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VOL. 45 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 23, 2021

We have a winner!

State Fair’s move to Wilson County looks like a best-in-class merger

By Catherine Mayhew

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The first Tennessee State Fair was held at the Walnut Race Course in North Nashville in 1855. It was the same year poet Walt Whitman first published “Leaves of Grass,” Isaac Singer patented the sewing machine motor and Congress approved $30,000 to test camels for military use (clearly, that didn’t work out well).

A year later, the Tennessee State Legislature approved an act to form a committee to purchase grounds for the state fair, putting the full force and power of state government behind what was presumed to become Tennessee’s marquee event.

Three years earlier – in 1853 – the first Wilson County Fair was held on Coles Ferry Pike. It was a way for farmers and ranchers to gather and exchange information about best practices and, perhaps, share some fried chicken and sweet tea next to the banks of what would become known as Fair Spring.

Almost 170 years later, that small gathering in Wilson County has exploded into one of the top 50 county fairs in the country, attracting more than half a million people a year. Yes, there’s now a midway at the fair but its roots in agriculture have held firm and continued to blossom.

The Tennessee State Fair had no such luck. Some would argue it lost its vision. Others argue its location on an economically enticing plot of city-owned land doomed it to become a municipal football between competing interests. But by 2019, the last year the state fair was held in Nashville, no one can contest that what it had become was merely a carnival with a paltry attendance record when compared to its robust neighbor in Wilson County.

And now, due to an act by that same state legislature that formed the Tennessee State Fair and a stroke of a pen by Gov. Bill Lee, Wilson County is in charge of reviving and growing the state fair. And with a thriving leadership model, a clear sense of purpose and boatloads of land, Wilson County is up to the task.

Agricultural roots

On fair days in Wilson County – Aug. 12-21 this year – traffic is tied up in a long line on I-40 as excited fair-goers head toward the James E. Ward Agricultural Center, a 267-acre complex that’s been home to the Wilson County Fair since 1979.

To be sure, many will enjoy the extensive midway where they can purchase a $25 unlimited ride armband and get the blood pumping aboard the Pharaoh’s Fury, Fireball, Wild Claw or other fright-inducing rides. Of course, you might prefer artery-clogging treats such as Tennessee hot chicken, apple pie cheesecake and cotton candy cupcakes (the fair food was featured on Cooking Channel’s Carnival Eats in 2017).

But the heart of the fair is the agricultural exhibits and contests.

“The Wilson County Fair has always been an agricultural county fair,” says Helen McPeak, director of the Wilson County Fair-Tennessee State Fair. “Now, by adding the Tennessee State Fair, that will become more of an opportunity to educate.

The Tennessee State Fair will beef up its agrarian chops with Wilson County Fair merger.

-- Photograph Provided

“We are paid by the smiles and the laughter of the families who come to the fair. We want them to have a good time, but all the educational opportunities we have all across the grounds reach people. They see all these exhibits and you hope they learn something.”

Wander the fairgrounds and you’ll see competitions for cattle, poultry, pigs, goats, sheep and other animals. Flowers, fruits and vegetables also vie for blue ribbons. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Both get judged separately for perfection at the fair. Baking contests test entrants’ talent for pies, cakes, cookies and breads. The Cornbread Challenge is judged on the most creative use of cornmeal in appetizers, salads and main dishes.

The fair changes its theme every year, and this year it’s “Honoring Hometown Heroes,” from health care workers to law enforcement and emergency personnel. “Through the tornadoes that hit Tennessee in March and the pandemic that changed all our lives this past year, we want to honor those who came to our rescue in so many ways,” the fair’s website states.

Earlier this year, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the state budget and included $5.3 million for the combined county and state fair that, among other things, will allow Wilson County to build a new Made in Tennessee building to open in 2022. Among the products to be showcased are stained glass, sewing, fine arts, photography, quilts and honey.

The thousands of moving parts at the Wilson County Fair are precisely coordinated by an army of volunteers.

“We have over 1,600 volunteers that put on this fair,” McPeak says. “I have a small group that is paid staff and we hire seasonal staff. But the volunteers are the drive. They make each event happen.”

The combination of a proven infrastructure, an executive committee who are on-site every day of the fair to make sure every detail is executed, the volunteers, the wide array of competitions, a clear mission and vision, and the abundance of land is why the state turned to Wilson County.

“Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Tennessee and combining an already successful agricultural county fair like Wilson County’s and the state fair will be an advantage for fairgoers,” says Kim Doddridge, public information officer for the state Department of Agriculture. “The space at the Ward Agricultural Center will provide the state fair a chance to grow. Wilson County Fair and Wilson County Promotions offer a large, successful event and along with their strong volunteer base, provide fairgoers a great experience.”

A struggling state fair

The Tennessee State Fair, when it was in Nashville, had multiple figurative cannons aimed at it. First, it was in a location local government coveted for economic development. Second, the land was also owned by that same local entity that at various times had little passion for the rural agricultural tradition a state fair represents. And, as a 2013 master plan study conducted by CSL International noted, even the fair itself did not address the lack of horse/livestock/agriculture events that are typical in other state fairgrounds complexes.

The annual Wilson County Fair features a wide variety of competitions, including livestock judging.

-- Photograph Provided

Davidson County bought the Tennessee State Fair property in 1911 for $150,000, including the buildings, furniture and equipment. In 1923, the state transferred control of the fair to Davidson, which created a fair board. Nashville and most of Davidson County became a metropolitan government in 1963 and the board became the Metropolitan Board of Fair Commission with five members appointed by the mayor and confirmed by Metro Council.

