Nashville SC mend fences with Mayor over venue construction


Nashville Stadium design - February 2020 update Image: Nashville SC

The Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion franchise Nashville SC based at Nashville, Tennessee in US, has recently struck a deal with the Mayor of Nashville, John Cooper, as part of which the MLS franchise will be able to go ahead with their stadium construction at the Fairgrounds. The stadium will fit in 30,000 fans.

The deal requires that Nashville SC will have to pay for 100 percent of the stadium construction – as the Mayor desired – as it will take the pressure off the taxpayers. Nashville SC had a face-off with the Mayor over the ‘funding’ part for quite some time now which had led to hurdles in the stadium project. However, they have finally mended fences.

The parties have agreed to a statement of principles including open space between the soccer stadium and the historic speedway. The Metro authorities have agreed to begin the demolition process immediately. The pact keeps in place the first Community Benefits Agreement in Tennessee.

The Nashville Fairgrounds Stadium is a planned soccer-specific stadium at the historic Nashville Fairgrounds in Nashville, Tennessee.

Under the terms of the revised arrangement, Nashville SC has agreed to pick up the tab 100 per cent vis-à-vis the stadium construction through cash investment, stadium lease payments and revenue generated at the venue, thus ruling out taxpayer and budget burden.

The deal will basically see Nashville SC thinning their wallet by US$54 million more in potential expenses, providing US$19 million to fund the infrastructure in immediate proximity to the facility, while also assuming the city’s obligation to pay up to US$35 million toward lease payments.

The development was initially expected to cost US$275 million, but, as per media reports, the figure is now estimated to have risen to US$335 million.

Cooper wants to bring stock car racing series National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) back to Nashville, and was worried that stadium construction could cast its long shadow on his own plans to redevelop the Fairgrounds Speedway racetrack.

The agreement puts to an end a month-long deadlock among Nashville SC, MLS and Cooper. The stadium project was initially green lighted by the city in 2017, but was then blocked by Cooper when he assumed office in September last year. The club and the league came down heavily on the Mayor’s “continued refusal to proceed” at the end of January and also put the heat on by encouraging fans to sign a petition urging Cooper to allow construction on the venue to begin.

With Cooper’s approval now secured, Nashville SC confirmed in an official statement that the demolition process of the old facilities at the Fairgrounds will begin pronto.

“We are very happy to be moving forward with the stadium construction. The investment we are making is not just for our soccer team, it is an investment in the future of Nashville and the Fairgrounds,” said Nashville SC Majority Owner John Ingram.

“I’m so glad we’ve reached a better deal for Nashville. I’m grateful to Nashville Soccer Holdings and John Ingram for understanding our city’s financial realities and agreeing to pay up to $54 million in additional costs. This deal saves the taxpayers’ money and provides a better site plan for the Fairgrounds. It is an exciting step forward for sports in Nashville and I’m ready for the first Nashville SC game on February 29th,” Cooper added.

Nashville SC will join MLS for the upcoming 2020 season and will initially play their home games at Nissan Stadium, home of the National Football League’s (NFL) Tennessee Titans, till their own venue goes on stream.

More than 30,000 tickets have been sold by the club for their opening fixture against the American professional soccer club based in Atlanta – Atlanta United – which will take place on February 29th.

The revised stadium deal comprises the following elements: The team will pay for infrastructure in the immediate surroundings of the stadium estimated to be $19 million; the team has agreed to a general statement of principles for parcel 8C in the 10 acre mixed-use development to account for an open plaza that can serve the operational needs as regards mixed-use of Fairgrounds; and the Metro has authorized initiation of the demolition contract and will proceed with the demolition process immediately.

Cooper had sought to remove the parcel in its entirety to make a “multi-functional” plaza-like space that links two 30,000-seat stadiums — soccer and auto racing.

Nashville SC recently launched the first season ticket member program for the club’s inaugural season in MLS, the First String MLS Founding Members. This select community will be able to enjoy life-long benefits as Nashville SC season ticket members and will go down in the pages of history as their names will be etched in the new Nashville SC Stadium.

Tickets to Nashville SC’s inaugural MLS match against Atlanta United FC, presented by Renasant Bank, are available through Season Ticket Memberships starting at just $425 ($25 per game) and through single game and group tickets.

As of now, the Mayor will “immediately” green light demolition at Fairgrounds Nashville, a step he has held off on approving since October last year as he negotiated what he called a better deal for the city with the team’s majority owner John Ingram, according to a joint statement from the Mayor’s office and Nashville SC.

The city will issue $225 million in bonds for the stadium and pay $25 million for expenses related to the venue’s infrastructure as part of the original deal. The team will pay for all overrun costs on the stadium, which is now estimated to cost $335 million in total.

