Lee County Agri-Center: At a crossroads

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

VERONA – The Lee County Agri-Center sits on the side of U.S. Highway 145, deteriorating after years of neglect and revolving-door management.
Its marquee doesn’t work. Its walls are dingy. Its siding is torn. The heating-and-air-conditioning system needs repair, as do the pens and gates and stalls.
It also needs a thorough cleaning.
When that’s done, the facility will be up to standard, according to a report issued last month by a hired consultant for Lee County.
But it’ll require far more to regain its position as one of the state’s best multi-purpose facilities.
Attaining that status, said consultant Matt Buchanan, will necessitate upgrades, expansions and new hires that will cost the county an estimated $1.2 million over the next five years.
The amount doesn’t include the average annual allocation of $182,000 that county taxpayers already funnel into the facility to keep it afloat.
Although the Agri-Center generates an average $212,000 annually, it requires an average $394,000 annually to run. The county funds the difference, taking money from a couple of funding pools.
But additional investments appear unlikely. County supervisors, who approve fiscal-year budgets in September, still are grappling with a sluggish economy as well as mounting legal costs in their fight against Tupelo’s proposed annexation.
Unless the Agri-Center can turn a profit, officials are leery about more funding.
“I want to provide a larger budget for the Agri-Center, I just don’t know that we can,” said Board of Supervisors President Darrell Rankin. “The economy is fairly stagnant, so it comes down to the reality of whether or not we have any money.”
But the Agri-Center can’t boost its earnings without financial support. It operates on a shoestring budget as it is, with only three full-time employees to handle administration, public relations, maintenance, marketing, cooking and whatever else comes up.
Among those three employees is newly hired director Julia Viator. A former Gap manager and marketing wiz, Viator replaces Clint Young, who left last year after so-so relations with the Board of Supervisors.
Board of Supervisors Secretary Tammy Rodgers had served as interim director between the two tenures.
Interim directors notwithstanding, Viator is the fifth person to lead the Agri-Center since it opened in April 1994. The first, Dody Vail Turner, left after a few months to spend more time with her family. All others stayed an average of five years.
Attempts to reach the three longest-serving directors – Frank Swanger, Stephen Johnson and Young – were unsuccessful.
The Daily Journal did, however, talk to past assistant director Billy Boren. He served under Johnson and ran the annual fairs. Boren said politics and management often collided, and pointed to the supervisors.
“They hire good people with good intentions, but they don’t give them the backing,” Boren said. “It’s just a real sad situation. I go by there and just about tear up because I know what it can do, but I know it will never be that way if politics continue to be involved in it.”
Daily Journal articles around the time of each former director’s departure detailed some kind of disagreement with the board just before the resignations.
Usually, it had to do with the fair.
Longtime supervisor Charles Duke, who retired from the board in 2005, agreed the relationships between the two weren’t always sunny.
“The board and the directors over the years have had differences of opinions,” said Duke, whose vision helped build the Agri-Center.
“I don’t think we really had what I call the right director,” he said. “I think really the problem is having a good director that works well with the Board of Supervisors. But I don’t blame everything on the directors because the Board of Supervisors are directly over it, so I can take some of the blame.”
A group effort
The Agri-Center sat on the drawing board for 20 years before being built for $2.25 million in 1993-94. It was a joint effort by the county, the Community Development Foundation, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Mississippi State University and other groups.
The original complex held the 3,000-square-foot arena, a horse-and-cattle barn, a swine-and-lamb barn, a warmup ring and a 1,400-square-foot parking lot.
The state kicked in $170,000 to help pay for stalls and related equipment.
When completed, it was the one of the first major agricultural facilities in the state. And with little or no competition, the Agri-Center easily snapped up events such as rodeos, tractor pulls, monster truck races, circuses, gospel shows, festivals, auctions and livestock shows.
“It was marketed as a regional facility,” said longtime County Administrator Ronnie Bell, who now works for Three Rivers Planning and Development District.
“But shortly about the time Lee County got involved in building it, the state of Mississippi … decided that they wanted to give other communities an opportunity to have agri-center-type facilities,” Bell said.
