Leader Blues

Saturday, September 12, 2009

TOP STORY >> Fair plan is ready, city says

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader executive editor

Jacksonville officials on Friday were putting the finishing touches on a proposal to bring the state fair to the outskirts of town.

City officials will submit a proposal next week to the state to move the fair from Little Rock to 400 acres on Wooten Road off South Hwy. 161 and I-440, an area that Jacksonville has annexed.

The site is near the Rixie Road exit at the North Belt Freeway in south Jacksonville and is near Hwy. 67/167.

City officials will hold a press conference at 2 p.m. Monday at city hall to announce their plans.

The deadline is Tuesday for submitting sealed proposals for locations for the new fairgrounds.

“It’s almost like this land was created for the fair,” said Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher as he was about to sign off on the proposal on Friday. “We’ve got the premier spot for it. We can’t wait to present it.

“I can see the Ferris wheel driving past there,” he continued. “It’s centrally located, it’s accessible and there’s no congestion.”

Much of the land is owned by Entergy, while some of the property is privately owned.

Fletcher sounded confident that the land could be offered to the fair board at a fair price. He said the site meets all the criteria set by the board:

At least 250 acres with access and visibility from a four-lane highway;

Suitable terrain with minimal disruption to wetlands;

The land is within 35 miles from the old fairgrounds;

Available utilities.

“It will be easy for people to access,” Fletcher said. “That should increase attendance.”

The mayor said many people have told him they haven’t gone to the state fair in recent years because of traffic congestion there.

State fair officials are seeking bids from communities within 35 miles of Little Rock and possibly replace the fairgrounds off Roosevelt Road, which they say has become inadequate.

“We’re centrally located,” Fletcher said. “We’ve got the perfect land. It’s the most logical place for the fair to come here.”

Fletcher said the city would have the same special relationship with the fair board as with Little Rock Air Force Base.

“We’ll tell the state fair commission we’d be good partners, just as we’ve been with the base,” he said. “We’ll go the extra mile.

That’s the kind of people we have here. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The fair 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.

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.

Several other area towns, including North Little Rock, are planning to bid on getting the state fair to move to their area. Carlisle was the first to submit a bid. Little Rock is hoping to make more land available to expand the fair.

Cabot expressed an interest in the state fair, but it lacks suitable land.

If a new site is selected, the 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.

Ralph Shoptaw, general manager of the fairgrounds, said beer sales are an important part of the income.

The fairgrounds are 70 years old and are 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.

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

The 10,000-seat Barton Coliseum is considered outdated. An arena would be built at the new site.

Attendance at the state fair has doubled in recent years from about 200,000 to about 400,000. But Fletcher thinks more people would come to Jacksonville, which he said has a better location with less congestion.

Conway, Pine Bluff and Benton are also interested in getting the state fair. The board will also consider proposals submitted by private land owners.

Leader staff writer Joan McCoy contributed to this article.