The demolition will remove the Fairgrounds’ old expo buildings to make way for the stadium.

How the deal was clinched

The pressure to reach an agreement mounted after Mayor Cooper met the Governor of Tennessee, Bill Lee, and racing executives recently. The meeting took place ahead of MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s visit to Nashville.

Talks between Cooper and Ingram caught momentum after the former met with State and racing officials, along with Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe and Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation President Butch Spyridon.

Even before the deal was inked, soccer officials were all set to discuss the team’s bid to go about with its stadium construction plans prior to a March 31 construction start deadline set by Nashville Soccer Holdings, the majority ownership entity of Nashville SC.

Nashville SC had also started a petition drive urging soccer fans to lobby Mayor Cooper to allow stadium construction to begin.

Apart from this, the Metro Board of Fair Commissioners, which monitors operations at the site, also called on the Mayor to urge him to reach an agreement so that demolition work could begin. The chorus grew as the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce joined forces by seeking signatures for a letter to Cooper, asking him to move forward with demolition “immediately”.

Racetrack top on agenda

The new MLS stadium agreement leaves room for discussions about the Fairgrounds Speedway to continue, as Cooper has made it clear that the future of the racetrack is a priority.

Track operator Speedway Motorsports also heightened efforts by meeting with local and State officials. Bristol Motorsports Executive Vice-President Jerry Caldwell is optimistic on a potential partnership with the city to renovate the speedway.

In their first public presentation in May last year, Caldwell said the group wants to create “a guest experience like nowhere else in the country with soccer and racing co-existing and offer an unparalleled experience”.

Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith stated in a letter to Cooper that the “goal is within reach” based on the plans and terms they discussed behind closed doors in recent months.

Smith coaxed Cooper to move talks so that an approved agreement is reached, stating that the group is “excited about moving to the next phase”.

“It’s clear that we both share a view that Fairgrounds redevelopment can only be truly complete if the plan includes restoration of the historic speedway, and that we both believe it is critical to attract NASCAR racing back to Nashville,” Smith wrote in the letter to Cooper.

The racing group heaped praises on the Mayor for reaching a new deal with Nashville SC. The group stated that the soccer stadium at the site has further stepped up their interest.

“We truly believe that in the end the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts and that a completely redeveloped Fairground will result in a significantly more valuable asset for Nashville, its taxpayers and the State of Tennessee,” Smith further wrote.

Early proposals for the speedway include building a structure which can allow 30,000 supporters, an expanded concourse, premium seating, pedestrian tunnels and sound barriers at an overhauled racetrack.

Ordeal not over

The ordeal is far from over for Nashville SC. With the new pact, demolition is set to happen before an ongoing lawsuit to block the soccer stadium plays out.

A lawsuit by Save Our Fairgrounds coalition, which comprises flea market vendors, dragged the city through the court over the MLS stadium plans in September last year, contending that construction at the fairgrounds and knocking down 3,500 parking spaces would make it nigh impossible for the Nashville Flea Market to operate there.

The group has supported Cooper’s stance on the mixed-use development and holding back on demolition, with the Nashville Flea Market Vendors Association stating in a press communiqué that tearing down “millions of dollars” in Fairgrounds assets before a pending lawsuit plays out would harm the Fairgrounds.

Attorney Jim Roberts, who is leading the lawsuit, said he will file an injunction to stop the demolition from happening – “We’re obviously very disappointed. We know Mayor Cooper knows this is a bad deal. Turning a horrible deal into a bad deal doesn’t change the fact that it’s illegal and violates the Metro Charter.”

Shane Smiley, a stadium critic with the Nashville Flea Market Vendors Association, fumed that he got “sick and vomited” when he heard that the deal was inked.

He added that he was disappointed to hear that Ingram’s plans for the mixed-use development was going to become a reality, especially before the lawsuit goes to trial.

The Save Our Fairgrounds coalition won its appeal to overturn a Nashville judge’s dismissal of the group’s lawsuit, with the Tennessee Court of Appeals saying a lower court’s rejections of the coalition’s argument failed to identify “genuine issues”.

“We thank you for considering the probable charter violations of the proposal and demanding a hold on demolition until the next stages of the project are ready to go,” stated a press release of the letter the group sent to Cooper.

“The legal fight over the charter requirements needs to be completely adjudicated before destroying any Fairgrounds assets. Thank you again for your strong leadership,” the letter further read.

Joining the fray is Nashville SC’s ownership group – Nashville Soccer Holdings – who filed a motion in the chancery court arguing it has a right to intervene in the lawsuit, saying it could lose its team if the effort by Save Our Fairgrounds coalition is successful.

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