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VOL. 36 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 24, 2012

Who’s the fairest of them all?

Middle Tennessee’s county fairs look to Wilson for blue ribbon blueprint

By Hollie Deese

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The only live farm animals many will see up close all year are in one of the agriculture buildings at the annual county fair.

That wasn’t always the case when fairs first began in the early part of the 1800s as a way to introduce new agriculture trends and equipment to the masses. Over the years, competitions, activities and games were added to make fairs the total-family entertainment packages they are today.

In fact, over the years the appeal of the summer fair for many families has shifted from showing off prized pigs and eyeing the neighbors’ livestock to eating funnel cakes and riding the Ferris wheel.

But bigger changes have been going on behind the scenes as many fairs across run by private organizations foundered due to lack of donations and sponsors and switched to non-profit status with volunteer boards.

The Wilson County fair is one that has thrived after the switch from being run by a private organization to a volunteer fair association. The largest fair in the state, it annually draws more than 500,000 people.

But it wasn’t always that way.

“It had been a privately-owned fair, and then it was operated by the Jaycee’s,” says Randall Clemons, Wilson County board member and CEO of Wilson Bank and Trust.

The Wilson County Fair was held in Lebanon for the first time in 1853. By 1927, it had an attendance of more than 25,000. Between 1927 and 1969, the fair was run by a variety of private owners, but by 1969 the fair was done.

The Lebanon Jaycees took over in ’73, but was not involved five years later.

“We took it over in 1977,” Clemons says, speaking of 300 volunteer board members who work in conjunction with Wilson County Promotions to put the fair on each year. Attendance the year they took over was 12,000.

“It was kind of a new concept, being a 501c3 and everyone being volunteers,” he says. “And that is what has made it successful, people giving of their time and energy to make it a success.”

On any given night of the fair, Clemons expects to see at least 15 different states represented in the parking lot. He estimates approximately 50 percent of the attendees are from outside Wilson County.

“All of the motels are full here, and it is a major impact on our community,” Clemons adds.

The Robertson County Fair is not nearly as big as Wilson County’s, but it is still a plus for the community. Also organized by an all-volunteer organization, the Robertson County Fair has an average attendance of around 25,000 for the week.

“We are totally funded by admissions and money generated during the fair and because we are a 501c3 non-profit,” says Chad Gregory, a member of Robertson County’s fair board.

And when visitors are done spending money at the fair, they keep spending elsewhere in the community.

“Looking back at previous year’s local-option sales tax, it does appear that the month of the fair is typically above average,” says Margot Fosnes, president and chief economic development officer for the Robertson County Chamber of Commerce.

The key, she says, is emulating the Wilson County model.

“We do not see a significant increase in local hotel/motel bookings or tax collections, probably due to the fact that our fair is more of a locally-oriented event and does not typically attract a great deal of out-of-town attendees,” she says. “The Fair Board does a great job producing this event each year, but it has not grown the budget to have the regional appeal that, say, the Wilson County Fair does.”

Having locals spend locally is just fine with Gregory, who considers the Robertson County Fair to be one of the major social events for the area. He also would like to see numbers similar to Wilson, but the money is not available.

“We would like to do some new events, but those things take time and money,” he says. “It takes quite a bit of money to put the fair on, and it can be a big risk because, if it rains for four days in a row, then we are kind of stuck. There are a lot of expenses that have already been paid out before we have even been open the first day.”

Owning vs. renting land

One boost any fair can have is to own the fairgrounds instead of renting. Robertson’s fair is held on 10 acres privately held by the association, not by an individual.

“We are able to rent the grounds out, so that is another small revenue stream we have throughout the year,” Gregory says, adding there is a tractor pull in June, a rodeo in July and United Way cook-offs. The grounds have even been host to an American Cancer Society Relay for Life.

In Wilson County, a 104-acre tract of the Baddour Estate purchased in 1974 was the beginning of the James E. Ward Agricultural and Community Center. The Lebanon Jaycees were responsible for the construction of the first permanent building, a restroom facility.

“At the time we actually started the fair, the James E. Ward Ag Center was relatively new,” Clemons says. “Our county had taken a great step of faith and gone out and bought a farm out there that was basically a barn and one small exhibition center and a restroom and an arena, and that was it. As a result of what we have done, we have been able to help the county develop that.”

Every dollar made must go into improvements for the center, he adds.

The State Fair, however, is on borrowed land, and possibly, borrowed time.

“Our goal is to keep it at the fairgrounds,” says Kelsey Ross, event manager for the Tennessee State Fair. “Unfortunately for us, it is sort of out of our hands just because it is not our grounds. We are renting those grounds when we hold the fair. But we want to stay in Nashville since it is our state capital and that is really appropriate for a state fair.”

Last year, the Tennessee State Fair drew more than 105,000 paid attendants, an increase since the Tennessee State Fair Association took over in 2010. Before then, Metro Nashville was still responsible for the event.

Reconnect to the past

Ross says one of the ways the Tennessee State Fair is trying to grow is through its agriculture arena, drawing on the strength of the county fair circuit. New this year at the state level is the “Champion of Champions,” an all-star competition for state county fairs in the junior poultry and dairy divisions, inviting winners from 60 state fairs to compete in Nashville.

“Our focus has become to create what is a true state fair, and by doing so we hope people from all over the state will be interested in coming to Nashville,” Ross says. “Hopefully next year we will be rolling it out to creative arts.”

Nashville is not exactly an agricultural area, but many surrounding areas still are.

“It is a great showcase for our agricultural community and culture, which is a very important driver in the Robertson County economy,” Fosnes says.

Clemons agrees: “It is a time for you to showcase the talents of your community.”

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