With the impending approval by the board of directors to hire former county mayor Jim Rout as head of the Mid-South Fair, the organization seems to see a future more shaped by politics than event management.
It’s a shift in direction, because traditionally, the board has hired people with experience in running these kinds of yearly regional fairs; however, this time around, with the future of the Fair unclear at best and threatened at worst, the board appears to set political experience as the top job skill for its new general manager.
With the make-or-break options looming in the Fair’s future, the board’s emphasis on politics may be well-placed, but then again, if the Fair is anything, it is the ultimate good old boys political organization, and within this lens, the hiring also makes good sense.
Its Former Glory
There was a time when the Fair board was one of Memphis’ most powerful political groups, but that was long ago. The influence of the Fair took a hit and never recovered from the decline and death of its patron saint, Democratic Party political king maker Bill Farris.
In those glory days, it was a political rite of passage to be invited to serve on the board, and board membership was synonymous on being recognized as someone who can make things happen in Memphis. These days, it’s reflected glory, because the board makeup is largely the power structure of Memphis about 15 years ago.
The Mid-South Fair has always been a curious organization, what with its “certificate holders” class of members who are the real power for the organization and about as transparent as the College of Cardinals.
There was one thing that was always a certainty in the past. Every Fair president, much less every certificate holder, would come from the Farris political circle, and even today, the progenitor for the organization remains one of the smartest political minds ever created in this city. During his hey day, no one could out-think “Chairman Farris” in local or state politics, no one was better connected (the pilot on his ill-fated campaign for governor was none other than a young guy named Fred Smith) and no one got on the Fair board without his personal blessing.
Even years after his death, board membership still seems to have a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon feeling to it, because every one can be linked back in some way to Mr. Farris. The organizational structure of the Fair itself was an inscrutably clever way to keep its operations closed while portraying itself almost as a public entity.
In fairness (excuse the pun), the Liberty Bowl also benefits from preferential access to public land and buildings, and like the Fair, there’s little transparency in its operations. Former presidents of the association have even complained about being unable to see the books, but it’s clearly a profitable project. In 2005, it logged about $6.5 million in revenues and $4.5 million in expenditures, including about $560,000 for management fees.
Killing Off Libertyland
Meanwhile, at the Fair, its budgets are about $4.5 million a year, and have been trending in the wrong direction for years. It’s hoped that by jettisoning Libertyland, the Fair can save itself by eliminating the annual transfusion of cash to cover operating losses for the theme park, taking the definition of that term to its virtual breaking point.
Even with Libertyland out of the way, the Mid-South Fair still finds itself at a particularly tenuous point in its 150-year history. There is no compelling argument to be made that its present location makes sense any longer. The deteriorating buildings and the desert of asphalt say volumes about the impact that the Fair has on the area and are telling symbols of declining interest in the yearly event.
If the future of the Fair should include a new location, and that seems obvious at this point because plans for higher and better uses of the Fairgrounds are gaining momentum under the direction of City of Memphis’ leading staff member Robert Lipscomb, the political clout of the Fair probably peaked about 15 years ago. It would be a political miracle for the organization’s current board and management to be successful in convincing today’s new breed of politicians that the Fair should continue to be a prime tenant for an area that is now more eyesore than eye candy.
A New Location
Discussions about the Fair’s future seem inevitably to turn to Agricenter International. After all, both organizations have missions rooted in agriculture, and Agricenter has cut its event teeth on the Great Outdoors Festival (although the Fair is about three times larger than that event).
And yet, there are some people thinking outside the box to the point that they envision a future for the Fair that’s not even in Memphis. (We’d be glad to resurrect our proposal to tear down The Pyramid and build a festival grounds there, but we can’t seem to generate much momentum behind that suggestion.)
Regardless of where it puts up its tents, one thing about its future is certain. It badly needs reinvention. It is about as stale as it smells on the eight day of its yearly run. Its attendance is sluggish. If you knew where the Pronto Pup stand was 10 years ago, you can walk right to it today. It’s as if the entire event is trapped in a time warp.
Speaking Today’s Language
But, the biggest disconnect is that it seems to speak the language of row crops in a world of biofuels. At a time when Memphis’ agricultural future needs to point toward research in fields like biogenetics, perhaps there’s ways for the Fair to feel more relevant, because in the absence of this, it’s just a pleasing anachronism that’s enjoyed every few years or so by most of us.
As for us, we’ve always enjoyed the Fair, and we go about every 5-7 years. We even like the swine barn and the cattle judging, but if the Fair is to be a genuine success and survive, it needs to get more of us to come out every year. There’s just not any reason for us to do that now.
Most of all, there has to be a reason that Memphis’ version of this historic agricultural invention is different than the Missouri State Fair or the Illinois State Fair. That will only happen if it is retooled, reinvented and reimagined so that it speaks to our aspirations as a region and not to a time gone by. That will only happen when business as usual ends, because this time around, this isn’t a problem that has a political solution.