Leader Blues

Monday, December 21, 2009

TOP STORY >> Jacksonville could be state fair’s new home

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

The Arkansas State Fair moved a step closer to selecting a new site for the fairgrounds with a decision Friday to conduct a financial feasibility study.

The fair’s executive committee is still months away from making a decision. But comments at the Friday meeting about the Jacksonville proposal indicated that it is a strong contender – if not the strongest – among 19 submissions.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher and attorney Mike Wilson attended the meeting. They were the only ones present from any of the central Arkansas communities contending for the fair’s location. In brief comments at the end of the meeting, Fletcher lauded the committee for not being afraid to seize a promising opportunity in the midst of “trying times.” He noted the economic potential that would come with the Jacksonville site because of its proximity to Little Rock Air Force Base.

The impact to the metropolitan area amounts to $580 million annually, Fletcher said. According to one analyst, “there is a $200 million leakage” in revenue potential flowing from the base that would not leave the area if there were venues to attract it.

Committee Chairman Ned Purtle and Mike Berg, a real estate consultant for the state fair, had high praise for Jacksonville leaders, in particular for the city’s $5 million gift to the U.S. Air Force to construct the Joint Education Center, as well as offering to donate the 430-acre fairground site and hire a grant writer to help raise money to fund construction.

“That is the kind of partner you want,” Berg said.

Engineer Basil Shoptaw, who has evaluated all the proposed sites, said afterward that the Jacksonville site has a lot going for it – immediate interstate access, high visibility, plenty of room, no part of it in a floodplain, and the offer to provide the utilities and land for free.

“Zero cost is hard to beat,” Shoptaw said. “And, there is lots of public support – aggressive public support.”

And nothing about the Jacksonville site, which is in an unincorporated area off Wooten Road, is a deal breaker. There are some low-lying spots in the wrong place perhaps from a design standpoint, but they could be made into lakes.

“You could work around those things,” Shoptaw said. “I see no impediments to making the site work. It is an exciting site.”

Other proposed sites do have some issues – too small, too steep, wetlands, the cost or being divided by a major highway, Shoptaw said. But it is still too early to say any one of them is entirely out of the running.

For consideration, a site had to be within a 35-mile radius of Little Rock. Benton, Conway, Cabot, Carlisle, Conway and North Little Rock have also submitted proposals to woo the fair away from Little Rock. No other city has made an overture like Jacksonville’s free land.

The city of Little Rock would like to see the state fair stay at its present location on Roosevelt Road, where it has been for 70 years. It has made a $57 million proposal to refurbish the facilities, which are outmoded or needing expansion. However, the 100-acre grounds offer little room for growth.

The state fair administration will select a consultant to do the feasibility study “in the next couple of weeks,” said Ralph Shoptaw, general manager for the fairgrounds and first cousin to Basil Shoptaw, the engineer for the project.

It’s likely the consultant for the job will be either Minnesota-based Markin Consulting, which has advised the Tennessee State Fair as well as Yankee Stadium, or the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which has done some end-of-year analyses for the state fair. Markin wants $47,000 and could get it done in 90 days. If UALR took it on, it might not cost as much but likely would take longer, Ralph Shoptaw said after the meeting.

The feasibility study will look at potential fair and off-season events, what it would take to create the needed infrastructure and what the potential payouts would be.

“It would look at the highest and best use of the property and facilities,” Purtle told the committee. “You’ve got to have a plan before you can go to the bank.”

Around the country, state fairs are at a crossroads and the same is true for Arkansas, Berg said. “These things are going one of two ways – south or getting bigger.”

Berg urged the committee to think broadly about financing possibilities: federal and state grants, revenue bonds, private donations, and a foundation could all be part of the mix. He encouraged them to aim for paying off construction costs in five years.

“Ask the state for a one-time donation, then you can have a viable state fair that will go for another 100 years,” Berg said.

The key to sustainability is off-season rentals, and the feasibility study will give the committee some insights into the moneymaking potential of various facilities, among them an equestrian center, 150,000-square-foot exhibition hall, concert venues large and small, a rodeo barn and RV park.

Fair manager Shoptaw said that state fairs in Oregon and Georgia are capitalizing on the popularity of RVs to bring in off-season revenue. Those two outfits are sharing information with Arkansas because they see they would benefit if there were a similar park in the mid United States.

“A 1,000-RV rally for three-and-a-half days could make more than $100,000 in RV rentals alone,” Shoptaw said. “There is a huge potential out there for off-season revenue, but we’ll not be able to get it without a place to do it.”

Without a vibrant off-season, the biggest money maker becomes the 10-day fair. If it coincides with a rainy spell, that can really hurt. With this October being the rainiest on record, gate collections were down 18 percent, compared to 2008. The end-of-the-year balance will be about $100,000 less than it was at the end of 2008, reported the fairground’s accountant.

“Net income is going to show a loss,” Cynthia Bearden told the commission.

Shoptaw said the stakes are high when it comes to choosing who does the feasibility study and what all it entails.

“We haven’t done this in 70 years so we don’t want to get in a big hurry and make the wrong decisions,” he said. “But if we do this right, it could double or even triple” current fair revenues.