A Conversation with the Other Side

While you may find yourself in disagreement with Rick Williams, Chair of the Save Our Fairgrounds organization, it’s very difficult to doubt his earnestness about the Fairgrounds and equally difficult to keep up with his pace as he talks about it.

In general, I feel I have a pretty good sense of the pulse of those who support MLS soccer and who were supportive of the deal to build the stadium at the Fairgrounds. Knowing that the city needed to have a soccer specific stadium deal in place and buying the logic behind the need for the commercial development, we in general were supportive of the overall idea (although there were a few folks who expressed qualms about the commercial property).

However, each time the “Save Our Fairgrounds” crew makes a new statement or another lawsuit is filed, we all seem a little baffled, with some going into full panic mode and others wondering why the SOF folks don’t just give up, seeing what a lost cause it is.

So, when I approached Rick Williams to talk again (we had a pod interview with him quite awhile back), I did so to try to get a sense of how the world lines up for those who are still opposing the fairgrounds, especially in the wake of the recent election of incoming Mayor John Cooper. As I expected, Williams has a lot to say about the current state of affairs.

Williams makes it clear that he is neither anti-soccer in general nor anti-NSC in particular. Indeed, if he thought the stadium could work successfully at the fairgrounds and still allow the State Fair, the Speedway and the Flea Market to be successful, he claims that he would be in favor of the stadium being built there. It’s more that he holds those three events sacred. Not because he necessary loves all three but because, in his telling of the story, the land was donated to the city precisely so that a fair could be held on the grounds. While the Speedway and the Flea market came later, all three became an organic whole that are protected by law. More, they are not just an organic whole, but the speedway and the flea market function to make the Fair thrive.

The latest renderings of the Fairgrounds Stadium | Photo courtesy Nashville SC

So, for Williams, there would be no problem with adding a soccer stadium to the fairgrounds as long as it worked in tandem with the success of that original triad. And Williams says that he indeed was at first in favor of it. While it might have been tight, he thinks it could have worked and brought in more revenue to help boost the state fair. It was (and is) the additional acreage for commercial development that Williams sees as the problem. And while he has a philosophical issue with leasing that land for 99 years for commercial development, it is not that philosophy alone that puts him in opposition still to the stadium deal. It’s also that he thinks it will be impossible to have the three original events, plus a soccer stadium, plus commercial development and have enough parking for the flea market or speedway to work profitably (he also thinks this will be a problem for soccer). In short, he’s not against soccer, not against the stadium; he’s against the fact that the full project will, in his mind, undermine the chartered purposes of the land.

So, where are we now, according to Williams?

(1) The lawsuit prompted by Save Our Fairgrounds and others. Williams notes that this lawsuit is basically arguing that the stadium deal violated that Charter by leasing 10 acres for 99 years for commercial development to the degree that this basically guarantees the failure of at least one of the three chartered “events.” While this lawsuit may seem to be in its last gasps, Williams still thinks the logic is sound.

(2) What does John Cooper’s election as Mayor mean? While John Cooper was against the stadium deal as an at-large council member, he has gone on record saying that the soccer deal is settled law and that we have to do our best to make it work at the Fairgrounds while protecting the fairgrounds. Williams is clearly cognizant of Cooper’s statements and says he has no reason to believe Cooper has changed his mind as a result of being elected Mayor. That said, Williams notes that Cooper made this statements prior to the filing of a new lawsuit that claimed that several of those who voted in favor of the stadium (and other processes toward getting construction started) have conflict of issue problems in that they would directly benefit from the stadium being built. Williams is hopeful that, given this, Cooper will now change his mind and step into the process.

(3) What about the cost of that stadium? Williams claims that, because the Ingram group has to cover any overage in the stadium being built, Ingram promised the Mercedes Benz of stadiums but is now presenting plans for a Chervolet Caprice. While I enjoyed the metaphor, I did point out that the stadium design is now running far over the original estimate and that the team was covering the cost (to wit: I did not understand this argument).

(4) What’s going to happen? Williams ultimately feels uncertain whether or not the stadium will be built, but he feels confident that the commercial acreage won’t be developed. While I pointed out to him that the deal only works with that development, he again argues that the new lawsuits will encourage the city to move the stadium to Metrocenter, where it would be easy to establish parking and additional acreage for commercial development. He even envisions a widened Rosa Parks Boulevard to carry the extra traffic.

(5) Aren’t those new flea market facilities nice? Williams observed that they Flea Market will move into the new buildings the next time it is held with the old buildings being slated for demolition. Despite how nice the buildings are (or, rather, because of how nice the buildings are), Williams isn’t sure the flea market will thrive in the new space. In his eyes, people go to the “rustic environment” of the flea market because such an environment adds to the feeling that you are going to get a good deal on products. The new buildings are going to feel like “going to a flea market at Nordstrom’s. You are never going to feel like you’re getting a good deal there.” (Side note: there is a certain logic to this that makes some aesthetic sense).

Ultimately, while I disagree with Williams on what I see as the outcome of all this legal maneuvering, and while I trust those who concluded that the new development would not preclude these existing uses of the fairgrounds, I do get the sense that he’s not being obstructionist just for the sake of obstruction. Williams genuinely thinks soccer will work in Nashville. He is never going to come around to the deal that was made, but he’s given it some thought.


This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily the views of Speedway Soccer as a whole.

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