Tuesday, February 15, 2011

TOP STORY >> City eyes state fair land

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville wants to take control of about 450 acres near Wooten Road, off Hwy. 161 and close to I-440 for what city officials call future economic development.

But what appears first in the future is the state fair.

The city council will have a public hearing on the issue at 7 p.m. Thursday at city hall.

Mayor Gary Fletcher won’t be at the hearing because of another commitment, but City Engineer Jay Whisker and Jim Durham, the administration director, will be there to explain what the city’s financial plans are for purchasing the site and why the city wants the site.

City aldermen, who have the final vote on anything the city does related to the site, will be there to listen to the pros and cons.

Durham said Tuesday that the city plans to purchase the area but will not increase any taxes.

“We have most of the money in hand that we need and we have a $1.5 million economic grant that should cover the rest of the purchase and help with road construction and other infrastructure,” Durham explained.

“This is the most viable economic property that we have in the city,” Durham said, adding that city officials have other developers looking at the site too, in case the state fair decides to stay at its Little Rock location or move to a North Little Rock site along I-40.

“We have a number of possibilities besides the state fair. We are not letting any grass grow under our feet on this,” Durham said.

Mayor Gary Fletcher wants the state fair on the property and believes it has the most to offer the state fair.

The fair board has paid for a feasibility study on all the sites it is considering and the report should be done by next month.

If the state fair decides to come out to Jacksonville, the city will donate the land to the fair board, much like the city donated land for Little Rock Air Force Base back in the early 50’s.

Of the three sites the state fair board is looking at, Fletcher believes the Jacksonville acreage is the best site. “We’ve got a blank canvas out there,” the mayor said.

The sheer size of the site would give state fair officials great latitude to plan new facilities, Fletcher said.

“Even if the state fair chooses a North Little Rock site it will still be a boon to this area that we want to purchase,” Durham said.

The Wooten Road property is right off the I-440 Rixey Road exit off Hwy. 161 which is easy to get to from I-40 or Hwy. 67/167.

“It’s all about location, location, location,” Durham said.

The city wants to take the land through the use of eminent domain, meaning it would take the land and then a court would determine the fair market value that the city would have to reimburse the owners.

The 450-acre site is controlled by about 10 owners.

Almost half of the acreage belongs to Entergy and that company has made it clear that it is not interested in selling, donating or trading the land at this time.

The rest of the land is split between the other nine or so owners.

“There are no homes on the acreage,” the mayor said.

Since 1945, the state fair has operated on 149 acres along Roosevelt Road in south-central Little Rock.

Fifty-two acres are unusable because of train tracks that run through the property.

Ralph Shoptaw, the fair’s general manager, has said a study commissioned by the city concluded renovating the current location would cost about $57 million.

State fair officials have had high praise for Jacksonville, in particular for the city’s $5 million gift to the Air Force to construct the University Center, as well as offering to donate the 450-acre fairground site and hire a grant writer to help raise money to fund construction.