Crucial Week Ahead For Nashville Soccer Stadium

By Davey Shepherd (@daveytshep) and Ben Wright (@benwright).

NASHVILLE, TN - The dispute to build a soccer specific stadium at the Nashville Fairgrounds took a heated turn on Thursday, with Nashville Soccer Club and the Office of Mayor John Cooper trading opposing statements. The next week will prove to be a pivotal one in the ongoing saga to begin construction on the new home for Nashville SC. Following a meeting in New York City earlier today, Nashville SC and Major League soccer jointly issued the following statement:

“Driven by the excitement of fans around Nashville SC’s opening game and the city’s bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, we couldn’t be more excited about soccer’s potential in Nashville.
Earlier today, we met with Mayor John Cooper at Major League Soccer’s office in New York City to discuss the status of Nashville SC’s stadium project. The new stadium and ancillary development have very broad support throughout Nashville and has been overwhelmingly approved multiple times by Metro Council.
Despite that, Mayor Cooper has not provided approval to begin the demolition to move forward with the stadium project. So, for the past four months, Nashville SC has worked to make the stadium deal even better and has proposed a number of new solutions to satisfy his concerns.
Even with these proposed new solutions, the Mayor today refused to commit to move forward with the demolition and the approved stadium plan. During today’s meeting, MLS Commissioner Don Garber made it clear to Mayor Cooper that Major League Soccer would not have awarded Nashville an expansion team without the commitment made by the city to build a soccer stadium at the Fairgrounds. The Mayor’s continued refusal to proceed is a deep disappointment to Nashville SC and MLS.
Nashville SC has agreed to work with the Mayor’s office over the next week to advance the discussions and finalize a plan to begin the stadium construction project. We hope for a mutually agreeable solution and expect to have an update regarding the project by February 6.”

The Mayor’s office later responded with the following:

“Since entering office four months ago, I’ve worked towards a complete solution for the Fairgrounds that is both financially sustainable and results in a successful, unified site plan. This past week, I met with racing advocates as well as MLS. I appreciate MLS and it’s advocacy for professional soccer in Nashville. I also appreciate all parties are working together to improve the plan for the entire Fairground, both in design and financing. I will continue to chart a path forward that makes good financial sense for all of Nashville’s taxpayers.”

Councilmember-At-Large Bob Mendes responded to the day’s proceedings via twitter:

“ At the time of the election, there were several major projects in different stages of planning. I appreciate the Mayor installing new discipline into how Nashville handles development. That said, some of these deals need to get to the finish line. For the Office of the Mayor to have credibility in the future, there has to be some level of continuity between administrations. I think it’s time for this soccer renegotiation to be over. Fish or cut bait. Finish the new deal or tell us why it fell apart. I look forward to hearing more from the team and the administration soon.”
A rendering of the Fairgrounds Stadium | Photo courtesy Nashville SC

What lies at the heart of the issue appears to be the grounds on which the current delay is happening. The deal was been approved by an overwhelming majority of 31-6 (well above what is required for any normal issue) and has been under way for some time. The new buildings at the Fairgrounds have been occupied since mid-September when things apparently stalled. The joint statement from Nashville SC and MLS makes it quite clear there has been work going on behind the scenes since that time. Even according to the Mayor, it appears the club is working in good faith to help address issues that the Mayor has with the current plan.

That being said, this can’t be conflated with the issue in Miami, where there no plan has been approved by a legislative body. Metro Nashville has entered into a contract with Nashville Soccer Holdings, and was very willing to start the plan with constructing new buildings for the Fairgrounds that they still own. As councilmen Mendes mentions, businesses have to have faith in the Office of the Mayor to follow through with contractual obligations made by their predecessors.

On one level, this is an issue that has already had hundreds of millions of dollars spent on it. But looking at the bigger picture, what about companies like Amazon or Hankook? Can companies do business with metro Nashville and expect the Mayor to act in good faith? Either way, appears SOMETHING will happen in the next six days, and the results will now have to be made public. The original time frame mentioned to construct the stadium was 24 months. We are now 25 months away from the start of the 2022 season. If an agreement isn't reached, I’d expect MLS and NSC to start exploring other avenues of accountability for the deal.

UPDATE: Since this was published on Thursday, January 30, several more statements were released.

John Ingram released a response to Mayor Cooper's statement, clarifying several points:

"Mayor, I also wish to reiterate - we are out of time. As you learned in New York, our deadlines with Major League Soccer are very real. After four months of back and forth on this, it's time to get on with things. We have made a considerable offer to the city. We ask that you sign off on demolition and honor all the other commitments made by Metro. Mayor, let's shake hands on this and move on to making soccer a success in Nashville."

At Large Council Member Steve Glover, a long-time opponent of the Fairgrounds stadium, released a statement on Thursday night:

"I will stand firm that the people of Nashville voted in 2011 about the use of the historic piece of property at the fairgrounds. The people voted and the message was loud and clear. Some have tried to interpret the vote, I believe the vote spoke for itself and I have held to that conviction... I have stayed in the background to a degree on this matter, because the mayor is leading the discussions; as it should be. What some seem to be upset about is that we finally have a mayor that is looking out for all of us in Nashville... I will honor what I pledged in the campaign. I have been around this stuff for a while and don’t bend when I know I have the people of Nashville’s best interest at heart."

Fair Board Commissioner Caleb Hemmer weighed in, in an email to Mayor Cooper obtained by The Tennessean on Saturday.

"While I am hopeful for an expeditious resolution to all the issues surrounding the MLS Soccer stadium project that leads to a compromise between Metro and the team’s principles in the coming days, I respectfully request you consider immediately executing the demolition permit for the obsolete Fairgrounds Expo buildings."

Stand Up Nashville, the coalition of labor unions and community organizations who negotiated the historic Community Benefits Agreement with Nashville SC, also released a statement.

"Like most of Nashville, we have been in the dark about the status of this project. That has contributed to the kind of public confusion and distrust that our coalition was founded to confront... We know the community loses when deals are made in the dark. Metro’s approval of this project included the promise of affordable housing, good jobs, childcare, and cultural spaces in a transparent, public process. We expect the same today."

With increasing public pressure on all parties, and a deadline of February 6 set in the initial statement from Nashville SC and MLS, news will surely continue to break throughout the week, hopefully ending in resolution.

Speedway Soccer will continue to update the story as news breaks. Our Davey Shepherd spoke with WKRN News 2 on Friday to discuss the latest developments at the Fairgrounds.

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