Friday, June 15, 2012

TOP STORY >> Jacksonville isn’t giving up on land after fair says no

Leader staff writer

Despite a disappointing but unsurprising announcement that the state fair won’t relocate to Jacksonville, city officials will continue efforts to purchase 450 acres off South Hwy. 161 and I-440 from Entergy for economic development.

Mayor Gary Fletcher didn’t want to share specifics of the project the land will be used for once it’s owned by the city or exactly when the deal with Entergy would be completed.

Jacksonville’s revised three-year-old offer of the site, plus a 200,000-square-foot events center was turned down at the state fair board’s meeting Thursday. The city’s gift of undeveloped land, a break on utilities and already built highway interchange was valued at $2 million.

Instead, the fair board accepted $3 million over 10 years that Little Rock’s mayor offered, according to Ralph Shoptaw, general manager of the Arkansas Livestock Show Association.

The fair grounds will remain at its home of 70 years on Roosevelt Road, he said. The association sponsors the two-week fair every October. Its budget is about $4 million a year.

He said the board started to seriously consider relocating four years ago because of its size, 96 acres. State fairs across the nation average 360 acres, Shoptaw said. Another reason that has been brought up is crime — or the perception of it — in the neighborhood.

When the board asked for proposals, Shoptaw said, “Jacksonville was the very first out of the gate. It was a really good offer and really hard to turn down. Just having the land is part of it. That was just the start. We would have had to do $50 million to $70 million just for buildings. We don’t make a lot of money and didn’t want to go into debt.

“The Virginia State Fair had to file for bankruptcy (when it relocated recently). We don’t dare to go into that situation. We were doing our due diligence, looking into all the options,” Shoptaw said.

He said the board would use the money from Little Rock to improve Barton Coliseum first because a few events, including the 2013 Arkansas Activities Association basketball championships, have been booked there.

“We’re going to sit down in the next few weeks and put together a long-range plan and look at immediate needs, too,” Shoptaw said.

Fletcher said Entergy and the city are still in negotiations over the price of the land, which may be acquired through eminent domain. The mayor said, “I’m hoping sometime this summer or fall, we’ll be ready to go to the next step. Or sooner. We’re working toward something that is really great, really grand.”

He said, “I don’t want to talk about (the project) right now, before the land is acquired. What I envision, when (the site is) fully developed to its maximum, we’re talking about many jobs. We’re talking about a strong tax base. We’re talking about bleed-over developments, which means, again, a stronger tax base for the community. I’m talking about bringing jobs, but also sales-tax revenue to continue to operate first-class services for our people to improve the quality of life in the community.

“We’ve got to put some sweat in it, some money in it, get some investors, whether it be industrial or commercial. The quicker we get something done, the quicker we can put money back into the community.”

The mayor added, “You just don’t show your cards at this stage. If I mention anything about what we’re planning on doing, it might inspire the powers that be in North Little Rock or Little Rock to throw a wrench in it.”

Last year, city officials met with Jerry Murphy of Murphy Brothers Expositions — a leader in amusement rides and fair management — about putting on a 10-day regional show that would generate $5 to $6 million, including $750,000 for Jacksonville plus taxes (about another $75,000 to $100,000).

Fletcher wouldn’t say whether that is still in the works. But Fletcher said the state fair board’s decision has allowed the city to move on.

He said, “Now we can take our attention off the state fair and focus solely on what we could do with that property to maximize the economic development for our community. You can’t let somebody else’s decision determine your happiness and success in life. I think that is just as true for a community.”

He continued, “In this tough economic environment, (the state fair board) made a decision that is, the safest decision they could make. I see the potential that we have. And the sad thing is the state fair people see it to. It’s just they don’t have the ability to step out, abandon their facilities, basically, for a piece of raw ground. I would have been more shocked had the decision been to move to Jacksonville.

“Sometimes in life you’re just not in a position where you can take advantage of an opportunity, and they weren’t. And we weren’t able to help them in that process. Because of that, there are no hard feelings. There is a prestige about having the state fair. But people shouldn’t be disheartened. We weren’t rejected because of what we had to offer.

“We weren’t even rejected. It’s just they couldn’t take our offer because they couldn’t do anything with it,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher added that he didn’t know if the events center included in the city’s proposal would still be built because that was part of what the state fair board said they needed to move to Jacksonville.

The mayor didn’t know if the city would make another offer if the state fair board decided to move after its 10 years with Little Rock is up. He said, “I’m not worried about 10 years from now. I’m worried about the most immediate economic impact we can bring to our community. We’re working toward something of more immediate benefit.”

Jacksonville became the frontrunner for the state fair last fall after North Little Rock voters rejected raising their sales tax by a penny. The board was waiting to see if the city would purchase 2,000 acres with the sales-tax revenue and invite the state fair to be the main tenant there.

Shoptaw said that would have been their “best shot, rather than staying here. We decided if we could not come up with the funding, we would stay here and improve what we have.”