Friday, January 21, 2011

EDITORIAL >$120 million fair question

Jacksonville officials are going ahead with plans to buy more than 400 acres of land off Hwy. 161 South near I-440, which they believe is the ideal location for a new state fair complex. The city council will hold a public hearing next month on acquiring the land, which is worth about $2 million, and giving it to the Arkansas Livestock Show Association.

The association is considering moving the venerable state fair from the rundown neighborhood off Roosevelt Road in Little Rock and into a more spacious area.

The state fair board appears to favor a corridor along I-440 and I-40, putting Jacksonville in competition with North Little Rock, which is offering its own site near the Galloway exit at I-40. Either location would please the fair board, which likes the idea of leaving the inner city and moving to the suburbs.

The biggest obstacle is the cost: Some $120 million. Ralph Shoptaw, the fair’s longtime general manager, wants a modern new complex that would operate year-round, generating revenue that helps pay off revenue bonds and loans. He knows the complex is a hard sell in this economy but wants to plan ahead once the economy improves in the next couple of years.

Jacksonville officials sense an opportunity and have enough financing — through a surplus fund and private donations — to give the land to the state fair board. Obstacles remain: Entergy owns more than 200 acres at the proposed site and is in no hurry to sell. The electric utility could change its mind once the livestock board accepts Jacksonville’s generous offer, although the cost of the land will likely increase before a sale price is agreed upon.

What’s more, Little Rock officials won’t give up on the fair without a fight and have offered more land and other incentives to keep the event in the capital. Whatever the outcome, Jacksonville might as well lay the groundwork to acquire the land before the livestock board makes a decision on the fair’s future.

The board won’t even begin to make a decision on a new fair site until March, when it will receive a feasibility study that could determine whether the fair stays in Little Rock or moves closer our way. Until then, Jacksonville officials should pursue their plans to add a second major landmark to their city, along with Little Rock Air Force Base, which was also a long-shot 55 years ago, when area residents pooled their resources and donated the land for the military base.

That investment has turned out very well indeed — and so could the state fair. Here’s another chance for the area to make a second significant investment in our future.