power to name an organization to operate the fair.
Duane Dominy, a metro councilman who emerged as one of the earliest voices for preserving the fairgrounds, said he supports state involvement in promoting the state fair, but also said the legislation and the commission it created raised some curious questions.
“The current makeup of this nine-member commission includes four current TSFA board members,” Dominy said. “This is not to suggest collusion, conflict-of-interest or conspiracy. It is simply stating fact.”
The legislation requires that the state agriculture and tourism commissioners, the president of the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, and the dean of the University of Tennessee Extension all must sit on the state commission. All four people currently are on both the commission and the Tennessee State Fair Association’s board of directors.
Dominy also raised questions about a provision granting the state the rights to the names “Tennessee State Fair” and “Tennessee State Exposition.”
“The minor catch is that the term and its associated logo are copyrighted and trademarked property of the Metropolitan Board of Fair Commissioners,” Dominy said. “The copyright was granted by the Tennessee Department of State, Secretary of State Tre Hargett. “This taking of intellectual property was done without consultation or compensation of the owner. I cannot speak to the reasons why these individuals and corporations are behind making these changes. That may only be determined by their own statements and actions.”
Haynes, who is retiring after his term expires in January, did not respond to an email or phone call seeking comment.
The latest round of controversy is not the first for the fair or fairgrounds.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean announced plans to close the fairgrounds and end the state fair itself in late 2009. Dean’s plan was to sell the land for a private development, but the idea fell through when the metro council opposed the action. Nashville voters stamped the denial last year with a vote to keep the fairgrounds in operation.
Dominy said the push to keep the grounds in operation came from large numbers of people who signed petitions, volunteered and campaigned on behalf of what was considered to be an economic and historic marker.
“The overwhelming response was to keep the property and its various events open,” Dominy said. “Some claimed sentimental and others financial reasons.”
Despite the vote to save the fairgrounds, ticket sales for the 2011 state fair were estimated down 10 to 20 percent, according to numbers reported by the Nashville City Paper. In March Dozier asked metro government for a $245,000 subsidy for the fairgrounds.
“Our reserves have been dwindling for years, so our estimate is our reserves will come to an end next year,” the City Paper reported Dozier telling a metro budget hearing. “The only way to keep it open is to do like other departments do– the Municipal Auditorium, the Farmers’ Market– and ask for something that we work hard to draw down to where hopefully we don’t have to have one. But right now, we do.”
Dozier’s request was not included in the final budget.
Dominy blames the financial struggles of the fairgrounds on political connections and mismanagement. He said as many as 250 events have been lost to the facility due to uncertainty surrounding the property.
Dominy also faulted the contract that was awarded to the Tennessee State Fair Association in 2011.
“For example, $400,000 was given up when the Metro Fair Board, under the previous chair, voided an agreement for a $250,000 contract for two years for the operation and promotion of the state fair in order to award the contract to the politically-connected Tennessee State Fair Association for a sum of $50,000 per year,” Dominy said. “This, coincidentally or not, is about the same amount the fairgrounds operation is short this year.”
Radel, the fair’s marketing specialist, acknowledged budget difficulties, but said the fair would not be held back because of them.
“Due to the footprint of the fair and some budget cuts, we have stretched our budget,” Radel said, “but have managed to keep our fair focused on agriculture, livestock, and education while providing the traditional fair experiences.”
The state fair may now be in the hands of the state of Tennessee, but the fairgrounds are still under the control of the Metropolitan government. The decision on the precise future of the grounds will come next year after a master plan is developed and sent to the metro council and Mayor Dean, Dozier said.
Until then, it is a waiting game.
“It’s kind of in flux right now,” Dozier said. “It’s going to be probably eight or 10 months before we kind of know exactly what’s going to happen.”