OUR OPINION: Consider best options for Agri-Center Arena

By NEMS Daily Journal

Lee County’s Board of Supervisors clearly recognizes that it must find a way to stop the drain of taxpayers’ resources into the unproductive Lee County Agri-Center Arena, a sprawling facility in Verona that takes in about $100,000 annually, but costs double or triple that to maintain.
District 3 Supervisor Darrell Rankin on Tuesday repeated concerns expressed Monday about the urgency in stopping the negative cash flow to support the arena, which sits on prime property near major manufacturing plants.
The arena has hosted diverse events, including concerts, rodeos and other gatherings, but it has not caught on as an attractive venue drawing large crowds and generating revenue.
The board has set a public hearing March 31 at 10 a.m. In the main arena space to hear the public’s suggestions for moving forward.
Rankin and District 2 Supervisor Bobby Smith both said Monday they do not support investing more money in what Rankin described as a building that’s like a pleasure boat.
“It’s something you just throw money at. That’s what the Agri-Center is,” he said.
In a telephone interview Tuesday morning, Rankin said “mothballing” the arena is among the options that have come up for discussion, and that seems a reasonable option for consideration until the board and/or constituents develop a consensus about how it can be affordably kept open.
Rankin also indicated the property could be sold for the right offer, for example, if an industrial/commercial prospect showed tangible interest at the right price.
More than 40 Mississippi counties have similar arenas, including several in adjacent or nearby Northeast Mississippi counties. Their easy accessibility may be one reason the Lee County Agri-Center Arena has not met expectations. Why would any group sponsoring entertainment or bringing other attractions to a targeted audience use the Lee County venue if a similar, competitive facility is available closer to where promoters want the event?
In addition, the BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo, a larger and more comfortable facility that has hosted virtually all of the same kinds of events held at the Agri-Center, is viable and attractive for truly regional attractions and musical entertainment. The coliseum, as the BancorpSouth venue was originally called, has become the magnet for a new downtown hotel and downtown restaurants, businesses that don’t exist in easy proximity to the Agri-Center.
Large public spaces like the arena never make money easily, and often both their construction and maintenance become a source of controversy and spirited public discussion.
There’s no reason to perpetuate the arena situation as is.