Agri-Center woes spur public call

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Stumped by what to do with the perpetually unprofitable Lee County Agri-Center, elected officials will turn to the public for help.
Lee County supervisors will hold a public meeting at 10 a.m., March 31, in the Agri-Center’s main arena to solicit ideas for keeping the facility open without draining the county’s budget.
“You know what a boat is, right? It’s something you just throw money at. That’s what the Agri-Center is,” said District 3 Supervisor Darrell Rankin at the board’s meeting Monday. “We need to ask ourselves, what are we going to get back? Where are we going with it? What is the future of the Agri-Center?”
Built nearly two decades ago in Verona, the 150,000-square-foot Agri-Center hosted rodeos, concerts, weddings, truck shows and carnivals. But it never has been profitable: It earns about $100,000 annually but requires double or triple that amount from county coffers to stay afloat.
The county put in $280,000 alone in the current fiscal year, and no one wants to impose a tax hike to continue that pattern.
“I’m not in favor putting money down that hole,” said District 2 Supervisor Bobby Smith. “I get heartburn over that.”
After a string of directors – most of whom quit or resigned after just a few years on the job – the facility now runs with a skeleton crew and no direct oversight. County Administrator Sean Thompson acts as the Agri-Center’s point person after the latest director, Julia Viator, abruptly left in October.
Supervisors hesitate in hiring a new director without a solid plan for the future. Yet they admitted not having adhered to the previous plan for the center, which recommended making $1.2 million worth of improvements. That plan was completed two years ago, and while some improvements have been made, it’s far from complete.
District 4 Supervisor Tommie Lee Ivy said his constituents want to see the Agri-Center remain open and are willing to donate their own time to see it happens.
“I have people calling me, saying their willing to work,” Ivy said. “I think if the community gets involved, we can do something.”
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com