None of that appeared particularly ominous, and for many years the fair continued to thrive even if the main draw in an urban area was the midway rather than the agricultural aspects of the fair.

Every year, school children were given a day off from classes and got free admission. Other special days were created to draw people in. Big-name entertainers of the time such as Sonny and Cher, ZZ Top and comedian Bob Hope headlined.

Then in 2009, Mayor Karl Dean announced the fair would be no more at the state fairgrounds. He and some on the Metro Council wanted to develop the property and lure major business there.

There were three problems with that:

• The fairgrounds was undeveloped for that kind of use.

• There were no corporate suitors waiting in the wings.

• The fairgrounds were also home to a race track and flea market with their own outspoken constituencies.

Well, one more slight problem. The state fair had nowhere to go.

Both the flea market and the racetrack were road blocks to economic development. The fate of the Tennessee State Fair was, at times, hardly noticed. In the end, Dean and his allies lost the raceway battle after a robust campaign by what became known as “the red shirts,” advocates for keeping the racetrack who wore red “Save Our Fairgrounds” t-shirts to public hearings.

Dean’s proposal to move the flea market to an empty mall also failed.

A Metro Council vote determined that everything would stay in place for two years as a master plan was developed for the site.

The study for the master plan conducted by CSL International was critical.

“TSF (Tennessee State Fair) tends to rank low among the comparable state fairgrounds complexes reviewed for a number of the key physical facility metrics reviewed,” the study said. “In addition, the TSF presently offers a low amount of indoor exhibit space relative to other state fairgrounds complexes, while the largest contiguous exhibit hall at the TSF is by far the smallest among the comparable set reviewed. Further, the TSF’s structures are older and in a greater state of disrepair than many of the other state fairgrounds complexes. All these issues have important implications on the TSF’s ability to compete for events, attendees, exhibitors and participants.”

This year’s state champion bull will be honored about 30 miles to the east.

-- Photographs Provided

In 2010, the nonprofit Tennessee State Fair Association took over the management and ownership of the state fair, formed specifically to promote the very things that make a fair great – agriculture, horticulture and the creative arts. But the fair was also operating at a deficit of several hundred thousand dollars, the CSL study found.

The right to run the state fair was awarded to the State Fair Association again in 2014 for a five-year term. In a press release, chairman John Rose said the association “now has an opportunity to formulate and execute plans for a long-term credible and sustainable state fair in which all Tennesseans can participate and enjoy.”

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. What finally put the last nail in the coffin was soccer. In 2017, Metro Council approved plans for a new $275 million soccer stadium at the fairgrounds. Several lawsuits by fair supporters failed. The soccer stadium is now under construction and will be home to expansion team Nashville SC.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture issued an upbeat press release about the fair’s move to Wilson County.

“In partnership with Wilson County and Wilson County Promotions, the Tennessee State Fair will be one of the largest and strongest in the country,” Gov. Lee said in the press release. “I thank the State Fair Commission and General Assembly for prioritizing the investments needed to expand facilities, showcase our agriculture community, and ensure the best possible experience for Tennesseans.”

But at the end of the day and for a variety of reasons, the Tennessee State Fair failed to stand on its own.

An exciting future

Showing an animal at a county or state fair is much more than parading around an arena. It is a long-term commitment by the youth of any state that involves not only raising that animal but learning life skills such as responsibility, decision making and goal setting.

4-H is an integral part of providing that experience.

“Youth prepare their animals for show by building a relationship with their project animal,” says Martin Koon, a 4-H extension program leader based in Middle Tennessee. “They do this by learning proper care, proper grooming and spending time with their animal. Much time and effort goes into preparing their show animal for the show ring.”

In 2020 Wilson County held their livestock shows under strict pandemic precautions even though the fair was canceled. And they included state entries in the contest. “We made those state shows last year and people were so appreciative they had a place to show,” says McPeak, the fair’s director.

“The state fair is another opportunity for these youth from across the state to share their project and their showmanship skills,” Koon says. “The unique thing is the audience may not have ever experienced a livestock show or even been around livestock. What a great opportunity for our youth to share their passion for livestock and educate others about agriculture.”

This year’s Wilson County Fair-Tennessee State Fair will be a transitioning period to integrate the two events. More than 150 competitions and exhibits will take place, including the livestock shows, horticulture and food competitions and pageants.

Wilson County will always have contests specific to residents of the county. Some state competitions will face new rules as now a first-place finish in a county fair will be required to enter the state fair. Not all counties have a county fair and McPeak hopes that the new rules will encourage the creation of county fairs in all 95 counties in Tennessee.

“This year is going to be a beginning and we will strengthen it in the future,” says Emily Pitcock, the executive secretary of the Tennessee Association of Fairs.

For those who love the agricultural mission of a state fair and witnessed the struggles of the Tennessee State Fair over the years to survive, this new partnership brings the anticipation of bigger things to come.

“I’m beyond excited,” says Justin Crowe, the director and statewide 4-H program leader for the University of Tennessee Extension “Helen McPeak has a long history with 4-H. People at that fair understand it, understand positive youth and I think the sky is the limit. We are very traditional in how we do things.

“We believe in honoring our past and things that have always worked. We’re going to continue that. We’re also open to new things and we’re having conversations about new ideas and engaging children in 2021 and beyond.”

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