Leader Blues

Thursday, December 10, 2009

TOP STORY >> Jacksonville leads race to land fair

Leader executive editor

Jacksonville has the best site and has made the best offer to move the Arkansas State Fair from Little Rock, according to the official in charge of the prestigious program.

Ralph Shoptaw, the general manager of the Arkansas Livestock Show Association, called Jacksonville’s offer to give the association 430 acres of land in southeast Jacksonville “very attractive.”

He told The Leader during a visit to Jacksonville on Tuesday that the site off South Hwy. 161 near Hwy. 67/167 and the North Belt Freeway was the best he’s seen from among 19 that were submitted.

Shoptaw said the Jacksonville site is centrally located with easy access from I-40, which is “convenient for people traveling nationwide.”

Little Rock has not made a serious offer to expand the current site, which is too cramped and outdated, he said. He and his board are ready to expand the annual event to a year-round program, Shoptaw said.

The land, which is worth more than $1 million, “is an ideal location to bring tourists from all across the country,” Shoptaw said.

He said he’s been traveling around the country, looking at year-round programs, and that’s what he wants to do in Arkansas. The problem with 10-day fairs is that when it rains, as it did this year, it’s a total washout.

“We’ve seen fairgrounds that are flourishing year-round,” Shoptaw said. “What we have stymies us when it rains. Everything we have is worn out.”

He said he wants to build bigger and better pavilions that would cost at least $100 million, and it would be a waste of money to use them just once a year.

After a site is chosen, the new fairgrounds could cost up to $150 million and could be completed in three to five years, Shoptaw said.

Funding would come from bonds and long-term loans and fundraising by the livestock association.

“The board will meet in the next few weeks to discuss financing,” the general manager said.

“Hopefully, the state will kick in and help with financing,” Shoptaw said.

The foundation would also raise private donations and pay off a bond issue “as quickly as we can and get out of debt.”

Part of the proposed site is in Jacksonville. The city would annex the remainder if the fair moves there.

When seeking proposals, the commission had said the ideal site would be flat but not in a wetland, accessible and visible from an interstate or four-lane highway with utilities available.

The fair board has been considering giving up the old fairgrounds on Roosevelt Road in Little Rock and moving within 35 miles of the capital city if a suitable site is found. Several cities, including Cabot, Carlisle, Conway, North Little Rock and Benton, submitted proposals to get the fair from Little Rock.

If the state fair moved to Jacksonville, history will repeat itself. Jacksonville leaders raised $1 million to donate land to build Little Rock Air Force Base more than 55 years ago.

They hope to form a partnership with private individuals to raise the money for the fair, but also use city funds.

“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.

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 2-cent hamburger tax.

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

Fletcher 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.
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 the city would have the same special relationship with the fair board as with the air 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 in 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 Jack-sonville and others.

Shoptaw 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 livestock commission is working with Thomas Engineering Company of North Little Rock and Mike Berg Company, Buyer’s Real Estate Agent of Little Rock.

The fairgrounds are 70 years old and too cramped, 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.

Leader staff writer Joan McCoy contributed to this article.