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New State Fairgrounds/RV Park in Plan Stage

December 22, 2009 by   - () Leave a Comment

The Arkansas State Fair moved a step closer to selecting a new site for the fairgrounds with a decision Dec. 18 to conduct a financial feasibility study.

The fair’s executive committee is still months away from making a decision. But comments at the Friday meeting about the Jacksonville proposal indicated that it is a strong contender – if not the strongest – among 19 submissions, according to The Arkansas Leader, Jacksonville.

And a consultant for the state fair strongly recommends an RV park be developed in conjunction with the fairgrounds.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher and attorney Mike Wilson attended the meeting. They were the only ones present from any of the central Arkansas communities contending for the fair’s location.

Jacksonville is a community of approximately 30,000 located northeast of Little Rock.

In brief comments at the end of the meeting, Fletcher lauded the committee for not being afraid to seize a promising opportunity in the midst of “trying times.” He noted the economic potential that would come with the Jacksonville site because of its proximity to Little Rock Air Force Base.

The impact to the metropolitan area amounts to $580 million annually, Fletcher said. According to one analyst, “there is a $200 million leakage” in revenue potential flowing from the base that would not leave the area if there were venues to attract it.

Committee Chairman Ned Purtle and Mike Berg, a real estate consultant for the state fair, had high praise for Jacksonville leaders, in particular for the city’s $5 million gift to the U.S. Air Force to construct the Joint Education Center, as well as offering to donate the 430-acre fairground site and hire a grant writer to help raise money to fund construction.

“That is the kind of partner you want,” Berg said.

Engineer Basil Shoptaw, who has evaluated all the proposed sites, said afterward that the Jacksonville site has a lot going for it – immediate interstate access, high visibility, plenty of room, no part of it in a floodplain, and the offer to provide the utilities and land for free.

“Zero cost is hard to beat,” Shoptaw said. “And, there is lots of public support – aggressive public support.”

And nothing about the Jacksonville site, which is in an unincorporated area off Wooten Road, is a deal breaker. There are some low-lying spots in the wrong place perhaps from a design standpoint, but they could be made into lakes.

“You could work around those things,” Shoptaw said. “I see no impediments to making the site work. It is an exciting site.”

For consideration, a site had to be within a 35-mile radius of Little Rock. Benton, Conway, Cabot, Carlisle, Conway and North Little Rock have also submitted proposals to woo the fair away from Little Rock. No other city has made an overture like Jacksonville’s free land.

The city of Little Rock would like to see the state fair stay at its present location on Roosevelt Road, where it has been for 70 years. It has made a $57 million proposal to refurbish the facilities, which are outmoded or needing expansion. However, the 100-acre grounds offer little room for growth.

The state fair administration will select a consultant to do the feasibility study “in the next couple of weeks,” said Ralph Shoptaw, general manager for the fairgrounds and first cousin to Basil Shoptaw, the engineer for the project.

It’s likely the consultant for the job will be either Minnesota-based Markin Consulting, which has advised the Tennessee State Fair as well as Yankee Stadium, or the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which has done some end-of-year analyses for the state fair. Markin wants $47,000 and could get it done in 90 days. If UALR took it on, it might not cost as much but likely would take longer, Ralph Shoptaw said after the meeting.

The key to sustainability is off-season rentals, and the feasibility study will give the committee some insights into the moneymaking potential of various facilities, among them an equestrian center, 150,000-square-foot exhibition hall, concert venues large and small, a rodeo barn and RV park.

Fair manager Shoptaw said that state fairs in Oregon and Georgia are capitalizing on the popularity of RVs to bring in off-season revenue. Those two outfits are sharing information with Arkansas because they see they would benefit if there were a similar park in the mid United States.

A 1,000-unit RV rally for 3 1/2 days could make more than $100,000 in RV rentals alone,” Shoptaw said. “There is a huge potential out there for off-season revenue, but we’ll not be able to get it without a place to do it.”

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