“So the state provided some grant monies, and instead of that facility being a regional draw, if you look around you have agri-centers almost in every county now. They all compete against one another. ”
In 1995, the state Legislature authorized $10 million in bonds for a new program to help counties and municipalities build or improve their livestock facilities.
Today some four dozen agri-centers exist throughout the state – nine of them in Northeast Mississippi.
Lee County also benefited from the program. It applied for and received $500,000, which it matched with $500,000 of its own.
With those funds, it built an all-purpose building – the Magnolia Center – and a second horse-and-cattle barn.
Other funds were earmarked to improve lighting, the sound system and the heating-cooling system.
Money woes
And though the Agri-Center was never meant to be a money-maker, officials did hope it would break even each year.
“We intend to never let it be a burden on the county,” Turner told the Daily Journal in June 1994, two months after the facility opened and when she was still director.
For a while, it appeared a strong possibility. In its first full year of operation, the facility earned nearly $410,000. It still needed about $130,000 in county funding, but everyone at the time thought revenues would continue to rise.
But the center never again matched its first-year earning level. Revenues steadily declined over the years, hitting a low point in FY 2009 with $78,985.
The current fiscal year doesn’t look promising, either. So far, the Agri-Center has generated $72,380. Most of money today comes from rental fees – $800 per day for the arena and $600 per day for the Magnolia Center.
In the past, most revenues came from a cut of ticket sales, merchandise sales parking fees associated with big events. Those earnings have declined along with the number of large events.
Yet each year, the supervisors funnel money into the Agri-Center. Most of it covers staff salaries, contractual services and materials and supplies. It has kept the operation afloat, but not up to standard.
“We’ve let it run down because it wasn’t making money and we didn’t keep it up like we should – the buildings and bathrooms and everything,” Duke said. “The infrastructure, we’re going to have to put some more money in it, the county is, to bring it up to a standard where we can compete with surrounding counties.”
But, said current County Administrator Sean Thompson, “It didn’t get this way in one year, and it can’t get to show place in six months or one year.”
Viator knows funding won’t materialize immediately. She said she hopes for a small increase over last year’s level, but already has plans to make improvements and generate revenues without extra cash.
She recently struck a deal with the 4-H Club, which has used the complex for free since it opened. In exchange for that usage, Viator said, group members will provide free labor to help clean and repair the place.
The new director also implemented another change. A long-standing rule against concerts at the Agri-Center has been lifted with the supervisors’ permission.
Viator said concerts have big money-making potential. And lifting the ban would allow officials to regulate these events – which for years have been inserted into the venue under the guise of “family reunions” or other seemingly benign happenings.
Return of the fair?
But reviving the regional fair is where the real money lies, according to Viator, the consultant and many officials both past and present.
“The earning potential for a fair could be huge,” Viator said.
In the consultant’s report, issued last month, Buchanan estimated a reorganized Lee County Regional 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.
In 2007, the county had no fair. Its reappearance since then has focused mainly on carnival rides.
“The last few years there we lost money,” Duke said. “People don’t go to the fair like they used to.”
But attendance at the Mississippi State Fair in Jackson has steadily climbed each year since 2005 – except for last year due to rain, said Andy Prosser, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.
Prosser said the declining economy has forced families to change their vacation plans. Instead of going to Disney World, they take their kids to the state fair where they can have fun at a good price.
But families need more than carnival rides, and Buchanan proposed that the Agri-Center offer concerts, talent shows, competitions, arts and crafts, hands-on livestock exhibits and a host of other attractions to draw large crowds over a multiple-day event.
Duke said even a reorganized fair won’t work. No one goes anymore, and the Agri-Center should focus on what it does best: livestock and horse shows.
But for Viator, the facility has limitless potential – not just in livestock and fairs, but in the dozens of other activities it can host.
“We can’t just draw on the horse people or the cattle people or the sheep people,” she said. “We need to diversify.”
But it all comes down to money and manpower. And right now, the Agri-Center lacks both.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.