The White County Fair lost what would typically be around $50,000 when it was not held in 2020 for the first time in 86 years because of COVID-19, according to fair board Vice President Steve Merritt.
On Wednesday, the Searcy Advertising and Tourism Promotion Commission granted the fair board that amount for “an immediate equine arena reconfiguration of rodeo livestock staging and bucking chutes, to include a run-back alleyway and relocation of the announcer stand.”
Fair board President Alan Quattlebaum, along with Merritt, spoke to the commission at its monthly meeting, which was moved to the Carmichael Community Center, about all the activities and events held at the White County Fairgrounds, noting that the board has one worker, a groundskeeper, on its payroll.
“We rely on an extra $125,000 throughout the year or so – and these are rough numbers obviously – but coming in to pay the bills, pay a paid employee and so forth,” Merritt said. “In essence, we have done a very good job building our outside-the-fair business and have served a lot of people.
“It’s not so much not having that fair money, it’s about that fact that we need to make sure we have a way to sustain ourselves if we don’t have another fair. County fairs around the country are coming fewer and far between. I think in Arkansas a couple of years ago there were 65 fairs, and this year , there were basically none. We did offer some things for kids that were COVID-approved, livestock events and so forth. Our mission is to support ag [agriculture] education for kids.”
In the past, trustees from the county jail were allowed to work at the fairgrounds, but Merritt said that is not allowed any more. “Everything just costs more these days as we all know.”
Merritt said the improvements that will be made with the money that is being received from the A&P Commission will allow for more events.
“We will gain a whole market of team ropers,” he said. “Barrel racers and team ropers are a big thing right now.”
Merritt gave an example of how popular team roping is, mentioning the Cowboy Church in El Paso having 700 teams participate.
“These are two people times 700, not to mention family who came to view and watch,” he said. “The impact is great.”
A&P Chairman Chris Howell asked if theses events are overnight events and Quattlebaum said barrel racing and the big rodeos are all at least two- to three-day events where people are coming to spend the night. Quattlebaum said some of the events pull people in from up to seven states into Searcy.
“I was talking to one of the ladies at our Little Britches Rodeo and she said that one family alone came in for that weekend and spent $2,500 here in town, that was over the Thanksgiving weekend which is one of their bigger rodeos,” Quattlebaum said. “The unique thing about this facility is that it is centrally located in the state of Arkansas. It is one of the top, premiere places in the state of Arkansas.” He said the fairgrounds is competing with four other facilities for events: Benton, El Paso, Texarkana and Fort Smith.
“This city is competing with other cities for revenue,” Merritt said.
Quattlebaum said with the improvements, the fairgrounds could see between 10 and 15 newer events. “That means that would be 10 or 15 more weekends a year that they will be coming in and spending money while they are here.”
Merritt said the fairgrounds can do the improvements in stages while not shutting down. Quattlebaum noted that fairgrounds normally operates 11 months per year, only shutting down to get ready for the fair, have the fair and then clean up after the fair.
Quattlebaum talked about other events the fairgrounds are used for, including a Steak Cook Off last year that brought in the top four “cook-off barbecue people in the United States. That will grow to be tremendous because every person who will come there will actually have to be in a motel room.”
Commissioner Jim House said he wanted to take time to compliment Quattlebaum and Merritt on the variety of events they have going on at the fairgrounds. “I would like to see you grow,” House said.
Quattlebaum said his idea would be to have something going on every weekend at the fairgrounds, be it a banquet in a building or a cook-off outside. “We want to bring people into this community. That’s the biggest aspect that we’re looking for.”
House said, “I think that’s exactly what we are here for.”