By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Trying to find an answer to financial, programing and leadership challenges facing the Lee County Agri-Center, county leaders found a friend in Poplarville.
The rural community in south Mississippi has an attraction that draws thousands of young children each year – Bluejack Ridge Ranch – a 400-acre cattle ranch that includes a seven-acre maze, petting zoo and duck races.
Bluejack’s director, Kristi Harris, formally agreed on Monday to serve as a consultant to the agri-center in Verona, one of more than 70 arenas in the state receiving taxpayer support, a county-owned operation struggling to regain its footing as a preferred venue.
Harris will receive $10,000 for the one-year contract.
With more than 40 agri-centers and multipurpose centers in the state, experts who study them point to the director position as a key factor to a facility’s success.
Harris will spend the next year working with the newly appointed director, Torrey Mitchell, a New Albany native with agriculture roots, to find ways to breathe new life into the facility.
Lee County Supervisors and the resident committee that makes recommendations on the facility have directed the pair to work together to incorporate elements of success found at Harris’ ranch.
For Harris, that involves a goal of bringing 6,000 to 8,000 young children to the center this fall, beginning in October.
“We’re trying to connect kids to agriculture and use the Agri-Center to do it,” Harris said.
The plan involves targeting schools located an hour from the facility to bring preschool to fourth-grade students there for a “first-class field trip experience.” Harris said that will generate foot traffic at the facility and additional revenue by charging each student $8 to attend.
She and Mitchell continue to work on many large details to making this happen, such as creating a website, determining programs, connecting to area schools and logistics.
“Maybe people would be open to lending us animals for the petting zoo,” Harris said. “Or we could buy them, and sell them at the end of the season.”
By incorporating ways to bring first-time visitors to the Agri-Center, Harris said she hopes it will become a community venue.
For more than a year and a half before Mitchell was hired, Lee County Administrator Sean Thompson had the added duty of interim director of the facility. He and others who want the facility to succeed consider Harris’ partnership as part of the plan to prove wrong those who think the facility is a lost cause.
Since opening in 1994, the facility has required significant county tax dollars to subsidize the operation. For Fiscal Year 2013, the Lee County Supervisors anticipates the agri-center having $428,313 in expenses and less than $200,000 in income, causing taxpayers to foot the rest of the bill. As part of Mitchell’s $48,000-a-year salary agreement, he can receive up to an extra 30 percent of his pay if he brings in more funding to the center, requiring the county to contribute less.
“The goal, at the end of the day, is this is a business,” Mitchell said after becoming director.
Mitchell, 31, has marketing experience, having helped run a small deep sea fishing and diving company. While bringing more weekend events to the Agri-Center and incorporating student field trips during the week, county leaders hope it will grow in popularity and use.
However, agricultural economists and longtime professionals in the field warn that few, if any, types of facilities turn a profit or even break even.
“You ought to make about 40 percent of your operational costs,” said Bricklee Miller, who has directed the Mississippi Horse Park in Starkville for more than a dozen years.
Most agri-centers in Mississippi were built under former state agricultural commissioner Jim Buck Ross, who provided state funding as part of construction costs, leaving local governments responsible for operational costs not covered by center revenues.
While success of directors to bring in events helps, the facilities still depend on taxpayer support to stay open.
“A lot of communities thought these facilities would be profit-generating but most are not,” said Al Myles, an agricultural economist at Mississippi State University who has studied the economic impact of agri-centers in the state.
Myles said most communities find value in the facilities through events they produce and through outside visitors coming in and spending money in the area.
The largest agri-center facilities in the state – located in Starkville, Tunica, Hattiesburg and Jackson – attract larger horse shows and agricultural events that smaller venues can’t support.
However, Harris and Mitchell believe that’s part of why the Lee County facility needs to broaden its target audience to include people who wouldn’t typically attend a 4-H event or other traditional agricultural event.
“It’s going to be truly a community center,” Harris said. “We’re going to incorporate agri-tainment and agri-education.”
County supervisors have said they would support modest upgrades to the facility for now. But, they said they would have more of an open mind for more expensive capital improvements, such as adding a heating and cooling system, when they see more people attending events and more money being generated.
Harris and Mitchell plan to have the first groups of students visiting the Agri-Center on field trips in October. Until then, they’ll work on logistics to get the place ready for a new chapter in the facility’s history.
Lee County Supervisor Tommie Lee Ivy, whose district includes the Agri-Center, said he feels optimistic about opportunities with new leadership at the facility.