Wednesday, June 16, 2010

TOP STORY >> List of state fair finalists growing

IN SHORT: City’s bid for the event complicated by Saline County’s push to raise $60 million to build complex.

By Nancy Dockter
Leader staff writer

A vote by the Saline County Quorum Court to hold a special election on a 1 percent sales tax to raise up to $60 million to build facilities in hopes of luring the state fair to Benton has Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher perplexed, but unruffled.

In a special election Aug. 10, Saline County voters will decide on two taxes amounting to one cent on the dollar to pay for improvements and maintenance of a former airport facility now used as the county fairgrounds.

The word last winter from the governing board of the Arkansas Livestock Show Association was that the original field of 19 potential sites for a new, improved and larger state fairgrounds had been whittled down to three south of Jacksonville and the current site in Little Rock. So, a news report last week that the Benton venue, if renovated, would be considered as a site for the state fair came as a surprise to Fletcher.

“It was a little disheartening because it had been narrowed down to three sites,” Fletcher said. “We had heard that the fair would not go there, so they need to tell people that.”

The state fair association is considering either making upgrades to the current Little Rock location or moving the fair to a spot that would provide easier access and better parking as well as more space to construct facilities for events year-round.

Ralph Shoptaw, manager of the State Fair, was unavailable for comment on Tuesday to confirm a report that he said last week the Benton site as well as the 18 others are still in the running as the new state fairgrounds location.

Fletcher went on to say he doubts the Benton location could beat what the Jacksonville site has to offer.

The city of Jacksonville has offered to acquire 445 acres which are southeast of town to the north of Interstate 40, give the land to the state fair association and provide utilities at no cost. Highway access would be from Wooten Road at the Highway 161 and I-440 interchange.

There are plans to raise up to $1 million to buy the land – taking it by eminent domain if necessary. There are nine owners of the land, including individuals and real estate investors. Fletcher said that title searches and efforts to acquire the various parcels are under way.

With the site’s proximity to I-40, it “will be able to draw from the Memphis area,” Fletcher said. “The Benton site is out of the way. I don’t think it lends itself to be a big, expansive project. It is harder to get to. You’ve got to get to it on frontage roads.”

The land being offered by Jacksonville is one of three sites, along with the current fairgrounds, reportedly making up the short list chosen last winter. There are shared boundaries among the three sites, all of which are north of I-40.

One site consists of 827 acres owned by Davidson Ranch, south of the land offered by the city. It carries a $2,995 per acre price tag. The site does not meet highway access criteria, according to an analysis of all 19 sites made last winter. Existing access is along a two-lane for almost two miles from the Galloway Road/ I-40 interchange.

The third site is the southernmost of the three. It consists of 632 acres with three owners. The price is $4,512 per acre. The tract is bounded by Ink Bayou to the east and I-440 to the west. The site does not meet access requirements, requiring travel for two miles from the Galloway Road/I-40 interchange.

State fair officials say that they might pick tracts from among the three sites to put together an ideal location for the fair. Still to come in the decision-making process are two studies – an economic- impact study to evaluate the benefits to state and local economies of the fair, were it moved to a new location, as well as a feasibility study that would analyze the income potential of various facilities considered for construction at the new site. The goal is to create a venue that offers year-round income generation rather than only during the two weeks each fall when the state fair happens.

The state fair association is in the process of raising the money for the two studies, which reportedly will cost about $60,000.

Fletcher said that the city has offered to cover the costs of the two studies “if they’d go ahead and select Jacksonville,” but the association did not accept.

“All we can do is make offers,” Fletcher said. “It is not moving as fast as we’d like, but Ralph Shoptaw is in the driver’s seat. They say that they need numbers before they can move forward, and these studies will provide those numbers. It will be later on this year.”