The board that oversees the Arkansas State Fair accepted a $3 million offer from Little Rock on Thursday to keep the event in the capital city, though board members said they would have preferred to move but just didn't have the money.
The fair has operated since mid-1940s on about 100 acres south of downtown Little Rock, and the board wanted room for expansion and updated facilities. Two cities in northern Pulaski County tried to get the fair moved to their communities. Jacksonville offered land; North Little Rock tried but an election on a sales tax increase to fund the deal failed last year.
Earlier in the process, a local bid was submitted for consideration for housing the fair and was among those considered for a time.
The bid was submitted by the Benton Advertising Commission a few years during the time when a proposal was under way to build a county fairplex that involved a renovation of the fairgrounds and the construction of several buildings in that area.
The fair will go on as scheduled Oct. 12-21 in Little Rock.
"I'm not surprised," Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said. He worked closely with the fair board and said he understands the organization didn't have money to build new facilities from scratch in Jacksonville, even with donated land.
"We're going to pursue things of more immediate benefit for our community for that land," the mayor added.
Fair Director Ralph Shoptaw said the average state fairgrounds in the U.S. has 366 acres and the board wanted something closer to that. The fair owns another 84 acres but it has been inaccessible because of the railroad tracks that run through the area.
Relocating railroad tracks or building an underpass could link 60 acres in one area, and 24 acres west of the tracks also could be put to use with improvements, Shoptaw said.
Little Rock's housing authority owns 10 acres adjacent to the fairgrounds and that area could eventually be brought into the fair's holdings. The city is in the process of moving residents from the community's oldest housing project, Sunset Terrace, into neighborhood dwellings, and Shoptaw said that land is expected to become available.
The Sunset Terrace property could be used for parking and open up space for a spruced-up entrance and more concessions. "It could give the east side a whole new look," Shoptaw said.
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said the fair could also expand to the former Phillips Lighting plant to the west. He said the buildings at the site could provide hundreds of thousands of square feet of exhibit space.
Rena Messick, 37, who lives near the intersection of South Summit Street and West Roosevelt Road, just east of the fairgrounds, said she was relieved to learn the fair isn't going anywhere.
"I'm glad it's staying, it's historic," she said, adding that her mother used to take her to the fair when she was young and now she takes her own children.
Messick hopes the fair can expand its parking areas, which she said would cut down on the number of people parking in her neighborhood. She said crime becomes a concern while the fair is taking place, especially as people walk to their cars after dark, even though there is a heavy police presence.
City Board member Ken Richardson said keeping the fair in Little Rock will help neighborhood redevelopment nearby and in a larger area of south Little Rock, where the city is buying homes to renovate and lots for new construction and putting them on the market.
"I'm relieved the fair is going to stay. It's a great institution for our city," Richardson said. "It sends a strong message that we need to be more diligent in our redevelopment efforts in that part of the community."
The centerpiece of the fairgrounds, Barton Coliseum, will be getting $50,000 in improvements to its basketball court and lighting, Shoptaw said. The arena just landed the 2012-2013 high school basketball championships next spring and will host another hoops tournament beforehand, both of which are expected to bring in revenue.
The state fair brings together young farmers from across Arkansas to show livestock ranging from rabbits to bulls. The fair offers amusement park rides and carnival games. Some of the food items served, including deep-fried Twinkies, have been attractions, too.
Barton Coliseum also used to regularly host concerts unrelated to the fair, something that could happen again with further improvements, Shoptaw said.
An event known as Edgefest, featuring nearly a dozen bands, will be held at the fairgrounds on Aug. 18. A couple of gun shows are scheduled before the State Fair begins and a dog show is scheduled for Aug. 11 and 12.
Fair Board Chairman Ned Purtle said Jacksonville proposed an attractive site with 450 acres available. Board members agreed it would have been a great site, but said it was not affordable.
For now, the fair will have to get by with incremental improvements. The state highway department plans to start a two-year project next year to build a new overpass over nearby railroad tracks, and the bridge will include a large pedestrian walkway.
Long-term plans include the possibility of an interchange on Interstate 530, which would provide an easier way for people coming from south Arkansas to reach the fairgrounds. Funding is not in place for that project.
"We're going to sit down and do some planning," Shoptaw said.