Inside Nashville's new soccer deal

Rendering courtesy Nashville SC
Rendering courtesy Nashville SC

Rendering courtesy Nashville SC

Image description
Rendering courtesy Nashville SC
Image description
Image description
More than two years after Nashville was awarded a professional soccer franchise, city officials and Nashville Soccer Holdings—the ownership group behind the Major League Soccer team, Nashville SC—announced on Feb. 13 they hadreached an agreement to move forward with building the soccer stadium at The Fairgrounds Nashville.

Under the revised deal, completion of which followed several months of negotiations between Mayor John Cooper and Nashville SC lead owner John R. Ingram, the team will pay $54 million in additional costs identified for the stadium project, including $19 million in infrastructure and $35 million in lease payments, and Ingram has agreed to the construction of a plaza that will serve as a connector between the future stadium and the Fairgrounds’ existing racetrack.

According to Cooper, the deal eliminates the financial burden on both taxpayers and the city by requiring Nashville Soccer Holdings to foot the bill on any additional funding needed for the project. However, a community group is still opposed to the stadium being built at the Fairgrounds.

“When I came into office, I inherited an incomplete deal that was not fully funded and did not provide for the success of all the uses of our historic Fairgrounds,” Cooper said. “I could not, in good faith, obligate taxpayers to more money or uncertainty around potential litigation. This deal lives up to our commitments to soccer, the Metro Charter, the other uses of the Fairgrounds and my commitment to put taxpayers first in negotiations.”

The new deal also keeps in place the community benefits agreement between NSH and the community advocacy group Stand Up Nashville, which requires NSH to provide affordable housing as part of the site’s mixed-use development, to maintain areas for child care and to offer a minimum wage of $15.50 for all jobs at the Fairgrounds.

“This agreement allows for a better site plan, providing great civic space that connects the stadium, historic speedway, state fair and exhibition halls, and it will bring up to $650 million of investment to the Fairgrounds,” Cooper said. “I’m proud to say that the community benefits agreement has been preserved and confirmed by language included in this new arrangement.”

Renovating the Fairgrounds

In November 2017, one month before Nashville was awarded the MLS franchise, Metro Nashville Council approved $225 million in revenue bonds and an additional $25 million in general obligation bonds with the expectation that the Fair Commissioners Board would approve a plan to overhaul the 117-acre Fairgrounds, which borders Berry Hill.

The board approved a redesign plan in June 2018 to demolish and relocate the expo buildings, which host the Nashville Flea Market, trade shows and special events, to a separate portion of the Fairgrounds northeast of the planned soccer stadium. That plan called for the stadium to be built on the southwest portion.

The Fairgrounds relocated its expo center and administrative offices in August, but it will take an estimated four months from its start date to demolish the old buildings, according to Ron Gobbell, an architect serving as the project manager for the Fairgrounds redesign plan. He said Fairgrounds officials have identified asbestos in some of the buildings, which must be removed before demolition work can begin.

“The demolition contracts have been executed,” Gobbell said.

The stadium was initially on track to open in May 2021 before that date was pushed back to early 2022. Currently, it does not have a projected opening date, although Gobbell said “it will still open in 2022.” Nashville SC held its inaugural game at Nissan Stadium on Feb. 29, and it will play at least its first two seasons there, according to the ownership group.

Although the demolition contracts were approved by Metro Nashville Council on Feb. 14 as part of the deal between Cooper and Ingram, board members said there is not a set date for demolition. The buildings were originally slated to be demolished in October 2019.

“It was my hope that the demolition could start as a good-faith showing from the mayor to the various stakeholders, including the team and the MLS commissioner, that the site is shovel-ready and things are moving forward while communications with the stakeholders are still ongoing,” Fair Commissioners Board member Caleb Hemmer said. “It is my hope we will begin that demolition and start construction activities immediately.”

Legal battles

However, even with the finalized deal for the stadium’s future home, construction efforts could be in jeopardy, as a community group is moving forward with lawsuits to halt the project.

Save Our Fairgrounds, a group formed in 2017 with the mission to “preserve, manage and promote” The Fairgrounds Nashville, filed a lawsuit against Metro Nashville in November 2017. In the lawsuit, the group argues the redevelopment of the Fairgrounds would threaten the site’s ability to host racing, flea markets and the annual state fair.

The lawsuit against Metro Nashville, despite various dismissals and appeals over the last two years, is set to go to trial June 4, according to Save Our Fairgrounds.