Tensions were high at a community meeting on Tuesday night over a deal to refurbish the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.
The GOAL Post Club at Geodis Park was at its max capacity of 540 people, with a flood of red “Save My Fairgrounds” T-shirts and white “Citizens Against Racetrack Expansion for Nashville” T-shirts trailing out the door. Inside, more than 200 folding chairs were filled, with hundreds more people standing in the back hoping to speak out over the next two-and-a-half hours. Nashvillians from all over the city and from neighboring townships, as well as a who’s who of organizers, councilmembers and mayor’s office staffers patiently stood by
The red shirts slightly took the majority, in part due to a rally that took place right at the speedway immediately before the meeting.
Bristol Motorsports CEO Jerry Caldwell, founder of Save My Fairgrounds and Calvert Street Group managing director Darden Copeland, District 10 Councilmember Zach Young and NASCAR luminaries Kurt Busch and Freddie Kraft took turns rallying an excited and rowdy crowd. People were told to wear red, and many of them wore red memorabilia they had purchased from the very speedway they stood in the middle of. In the back, red “Save My Fairgrounds” t-shirts were being handed out. Mayoral candidates Alice Rolli and Stephanie Johnson were in attendance.
“In 2011 71 percent of voters voted to memorialize and always have in the charter racing at the Fairgrounds,” Rolli told the Banner, a message she would repeat later that night at the meeting. “While it may be an inconvenient truth for some developers, their voices still matter to me, and the Bristol Motor Speedway project appears to deliver on reducing sound, improving safety, and reducing financial obligations for the city and for these reasons I support it.”
Meanwhile, on stage, Copeland prepared supporters for the ugly night ahead.
At one point during his speech, Copeland began to list all of the things and people he was mad at to encouraging cheers from the crowd: Nashville SC billionaire owner John Ingram, At-Large Councilmember Bob Mendes and District 17 Councilmember Colby Sledge to name a few. Ingram and Mendes have both voiced opposition to the deal, and Sledge drew the ire of Speedway supporters for his decision to schedule the required community meeting on July 25. There are only two Metro Council meetings left before the end of the term and the legislation needs three readings, so a special session will be required for the deal to pass.
Copeland also expressed anger that “they” want to tear down the speedway, which would not happen even if the deal fails. Of course that didn’t stop supporters in the crowd from latching onto it, and dozens of them repeated his sentiments during passionate, emotional speeches at the community meeting.
Copeland was a part of the effort in 2011 to require a two-thirds vote by the Metro Council for any demolition to take place on the Fairgrounds Nashville property, which was done in response to attempts to demolish the speedway fully. That statute is now part of what stands in the way of getting the deal done this term. Despite a preemption attempt from the state legislature, three of four lawsuits connected to the speedway deal have challenged the legitimacy of the statute. That being said, a fourth lawsuit by racecar driver Howard Tucker could potentially render the other three moot, and on Tuesday a motion to intervene was granted in chancery court.
“When you go in tonight and you hear some of the public comment from the other side, that’s gonna get your blood boiling,” Copeland told the crowd. “They want us to mess up. They want us to react. And we can’t. We can’t let them get to us.”
Tempers indeed were running hot.
While Sledge attempted to keep things civil, frustrated exclamations and retorts lightly murmured through the crowd — some more aggressive than others — for most of the evening. People were given two minutes each to make their case over about two-and-a-half hours.
“This is the opportunity for the Fairgrounds to become major league racing facility,” said Big Machine Records Founder and CEO Scott Borchetta from the supporters line. “There’s nobody else in line, there’s nobody else who has the money or the commitment or the know-how to get this done.”
Though the lines were lengthy for both sides, it wasn’t long before the speeches began to feel very familiar.
Supporters of the deal shared stories of memories from the speedway, pointed to the soccer stadium they stood in and its owner as a sign of hypocrisy and argued the deal would remove a burden from taxpayers. Speakers against the deal responded with concerns over the noise the speedway would produce, the introduction of more traffic to the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood and the Metro General Fund backstop that would be used to pay back bonds for the deal should the revenue produced by the track fail to meet the payments.
“I think it is a farce to suggest that we have any pressure to approve this deal right now,” said Brian Nock, the president of the Chestnut Hill Neighborhood Association. “I think it’s interesting that we’re in a facility of MLS, who did an incredible job and practically wrote the case study on how to build a groundswell of support.”
While some of the Speedway opponents also expressed distaste for Geodis Park, many of them pointed to the MLS stadium as an example of a good deal. That deal in 2018 featured a massive community benefits agreement negotiated by Stand Up Nashville, an advocacy group started by Odessa Kelly, who was in attendance but did not speak at the meeting.
One less-obvious point was made on Tuesday night by Joy Andal, a disability advocate who serves on the Vision Zero board and played a big role in making the Fairgrounds accessible a few years back. She spoke in support of the deal, with the reasoning that the Fairgrounds is one of the most accessible places in Nashville outside of the Speedway, which she said without a major overhaul, remains inaccessible for those with disabilities.
It’s unclear whether or not the deal actually has a path to passing this term. Not only would a special meeting need to be called, last week the Chair of the Metro Sports Authority, the body required to approve the bonds for a deal to refurbish Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, signaled that the bonds were unlikely to be approved before the end of the Metro Council’s term.