It will take a lot to accomplish the original vision for the facility
The Lee County Agri-Center opened to great fanfare 16 years ago. The facility on U.S. 145 in Verona was touted as a vehicle for drawing crowds and boosting business in Lee County, and the assumption was that it would pay for itself.
But just as it was opening, its uniqueness in Northeast Mississippi was diminished as the state provided assistance to other counties to start their own. The facility had an initial splash of success but has never lived up to its promise. Today it’s a deteriorating drain on the county treasury, as the Daily Journal’s Emily Le Coz reported in Sunday’s paper.
The Board of Supervisors recognized the problem and enlisted a consultant to make recommendations. A new talented and energetic Agri-Center director, Julia Viator, has been hired.
But money is still the big hurdle. Since 1994, the facility has generated $3.6 million in revenue but cost $6.7 million to operate. The most telling statistic is what has happened to revenues in that time. In 1995 – its first full year of operations – the Agri-Center brought in $408,293. By 2009, revenues had fallen dramatically to $72,380.
It’s clear that the finances are unsustainable over the long haul.
Yet the Agri-Center needs more money before it can make money – for repairs, renovations, marketing and staff, and these are tight budget times. Given the financial realities, it will take creativity and innovation to change the facility’s course, and Viator has already been thinking that way by getting the board to lift its ban on concerts and by striking a deal with 4-H for some free labor in exchange for continued use of the complex.
But the biggest hope for turning the Agri-Center into a viable facility rests, in the director’s and consultant’s minds, with reviving the Lee County Regional Fair, which used to run for nine days and which the supervisors discontinued several years ago after steadily declining attendance.
Maybe the fair wasn’t marketed right. Maybe a revival that included more varied attractions would be successful.
But officials must also consider the prospect that entertainment tastes have changed, and that a fair that mixes carnival rides, musical performances, livestock exhibits and other activities may never draw what it once did in the heyday of such events.
At some point, it may become necessary to acknowledge that this facility may never be a center of activity on the scale originally conceived.
But Viator deserves a chance to demonstrate what can be done with the limited financial resources available. She’s obviously determined and capable, and her success would be the county’s gain.
NEMS Daily Journal