Ag Center makes improvements, debt lingers

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The taxpayer-subsidized Lee County Agri-Center continues to bleed money despite a year-long effort to lure events and boost profits.
In the five fiscal quarters since a new director came aboard, the facility’s average monthly deficit has climbed to $15,000. That’s a 30-percent increase from the five previous quarters.
The Lee County Board of Supervisors funnels hundreds of thousands of dollars into the sprawling complex every year to make ends meet. This past year, it took more than $280,000.
Board members will set a new annual budget in September, and the Agri-Center will need a another lump sum. At least one county official said it’s time to boot the complex from the books and let another agency take it over.
“I’d love to see Mississippi State (University) or another entity take it rent-free,” District 1 Supervisor Phil Morgan said. “They’re more equipped to take it and make money with it.”
But both the new director and other county officials say it’ll take more time to squeeze profits from the venture, which hasn’t broken even since its 1994 debut.
“That’s a big ship, and it takes a lot to turn,” Lee County Administrator Sean Thompson said. “We’ve made a lot of progress in one year, but it’s not something you can flip overnight.”
Last April, the Board of Supervisors hired a new center director, Julia Viator, amid the findings of an outside consultant who recommended changing the facility’s business model.
Interim directors notwithstanding, Viator is the fifth person to lead the Agri-Center since it opened. Most stayed an average of five years.
Viator vowed to make the Agri-Center a self-sufficient entity within a decade. The plan included a makeover for the aging facility and the return of the Lee County Regional Fair – both of which also were recommended by the outside consultant.
Matt Buchanan, whose issued his report last spring, estimated a revived fair would draw 80,000 people and generate $500,000 in one year. After expenses, the profit would be $175,000.
“I believe building the Lee County Regional Fair to its fullest potential is the key factor in making the Lee County Agri-Center stand apart and rise above any other facility of its kind in Mississippi,” Buchanan wrote in his report.
The Agri-Center used to host nine-day fairs with carnival rides, musical acts, livestock shows and other entertainment. But dipping attendance forced supervisors to cut the fair to five days, shuffle the dates, split the livestock show and try other means to earn more money. It eventually disappeared altogether.
Viator said last week she hasn’t made much headway on the fair. One attempt earlier this year to host a carnival midway at the site failed when the organizer backed out. Viator said the company had set its dates too close to Tupelo’s Elvis Presley Festival and feared the competition.
“To have a fair like the old ones, it will take everyone working together,” she said. “It’s not just the Agri-Center doing its part all alone. It’s a team effort.”
In the meantime, Viator has made small and steady improvements. She adjusted contracts to generate more revenue when the facility hosts larger events, improved the livestock barns, remodeled the event office and repaired old roof panels.
She is committed to luring more events to the center, too. She wants to host more big concerts and livestock shows, in addition to the smaller but also profitable conferences, meetings and weddings.
But it will take time to develop those relationships, she said. And it’s hard to compete with the numerous other venues in the region. The Agri-Center already lost the 4H Club this year to Starkville, which has a bigger and newer facility. It did, however, host the Federal Emergency Management Agency when it came after April’s tornadoes.
Although FEMA didn’t pay – nor did the 4H – Thompson said their presence was a big deal for the county and helped fill hotels and restaurants.
“I definitely see we’ve got a lot of challenges,” Viator said. “But I still think it’s a great facility with great potential. Like most facilities, though, it probably will have to get subsidized by the county until we can get a big annual festival to give us that financial boost.”

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