After Rocky Year, Fair Bounces Back Under New Ownership

10/6/2012 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

DOSWELL, Va. — With the Ferris wheel spinning, the petting zoo crowded with young farm animals and young humans, and the corn dog vendors doing brisk business, the 2012 Virginia State Fair had every appearance of normalcy — despite the fact that it almost didn’t happen at all.

Little more than six months ago, the former fair owner’s announced that bankruptcy would force the cancellation of this year’s state fair, held almost without interruption since 1854.

That news came as a huge disappointment to Greg Hicks, Virginia Farm Bureau vice president for communications, and his colleagues. They knew the state fair played an important role in the Farm Bureau’s mission to promote, preserve and protect agriculture in the state.

“We hope there is a way to salvage a state fair, as it provides a showcase for the state’s largest industry, agriculture,” said Farm Bureau President Wayne Pryor, soon after the announcement.

On May 22, however, the news got a little better, after a Tennessee company, Universal Fairs, purchased the 331-acre fairgrounds and intellectual property and assets of the Virginia State Fair at auction for the surprisingly low price of $5.67 million. After the purchase, Universal Fairs owner Mark Lovell announced that his company planned to organize and host the fair after all.

That bargain sale price gave Hicks and his colleagues at the Farm Bureau an unusual idea: What if they partnered with Universal Fairs to own and manage the event? Before long, the two parties began negotiations and, on July 19, signed a partnership agreement that gave the Virginia Farm Bureau a 50-percent ownership stake in the fairgrounds and the events held there.

According to Hicks, it is an unprecedented move; he’s not aware of any other Farm Bureau organization in any other state that has a stake in the management and ownership of its state fair.

In addition to the fact that the Farm Bureau found itself partial owner and operator of a large fair — a role the organization had no previous experience filling — the July 19 signing of the partnership gave it and Universal Fairs just 70 days to pull together the state fair.

“It’s a huge challenge, but it’s also a very exciting challenge,” said Hicks, sitting on a bench beside the Meadow Pavilion, where beekeepers, peanut growers, Master Gardeners and others had set up shop to promote their products and practices to visitors.

The Virginia Farm Bureau and Universal Fairs created a new company, Commonwealth Fairs and Events, which owns the fairgrounds and will manage all the events held there. Hicks said the Farm Bureau hopes to make enough money through its partnership in the state fair to maintain and grow the fair, as well as generate new revenue for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the organization’s advocacy and lobbying arm.

“I think they did a pretty good job throwing everything together I’m tickled to death,” said Joel Burman, a basket maker from Chesterfield, Va., who set up a booth in the agricultural section of the fairgrounds.

“We’re all excited they’re back here,” said Candy Eubank, who has promoted her land clearing and tree mulching business at the state fair for the past several years. “They’re working really, really hard and they’ve done a really good job pulling it all back together.”

Hicks said a number of aspects of the fair are smaller because of the year’s unusual circumstances, including fewer entries in some of the contests and less representation from some of the state’s commodity groups.

The biggest missing component from last year is the youth livestock shows, which state 4-H leaders moved to the Rockingham County Fairgrounds from Oct. 11 to 14. That decision was made during the spring, when it appeared that there would be no state fair; next year, Hicks said, he hopes to have those shows back.

While official attendance was not available on Monday, Eubanks, Burman and other vendors at the fairgrounds said attendance was strong throughout the fair’s opening weekend, particularly on Sunday, when the weather was warm and sunny.

“It’s gonna be OK,” said Milton Wright, who has run a booth for his business, Old Dominion Tractor, for more than 20 years at the state fair. “It’ll be better next year than it was this year.”

That’s a hope shared by Hicks.

“If the crowds pan out it should be successful for years to come,” he said.

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