Past Agri-Center director recalls woes

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Former Lee County Agri-Center Director Julia Viator didn’t abruptly resign but was eased out by a Board of Supervisors worried about re-election, she said this week.
In an interview with the Daily Journal, Viator said she struggled to transform the facility from an aging eyesore into a successful regional venue but got little support from the board. She left in October after 18 months on the job.
Supervisors denied Viator’s allegations, saying they simply made her choose between her position at the Agri-Center and another full-time job she took toward the end of her tenure there.
“It seemed like if she was working for us, she needed to be working for us,” said District 2 Supervisor Bobby Smith. “There were no politics involved in it. I think Julia did a great job with what she had to work with.”
Viator had been the latest in a string of directors since the Agri-Center opened in 1994. Their average tenures were less than four years and most had cited some kind of conflict with the board upon their departures.
Supervisors haven’t filled the position since Viator’s departure and say they’re unsure about the future of the facility, which loses some $150,000 annually. They’ve called a public meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Agri-Center to solicit ideas from residents about keeping the venue open and self-sufficient.
Viator said such a scenario seems unlikely given the current atmosphere: broken equipment and dangerous conditions ignored for years; mounting costs with little or no resources; and a no-alcohol policy that prevents it from making real money.
She said she’d lost numerous deals, including rodeos and music festivals, upon informing organizers they couldn’t serve beer. But the county’s unlikely to change its stance on that. Supervisors, including Smith and Phil Morgan of District 1, said alcohol would ruin the family atmosphere of the public venue.
“It’s supposed to be agriculture-oriented,” Morgan said. “Horse shows and 4-H.”
Ultimately, though, Viator said she left because she sensed a lack of job security. The board wouldn’t give her adequate resources to make a difference yet complained the center wasn’t turning around fast enough, she said.
“I was told I was doing a great job,” she said, “but that it looked bad for them because it was an election year.”
None of the supervisors interviewed recalled any mention of politics or elections during the September closed-door session with Viator. They said the main concern was her working two full-time jobs and needing to pick just one.
Viator did just that, but it wasn’t the Agri-Center.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com