By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – A poll of agri-centers statewide revealed that, of those in wet counties, about half allow alcohol consumption on premises while the other half don’t.
Lee County Agri-Center in Verona counts itself among the teetotalers, but some residents and at least one former director want that to change.
They say the cash-strapped facility could attract more events and earn more revenue by allowing beer sales. The most recent director, Julia Viator, said she had to turn away several big concerts and competitions during her tenure due to the no-alcohol policy.
Preserving it makes no sense, she said, because it ignores the evolving nature of the business. Other Mississippi agri-center directors agreed.
“In today’s world, you’re very limited in what you can do because a lot of sporting events, concerts, wrestling, rodeos, motocross and big truck events are sponsored by (beer and alcohol) distributors,” said Ray Lilley, director of the Neshoba County Coliseum, which sits in a wet city inside of a dry county.
The coliseum has a no-alcohol policy, and Lilley said it has cost him “many, many, many events.”
But the Lee County Board of Supervisors doesn’t want to reverse the agri-center’s dry status, citing fears about rowdy behavior, drunk driving and a decline of the family-friendly atmosphere there.
Many of the events held at the 150,000-square-foot facility cater to families and youth groups and are considered the bread and butter of the industry. They’re good for the community but not necessarily for revenue, especially considering the agri-center waives its fees for many of these shows.
Since its debut in the mid-1990s, the Lee County Agri-Center has never turned a profit and instead needs large cash infusions from county coffers to stay afloat. It got $280,000 the most recent fiscal year and made about $150,000 on its own.
Supervisors have long struggled with the situation and last week called a public meeting seeking ideas for help. Several people in attendance suggested alcohol sales; supervisors didn’t bite.
According to board President Phil Morgan, the county doesn’t need the center to be profitable. It just needs to break even.
Such is the case at the Rankin County Pavillion, despite its no-alcohol policy, said spokesman Cotton Yancey.
“We do concerts and rodeos, and it hasn’t affected our (business) at all,” he said. “When you open that gate, you open yourself up to added security. And what kind of example are you going to be setting for your youngsters?”
Other venues shield children’s exposure to alcohol by limiting which events can serve it and which cannot. The Washington County Convention Center, for example, requires event organizers to obtain permission from the Board of Supervisors before serving beer.
The Leflore County Civic and Agri-Center bans it from ball games, gospel concerts and any activity involving children, said secretary Gayle Young. When alcohol is served, she said, the county requires additional security.
“If we didn’t allow them to bring in alcohol for blues concerts,” Young said, “I think it would definitely hurt.”
Most counties interviewed have mandatory security procedures in place for events with alcohol, including a few that require organizers to use local police officers and sheriff’s deputies.
“I haven’t seen it detract from the family-oriented aspect at all,” said Mike Turnage, assistant director of the Forrest County Multi-Purpose Center, which requires deputies. “Most people are fairly responsible. Of course, any time you provide alcohol to a large crowd, you’ll have that one or two that act out, but that’s where the security comes in.”
Other venues, like the Columbia Exposition Center in Marion County, officially ban alcohol but acknowledge that guests sneak it in anyway. Staff often find empty beer bottles the morning after a rodeo, said Expo Center spokeswoman Jane McDonald, who has even seen wedding parties bring in champagne fountains.
“We’ve got signs everywhere that say no alcohol,” McDonald said. “Of course, you can’t stop them.”
But you can regulate it – sort of. The Jackson County Fairgrounds won’t sell alcohol or allow any of its guests to sell it. But it will let them bring it in and give it away, as long as they agree to police security and waive the county’s liability.
“Down on the Coast, Mardi Gras is really big and we have anywhere from 10-12 Mardi Gras balls,” said fairgrounds Director Jim Hart. “Obviously, if we didn’t allow them to have alcohol we wouldn’t have any carnival balls.”
THE NORTHEAST MISSISSIPPI
Daily Journal looked at the alcohol policies of more than three dozen agri-centers statewide. Twenty-one were located in dry counties where alcohol is banned anyway. Of the 16 in wet counties, nine centers allow alcohol while seven do not.
• Crossroads Arena in Corinth
• Forrest County Multi-Purpose Center
• Jackson County Fairgrounds in
• Harrison County Fairgrounds in
• Leflore County Civic/Agri-Center in
• Canton Madison County the Multipurpose
Center in Canton
• Mississippi Equine Center in Jackson
• Tunica Arena and Exposition Center
• Washington County Convention
Center in Greenville
• Ethel Vance Park in Amite County
• Japser County Livestock Exhibition
Center in Bay Springs
• Lee County Agri-Center in Verona
• Columbia Exposition Center in Marion
• Marshall County Ag & Community
Center in Holly Springs
• Neshoba County Coliseum in
• Mississippi Horse Park Agri-Center
and Fairgrounds in Oktibbeha
• Rankin County Pavilion in Brandon