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Planning for stadium at Fairgrounds began prior to public's knowledge

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Fairgrounds Nashville entrance - Nolensville Pike - Aug. 2018

The entrance of The Fairgrounds Nashville from Nolensville Pike. (WSMV)

NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - The train bringing professional soccer to The Fairgrounds Nashville has been heading down the tracks far longer than the public knew, but the public didn’t hear it coming.

That’s what the News 4 I-Team discovered after reading thousands of internal emails you and I were never meant to see.

One email said “we can hide” at a country club over drinks.

Another warned contractors about what not to write in “official paperwork” because it could be requested by the public.

And another email chain showed stadium developers were made promises about the suitability of the site and the availability of utilities more than a year before Metro Council gave the OK to pursue the project.

The first news many of us heard about soccer at the Fairgrounds was a public announcement by former Mayor Megan Barry on Jan. 30, 2017.

"I fully support our efforts to bring an MLS team to Nashville," Barry said. “I am convinced that the best and only site for this to happen would be at The Fairgrounds Nashville.

“This will not come at the expense of any existing activities at the fairgrounds, such as racing, the flea market, or the fair, but will be in addition to all the great things that are happening there now.”

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Internal emails show that “soccer discussions” had been going on privately in the conference room of Metro CEO Rich Riebeling at least a year earlier in February 2016.

In the months before the mayor’s January 2017 announcement, employees at the Fairgrounds were expecting extensive renovations at the buildings. Metro Council had set aside $12 dollars for fairground upgrades.

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Then-Fairgrounds executive director Ken Sanders anticipated building a new Expo building so that flea market operations and other events could have temporary quarters during the remodeling.

Larry Atema of Commonwealth Development was under contract by Metro to oversee the renovation plan.

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The renovations of the buildings soon took a back seat.

Atema directed his attention to the soccer stadium project, although it had yet to be presented to Metro Council, and was months away from being disclosed publicly.

In September 2016, Atema gave MLS organizers a tour of the fairgrounds for the purpose of siting the stadium and said he was confident the utilities would meet their needs.

On Sept. 13, 2016, the same day Atema sent that email, he began setting up private one-on-one meetings with fair board commissioners.

Five days later, Laura Womack, the fairgrounds director, asked her employees to “keep an open mind and be creative.”

In the next months, meetings would continue between Atema, Womack, Riebeling and others.

There were also bi-weekly construction update meetings at the Music City Center, where Atema had rent-free office space. The meetings were not open to the public.

The close working relationship between Atema, his staff, and the fairgrounds director is apparent in a series of emails; Atema hosting dinners for staffers and their spouses.

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On Jan. 5, 2017, three weeks before Barry announced the Fairgrounds was her choice for the stadium, Atema suggested a meeting with the fairgrounds director Laura Schloesser (her married name will later become Womack). She proposed meeting for afternoon drinks. Atema suggested the Richland Country Club, writing, “We can hide there!!” Schloesser answered, “Brilliant- see you then.”

The News 4 I-Team’s Nancy Amons showed the email to Metro Councilman Steve Glover.

"We can hide there??” Glover said. "Hello? This is Metro property. You don't hide. You are transparent in the entire process."

Stadium planning continued over the next months. In mid-June 2017, the MLS commissioner came to town to tour the fairgrounds.

The visit was coordinated by Mary Cavarra of Ingram industries. She works for John Ingram, the major investor in the proposed MLS franchise and stadium project.

About two weeks after the tour, on July 6, 2017, Cavarra emailed Atema about meeting outdoors at the Fairgrounds; she wrote that “one of the questions that may arise is about parking” and added, “our plan is to discuss verbally.”

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A spokesperson for Cavarra said it would make sense to have a meeting outdoors, since the topic concerned parking.

Parking had already become an issue, with council members and others asking if the fairgrounds site can support enough parking for a stadium.

Work is ongoing at Fair Park during this time, and it’s suggested that cars can park on the reinforced turf of the public soccer fields.

On March 31, 2017, the landscape architects building Fair Park gave estimates about parking scenarios and wrote that the issue is not how many cars can park on the reinforced turf, but how often.

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This could become an issue if Fair Park would be used for a four-day flea market and other events, such as concerts or professional soccer games.

A parking study was completed in February 2017, however, it would not be made public until June when it was stamped as being received at the Metro Public Works department.

The parking study, by KCI Technologies, was conducted while the stadium plan was smaller. It was initially 27,500 seats and has now increased to more than 30,000.

When the traffic and parking study was completed, the developer had planned 376 apartments. That number was later increased to 900 apartments.

Based on the smaller development, KCI concluded that 7,809 surface and structured parking spaces were planned to accommodate the mixed-use development. KCI concluded that 10,577 spaces would be needed to accommodate the 27,500 stadium.

MLS developers maintain that Nashville’s other sports facilities do not offer enough on-site parking spots for every seat. Bridgestone Arena and First Tennessee Park only have enough on-site parking for a small percentage of patrons.

Fair Park is still under construction, so the final price tag isn’t know, but internal emails indicate at least some areas are costing more than expected.

Skanksa, the contractor building the public soccer fields, dog park and greenway, wrote Larry Atema in February 2018 that there were “unforeseen conditions” that will take two weeks longer than they expected to address.

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Atema instructed Skanksa’s Phillip Huffman to “please HOLD UP issuing these ‘legal like notices’ into the public record until we can meet on them as I requested this afternoon.”

Atema emailed another Skanska employee, David Cripe, “We can talk Monday - I am always concerned that everything we receive is subject to open records requests.” Adding, “I likely didn’t do a good job preparing everyone for this.”

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Four days earlier, Atema had been notified that the News 4 I-Team had filed an Open Records request for his emails.

Duane Dominy, a fairgrounds supporter and a former councilmember said “Wow” when Amons showed him the emails.

"It's an attempt to hide what's going on because the public has a right to know,” said Dominy. “They don't want the public to know and they've been doing this through this whole process."

Atema had been working as a consultant for the Fairgrounds project. In June, he started transitioning the work to his replacements.

Atema did not return phone calls to the I-Team.

Copyright 2018 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

Reporter

Nancy Amons is an award-winning member of the News4 Investigates team. She has been breaking stories in Middle Tennessee for more than 20 years.

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