Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

TOP STORY >> State fair can have acreage, city says

Leader executive editor

Jacksonville officials hope history will repeat itself.

They’ll give the Arkansas Live-stock Show Association about 400 acres of land worth about $1.2 million if the group moves the state fair to southeast Jacksonville.

Just as Jacksonville leaders did more than 55 years ago, when they raised $1 million to donate land to build Little Rock Air Force Base, city officials says they’ll buy or swap the land off Wooten Road and donate it to the state fair board.

They are joining with private individuals to raise the money for the land, but it would mostly come from city coffers.

“We have in hand commitments for a large portion of the cost, and we expect city council approval for the remainder,”

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher wrote to the livestock association.

Part of the site, which is off South Hwy. 161 and I-440, is in Jacksonville. The city would annex the remainder if the fair moves there.

The city plans to negotiate with seven landowners, including Entergy, to buy the land or swap some city-owned property for the land.

Jacksonville also has money set aside for economic development. The city’s advertising and promotion commission also has funds available raised through the 1-cent hamburger tax.

Several individuals have agreed to give hundreds of thousands of dollars, some anonymously, to buy the land.

The fair board is considering giving up the old fairgrounds on Roosevelt Road in Little Rock and move within 35 miles of the capital city if a suitable site is found.

Several cities, including Carlisle, Conway, North Little Rock and Benton on Tuesday submitted proposals to get the fair from Little Rock.

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

The proposed Jacksonville fair site, which is accessible from the Rixie Road exit at the North Belt Freeway and Hwy. 67/167 in south Jacksonville, is six times the size of the current fairgrounds, Fletcher said at a press conference on Monday.

Jim Durham, the city’s director of administration, delivered Jacksonville’s proposal to the livestock commission.

“I think we’re going to get it,” Durham said. “We have water and sewer to the property. It’s a great location.

“Ours will have to be the best proposal,” Fletcher said.

“It’s almost like this land was created for the fair,” Fletcher told The Leader last week. “We’ve got the premier spot for it. We can’t wait to present it.”

“It’s centrally located, it’s accessible, and there’s no congestion.”

“The fair needs to be relocated,” Fletcher said. “I feel like we have the best site to offer.” He said the site meets all the criteria set by the state fair 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.

“We’re centrally located,” Fletcher said. “We’ve got the perfect land. It’s the most logical 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.

Col. Gregory Otey, commander of the 314th Airlift Wing, sent a letter to the livestock association, praising Jacksonville’s commitment and spirit . He cited the city’s support of the base and donating $5 million to help build a joint-education center with the air base.

Letters of recommendation were also sent by Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville), Rep. Jane English (R-North Little Rock), former Rep. Mike Wilson of Jacksonville and others.

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

Ralph Shoptaw, general manager of the fairgrounds, said beer sales are an important part of the income. Alcohol could be served at the Jacksonville site because it’s not in a dry area.

The commission 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.

The fairgrounds are 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.

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 at the fairgrounds is considered outdated. A new 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 has a better location and has 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.