A rendering of the proposed new Fairgrounds Speedway.

The ongoing feud over a deal to overhaul the Fairgrounds Speedway escalated this week with a back-and-forth between the mayor’s office and an anti-racetrack group. 

Mayor John Cooper’s race to get the racetrack deal done this term has been tumultuous. Earlier this month, chaos ensued when it was announced District 17 Metro Councilmember Colby Sledge would be holding the community meeting required for the legislation to proceed on July 25, leaving only two meetings until the end of the term. The racetrack deal requires three Metro Council meetings to pass, so it would effectively be pushed to next term, a prospect that constituents and councilmembers critical of the racetrack deal support. 

An attempt by Councilmember Zach Young, who has loudly supported the racetrack deal, to circumvent Sledge was met with distaste from most of the chamber. But despite these setbacks, the mayor’s office has plunged ahead, with high hopes that there’s still a narrow avenue for the deal to pass this term. 

On Wednesday, at a meeting of the Sports Authority, another body that must approve the racetrack deal, fuel was added to the fire during a presentation by Ben Eagles, senior adviser to the mayor, and Metro’s Deputy Legal Director Tom Cross. 

During the presentation, Eagles directly addressed some of the loudest anti-racetrack voices, calling them out for spreading misinformation about the deal, and even referenced mayoral candidate Jim Gingrich’s most recent ad. In the ad, Gingrich said that the money being used for the racetrack deal should be used somewhere else, such as on schools or affordable housing, a claim that has also been made by anti-racetrack groups. With the racetrack funds coming from bonds, Eagles said this is a false claim. 

“​​Absolutely none of the dollars in this project are available for Metro to use on schools or infrastructure,” Eagles said. “We would never propose a deal that suggested rerouting money from teacher pay, neighborhood infrastructure, affordable housing, public safety or other important priorities to a sports deal.”

Eagles examined two different mailers during his presentation, going through each one and dispelling pieces of supposed misinformation that have been commonly circulated by those opposed to the racetrack. He directly responded to criticism of the deal by Nashville SC owner John Ingram, who expressed concerns over having side-by-side concert facilities on the fairgrounds.

“It seems inconceivable that two or three concerts per year represents ‘a recipe for disaster that could threaten the economic integrity’ of Geodis Park. Of course if that were actually the case, I would have expected to hear opposition to other venues being proposed and built at various capacities and configurations,” Eagles said.

(Eagles full remarks are here. The full video of the Sports Authority meeting can be found here.) 

But following his presentation, Cross presented the Sports Authority with new information that Citizens Against Racetrack Expansion (CARE) latched onto in a press release the following day.

During the presentation, Cross said that construction costs of the racetrack renovations will not be known until November and that if those costs are more than the number pledged by the state, Convention and Visitors Corp. and Metro, then Speedway Motorsports/Bristol Motor Speedway can stick with the deal or walk away. 

“If it is more than the bond amount, Cross said BMS will ‘…have to make a decision’ … to participate or walk away,” reads CARE’s press release. “Delay this project so a new council and a new mayor can get the hard numbers and make an informed decision about using taxpayer money to bring NASCAR into a Nashville Neighborhood. There is no urgency and reason for the current deadline.”.

The bonds pledged for the deal would not actually be pulled until after construction costs are confirmed and BMS has made their decision to stick with the deal or walk away. A Cooper administration spokesperson said there would effectively be little to no cost associated with Metro making the deal this term should BMS ultimately walk away. 

That being said, the path to finalizing the deal remains tough. Proponents of the racetrack went back to the legislature in the spring to change the threshold for demolition of the existing speedway grandstand from 27 votes to 21 votes. A charter referendum in 2011 requires two-thirds of the Metro Council to approve demolition on the Fairgrounds Nashville site.

Metro’s Department of Law filed suit over the state law, arguing that the bill, which effectively singled out Nashville, was a violation of home rule. There are three suits total, including one filed on Thursday seeking declaratory judgment in Chancery Court on the threshold question needed to tear down the old grandstand and build a new one.

“Such proposal by the Speedway agreement does not fall within the definition of ‘demolition’ contemplated by Section 11.602(d) of the Metro Charter. Therefore, the supermajority requirement of Section 11.602(d) does not apply to the Speedway agreement. Rather, only a simple majority vote from the Metro Council is required to approve the Speedway agreement,” reads a complaint filed by Howard Tucker, a racer at the Fairgrounds Speedway who is sponsored by Santa’s Pub. Tucker’s attorney is Jamie Hollin, a former Metro councilmember who helped lead the coalition that stopped Karl Dean’s administration from demolishing the site and redeveloping it. That effort established the 27-vote threshold that he now seeks to have clarified. 

The suit by Tucker would effectively make the Metro Legal suit moot. (The full complaint is here.)

If a deal is going to be approved, Cooper’s administration has very little margin before he leaves office. 

In an interview with the Banner, Vice Mayor Jim Shulman said this deal could be delayed until after the elections and a new council is seated. But Cooper and his team would not be in office to push for it.

“It could be punted,” Shulman said. “And I’ve had the discussion with the mayor’s office and said, ‘you know, we’re down to the end of this term.’ It’s really hard, I think, to push major projects right at the end of the administration, particularly when there’s a new administration coming in. Because, you know, the council can vote on something, and then they leave it for the next administration to try to handle. I know that the mayor is very interested in this. And he and his staff has put a lot of time into it. But it could be passed to the next administration.”

Steve is a three-decade veteran of newspapers, working around the country at places like the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune before returning home to Nashville in 2011 to edit The City Paper and Nashville...