Tuesday, June 19, 2012

EDITORIAL >> State fair misses mark

The state fair board’s decision to stay in Little Rock was really a no-confidence vote in the fair’s ability to do what it needed to do — reinvent itself.

It was a unanimous vote to wither on the vine and die.

The state fair is staying put because of $3 million offered by Little Rock, along with some extra acreage and promises that may or may not come true.

First off, the $3 million is actually $300,000 annually for 10 years. Right there, it will take the fair board longer to make improvements than it wants or needs to. The added land — up to 100 acres — will help, but it will also come in segments and at a cost.

Then there were longtime promises like a new exit off I-30 to the state fairgrounds.

Look at the trouble North Belt is in, and does anyone think the fairgrounds will really get a $20 million interchange to bring visitors to its front door? Maybe eventually, but not in time to save it.

Jacksonville was offering an interchange, already built, along with 450-plus acres. That’s double what Little Rock could possibly offer the fairgrounds — so why didn’t it move to Jacksonville?

Simply, the state fair is afraid to reinvent itself — and if it doesn’t, Little Rock will have thrown away millions in taxpayers’ money.

More land is always nice, but not required.

Oklahoma City’s state fair has almost double the space of Tulsa, but the Tulsa state fair has the better reputation. And that’s Little Rock’s biggest problem — its reputation.

Ask the eye glass cleaner salesman, ask the handwriting analysis guy, ask the jewelry vendor or the food vendor, and they will tell you that the state fair in Little Rock has a reputation for being one of the roughest, most dangerous and expensive fairs on the circuit.

Whether warranted or not, it is the perception and everyone knows perception is reality.

People think the Arkansas State Fair is dangerous because of fights, gangs, thugs and other undesirables. Vendors will tell you that theft is common.

In Tulsa, the fair brings in double the people that Little Rock does, has five times the vendors, double the rides and triple the entertainment, doesn’t charge for parking and its gate admission is about the same as Little Rock.

The fees vendors must pay for space in Little Rock and Tulsa is about the same, but in Tulsa, vendors see twice the people, have less shoplifting and an opportunity to make much more money.

By voting to stay in Little Rock, the state fair said it was willing to put on a little extra makeup, but had no desire to go through an extreme makeover to save its life.

Moving to Jacksonville would have given the fair a chance to shed its griminess and its ugly reputation. The fair said no to a chance to start over.

Look at what happened in Conway, where the Faulkner County Fair was in an area of town with a bad reputation.

Fair officials decided to move to a larger piece of property, but more importantly, by making the move, its county fair was able to reinvent itself.

The first two years in its new location have proven to be a wonderful experience for everyone — something state fair-goers in Little Rock can only wish for as efforts continue to save a dying tradition.