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Legislation currently making its way through the Tennessee General Assembly aims to smooth the path for a divisive overhaul to the racetrack facilities at The Fairgrounds Nashville.
Amid pushback from some Metro councilmembers, narrow approval from the Fair Commissioners Board and opposition from some Nashville residents, Mayor John Cooper’s office has been angling to get a racetrack deal done and bring NASCAR to the fairgrounds. An amended caption bill from Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) would allow remodeling of the old racetrack to happen with a simple majority of 21 Metro Council votes rather than the 27 currently required for any demolition at the fairgrounds.
“It’s a reminder that powerful people in the city and state are lobbyists,” says Councilmember At-Large Bob Mendes. “Over the last several years, we’ve seen over and over again that if some business interest doesn’t like the answer under existing law or existing council, just run and tattle on us to the state and you get a different answer.”
The supermajority requirement of 27 votes was originally set in 2011 through a referendum that Nashville voters overwhelmingly voted to pass. This very threshold could now be what stops an extensive overhaul from taking place.
“It’s irony upon irony here,” says Mendes. “It was racetrack advocates who got the referendum on the ballot and passed in 2011 to make the two-thirds threshold, and now apparently it’s Bristol Motor Speedway going to the state to get that threshold knocked down to where it was before the 2011 referendum, which is a simple majority.”
Metro is currently suing over the state’s legislation to slash the council in half, from 40 members to 20.
“I hope the mayor’s office hasn’t been involved in trying to get this done with the state,” says Mendes. “They’ll end up having plausible deniability, probably, if they were involved, because it’s the same frickin’ lobbyists that are working for the football team and the racetrack.”
Lobbyists from Holland & Knight (formerly Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis) are registered to lobby both for the Tennessee Titans and Bristol Motor Speedway at the state Capitol.
“We’re looking into the proposed amendment,” says TJ Ducklo, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office. “As is the case with other proposed legislation, we are against state interference with our charter.”
The bill passed through the Senate State and Local Government Committee with a 7-2 vote along party lines Tuesday, with Sens. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis) and Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) voting against it.
“I’m not a fan of when we do things here where we’re correcting the work of [the citizens],” said Yarbro during the committee meeting. “If this language was added to the charter by the citizens through that process, I don’t think this is the right way for us to address it.”
But Lundberg argued that the charter amendment from 2011 was over the demolition of the entire racetrack for a different project, while this is simply for a partial demolition for improvements.
“When they are taking out parts to do bleachers, I think that’s a completely different thing,” said Lundberg. “And that’s I think what the voters want, and that’s I think what the commission wanted.”
The legislation now heads to the Senate floor. After passing in the House Cities and Counties Subcommittee on Wednesday with little fanfare, it will be heard in the House Local Government Committee next.
“The most disappointing thing is there’s a very small number of Nashville residents, professionals that are lobbying on the Hill, to meddle with Metro local government,” says Mendes. “And it’s sad to see that there’s apparently a pretty small number of Nashville residents that are participating, egging the state on in its repetitive attack on Nashville.”