NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Major League Soccer at the Fairgrounds.
For years, that has been the plan in the city of Nashville, with Nashville SC slated to play at their brand new facility in the 2022 season after playing two years at Nissan Stadium.
While the stadium plan has been approved by the Metro Fair Board, Metro Council, and previous mayors, when John Cooper took office the soccer plans at the Fairgrounds were put on hold.
Demolition of the old Fairgrounds buildings, which were replaced by new facilities to make way for the MLS Stadium, was scheduled to begin on October 1st, 2019.
For months, John Cooper's administration released few details about why the demolition was on pause.
On October 21st, 2019, three weeks after demolition was set to begin, his administration sent NewsChannel 5 the following statement:
"This delay in demolition is not about soccer, but rather the extremely complicated financing and site infrastructure concerns that make for a successful project. Before moving ahead with demolition, Mayor Cooper has requested a complete calculation of Metro’s costs and how cost overruns related to infrastructure improvements will be funded."
In the ensuing months and numerous inquires about the stadium, nothing was released from the Mayor's Office, Major League Soccer, or Nashville SC. It seemed to be something no one wanted to talk about, but soon everyone came to learn that all sides were trying to negotiate behind closed doors.
That is until the past two weeks.
On January 30th, Nashville SC and Major League Soccer sent a joint statement to Mayor Cooper where they described their "deep disappointment" over the mayor's failure to approve demolition at the Fairgrounds and move forward with stadium construction.
In that letter, soccer officials said that Nashville would not have been awarded a MLS team if a stadium deal wasn't in place. After a meeting in which a deal wasn't reached in New York City, MLS and Nashville SC set a February 6th deadline for a solution. That deadline was not met.
The next day, Nashville Soccer Holdings CEO and President John Ingram sent another letter to Mayor Cooper in which he revealed that Nashville Soccer Holdings had agreed to pay an additional $19 million for infrastructure costs at the Fairgrounds. He added the team would cover the $35 million Metro was on the hook for to defray the team’s stadium lease payment obligation if ticket and sales tax collections associated with the stadium were not sufficient. Ingram also made it clear that any cost overruns for stadium construction would be covered by the team, and he was willing to move the 10 acres for mixed-use development surrounding the stadium 100 feet to provide room for the Speedway to potentially expand.
The one thing that Ingram would not agree to was giving up a 2.4 acre parcel at the Fairgrounds known as "8C."
8C is the parcel of land closest to the Speedway, and Ingram said it was essential to have that land to fulfill the Community Benefits Agreement.
The Community Benefits Agreement was a deal set up with the group Stand Up Nashville to provide affordable housing, a $15.50 minimum wage for stadium workers, a childcare facility, and much more in an effort to have the community benefit from the deal made with Nashville Soccer Holdings.
Ingram said if parcel 8C was removed from the deal, that the Community Benefits Agreement would not be able to be fulfilled.
"We intend to honor our commitments to the community. Nashville needs to keep its commitments," Ingram said in the letter.
Mayor Cooper did issue a response in a letter of his own, writing specifically to address the questions surrounding 8C:
"The public space that links two 30,000-seat stadiums has the potential to become one of the most important in Nashville. Careful design and execution is essential to make the site work for two large public venues - supporting circulation, security, staging and access. Given the long-term significance of the Fairgrounds for our community, this space deserves thoughtful analysis that meets the highest standards for urban design. Nashville deserves a carefully planned multi-functional space, as opposed to a parking structure that looms over the speedway. This approach would enhance the quality of the Fairgrounds experience for everyone and showcase the unique function of this place for all its users."
The comments had many talking about the Speedway, which would be the other 30,000 seat stadium Mayor Cooper was alluding to.
At the time, the focus had been on soccer, but many shifted their focus to racing and the potential of NASCAR coming to Nashville, a conversation that had been completely separate from soccer until this time.
Meanwhile, a judge announced on February 5th that a lawsuit brought by a group named Save Our Fairgrounds claiming the city violated the Metro Charter by going forward with the soccer stadium deal, would go to trial.
The Metro Charter requires that racing, the flea market, and the Tennessee State Fair take place at the Fairgrounds Nashville. Save Our Fairgrounds argued that the changes at the Fairgrounds would not allow the State Fair to operate at the level in which it should operate.
It was not made clear when the trial would take place, and it was never said whether the trial would impact the demolition and construction of the MLS stadium, so negotiations continued between the Mayor's Office and Nashville Soccer Holdings (The ownership group for Nashville SC) behind closed doors.
The deadline of February 6th came and went with no announcement of a deal, and on February 7th, Nashville Soccer Holdings filed a motion to intervene in the Save Our Fairgrounds case against Metro.
The motion to intervene argued that Nashville Soccer Holdings should be added to the list of defendants, along with the city, so the owners of Nashville SC could argue that Metro did not violate the Metro Charter with the soccer stadium agreement.
It was an unexpected move that had Nashville SC joining and agreeing with Metro.
The move would allow Nashville SC to protect their personal interests in the lawsuit and use their own resources to battle the lawsuit, rather than relying on Metro.
While the lawsuit argued why Nashville Soccer Holdings has standing in the case, it also revealed that there was an agreed upon date between Nashville Soccer Holdings and Major League Soccer that construction of the stadium would begin by March 31st; otherwise, Major League Soccer would have the right to take the team away from Nashville.
Two days later on February 9th, Tennessean published an op-ed by Mayor Cooper where he laid out his reasoning for delaying the stadium demolition, adding that he still supports MLS in Nashville, but he wants to make the Fairgrounds work with racing in addition to soccer.
That same day, Nashville Soccer Holdings created a website and social media campaign titled "Build The Stadium" where they encouraged fans to sign a petition, urging Mayor Cooper to begin construction at the Fairgrounds and approve the stadium deal once and for all.
This all came while Cooper's office said that negotiations were going well, but the actions of Nashville Soccer Holdings suggested otherwise.
On February 11th, the public conversation heated up when Mayor Cooper went up to the Capitol to meet with Governor Lee along with racing officials to ask for money to help bring NASCAR to the Fairgrounds.
While Cooper did not say a specific amount of money that he wanted to ask from the state, any new racing stadium that could fit a NASCAR crowd would cost in the tens of millions of dollars.
The move upset soccer fans. One reason including the fact that Cooper said he was holding up construction of the soccer stadium so that a new speedway could be worked in the plans, even though no deal is in place for that and there is a deadline for soccer.
The other main reason people were upset is because Cooper had Nashville Soccer Holdings fully fund their own stadium, whereas he's asking for public money from the state to help fund the speedway upgrades.
After the meeting, it was unclear if the state was interested in funding a potential upgrade to the Speedway.
On February 13, MLS commissioner Don Garber will be in town to talk to soccer fans along with Ian Ayre, CEO of Nashville SC, and John Ingram.
It's unclear if any deal is expected before that meeting, but if not, it is sure to be filled with soccer fans airing their grievances and asking plenty of questions.