Fairgrounds Nashville stadium: MLS team and mayor make uneasy peace

Nashville mayor John Cooper, an early opponent of MLS's move into Nashville, finally buried the hatchet with Nashville SC, the new MLS team, green-lighting the demolition of old buildings at Fairgrounds Nashville, the first step in a development project that will bring a 30,000-seat soccer stadium to the Music City.

Cooper was an at-large member of the Metro Nashville city council in 2017 when MLS awarded Nashville an expansion team. It followed an agreement between Metro Nashville, led by then-Megan Barry, and Nashville Soccer Holdings, led by John Ingram, on a stadium and development project.

Less than two years later, Cooper became mayor after Barry resigned amid a sex scandal involving her former head of security and after Cooper crushed David Briley, Barry's successor, in a runoff with more than 69 percent of the vote.
For the last four months, the Fairgrounds Nashville stadium project has been in limbo as Cooper held off allowing the construction to go forward in order to tweak the original deal.

Three issues needed to be addressed:

1. Metro Nashville approved $50 million in general obligation bonds (in two separate $25 million deals) to pay for infrastructure work related to the stadium and other parts of the fairgrounds. The problem is, there was no contingency if those funds weren't sufficient to pay for all the infrastructure. Nashville Soccer Holdings agreed to pay for infrastructure in the immediate vicinity of the stadium estimated to be $19 million.

2. The deal to fund the stadium construction consisted of two parts: Metro Nashville would issue $225 million in revenue bonds to go toward the construction of stadium; Nashville Soccer Holdings would chip in $25 million and pay for any cost overruns on the stadium project.

The sticking point was the repayment of the bonds, lease payments estimated to be $13 million a year over 30 years. Nashville Soccer Holdings originally agreed pay $9 million a year over the 30 years, and sales tax revenue from stadium events and a $1.75 ticket tax would go toward covering the remaining $4 million a year. Metro Nashville was on the hook if there were any annual shortfalls.

The new terms: Nashville Soccer Holdings will assume Metro Nashville’s obligation to pay up to $35 million toward the lease payments.

3. Cooper wants to bring NASCAR racing back to the Fairgrounds, but the speedway project conflicted with Nashville Soccer Holdings' plans for a mixed-use development project on a parcel of land next to the soccer stadium, where it committed to build a portion of the housing units as affordable and workforce units as part of the community benefits agreement they reached with Stand Up Nashville.

The compromise: a general statement of principles that the mixed-use development will account for an open plaza that can "serve the operational needs of multiple Fairgrounds uses."

"I’m so glad we’ve reached a better deal for Nashville," said Cooper in a statement. "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. Today is an exciting step forward for sports in Nashville and I’m ready for the first Nashville SC game on Feb. 29.”

The agreement allowed a Nashville SC fan event on Thursday night with MLS commissioner Don Garber, Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre, new Nashville SC acquisition Walker Zimmerman and Ingram to go forward on a positive note. Ayre said more than 40,000 tickets had been sold for the opener against Atlanta United.

But all is not rosy in Nashville.

A lawsuit by the Save Our Fairgrounds group was recently allowed to go to trial. It will likely be in court on Friday to seek an injunction to prevent the demolition of the Fairgrounds buildings.

Soccer and those behind stadium projects don't often get sympathy in the media, but Tennessean columnist Gentry Estes questioned the goodwill Copper lost with Nashville SC because of his stance and declining trust it will have in Cooper, who is viewed by some as pro-NASCAR as much as he is pro-Nashville bottom line.

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