Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

TOP STORY > > Cabot could serve beer at state fair

Leader staff writer

If the Arkansas State Fair needs a new home away from Little Rock, Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams sees no reason why Cabot shouldn’t provide it, even though the city is in a dry county.

The deadline for submitting sealed proposals for locations for a new fair grounds is Sept. 15. Williams said he will discuss the idea with the council in August to find out if the aldermen agree with him.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t because of the economic impact alone,” Williams said Monday, the day after an ad soliciting proposals appeared in a Little Rock newspaper.

But the mayor said he had been approached “some time ago” by a real estate agent hired by the fair board to look for possible locations.

But since Lonoke County is dry, alcohol sales were not allowed except in private clubs like those attached to golf courses. But a change in state law aimed at promoting tourism now makes it possible for restaurants to sell alcohol using private club liquor licenses.

Williams fought the liquor applications of Fat Daddy’s and Kopan in Cabot. He said he didn’t know city leaders would feel about beer sales on the fairgrounds if Cabot is chosen as a new site.

“I don’t know how it would be received,” the mayor said. “But I think it would be possible just the way the restaurants do it.”

Ralph Shoptaw, general manager of the fairgrounds, said Tuesday that beer sales are an important part of the income. He said that he would check with the director of Alcoholic Beverage Control to see if Cabot would be eligible under the new law to host the state fair.

“They’ve always worked well with us,” Shoptaw said.

Shoptaw, who has managed the fairgrounds for five years, said as he understood the history, there was talk of moving before the 18,000-seat Alltel Arena (now Verizon Arena) was built in North Little Rock a decade ago.

The talk then was of a new arena on a larger plot of land replacing the 10,000-seat Barton Colliseum located at the fairgrounds. But then Alltel was built in North Little Rock and the talk died down until about one and a half years ago when North Little Rock wanted to host the fair. The board decided it was time to look around for more room, at least “350 contiguous acres,” according to the request for proposals, with adjoining land that could be purchased later.

Attendance at the state fair has doubled in recent years from about 200,000 to about 400,000, he said. The fairgrounds is 70 years old and it is too small, critics say. There isn’t enough room for parking and the 33,000-square foot Hall of Industry needs to be at least 100,000-square-feet to accommodate some of the businesses that have been turned away because of lack of space.

And then there is difficulty in getting to the fairgrounds, located in an older, deteriorating part of the capital city.

“There’s only two ways in,” Shoptaw said, “Roosevelt to the east and Roosevelt to the west.”

Little Rock wants to keep the fairgrounds and asked for time to conduct a study and submit a proposal for improvements, he said. That plan, completed in the spring, included taking in about 25-30 more acres on the east side of the existing grounds, better access to the grounds and improvements totaling about $57 million.

But Shoptaw said the average size for state fairgrounds is 366 acres. The Arkansas State Fair Ground is about 100 acres and it is unlikely it could ever be large enough even if surrounding property is taken in.

“Because we got a proposal for Little Rock to stay here, we think we’re doing due diligence to look elsewhere too,” he said.

It is almost certain that North Little Rock will submit a proposal, he said. But the request for proposals specifies that any suitable parcel within 35 miles of the existing fairgrounds will be considered. So that means the cities of Conway, Carlisle, Pine Bluff and Benton might also be interested. The board will also consider proposals submitted by private land owners.

The board is working with Thomas Engineering Company of North Little Rock and Mike Berg Company, Buyer’s Real Estate Agent of Little Rock. Their ideal site would be flat but not in a wetland, accessible and visible from an interstate or four-lane highway with utilities available.

Shoptaw said if a suitable site is found, new fairgrounds will likely cost $100 to $150 million and it could be completed in three to five years. Funding would come from bonds and long-term loans and fundraising by the dormant livestock association foundation.

“We really haven’t had a cause in quite a while,” he said. “This would be a major cause.”