With politics in the backdrop, 2011 State Fair to begin Friday

By Joey Garrison (City Paper)
Posted: September 7th, 2011

Five weeks after Davidson County citizens voted to make it more difficult to redevelop the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, organizers are putting the final touches on the first state fair to take place following the referendum’s aftermath.

The 2011 Tennessee State Fair kicks off Friday, Sept. 9, and runs through Sept. 18, a 10-day stretch of games, music and shows that follow months of uncertainty during which the 117-acre fairgrounds property was at the forefront of Metro politics. The year of turbulence culminated with an overwhelming vote in August to amend the Metro Charter to retain existing activities at the site.

The Tennessee State Fair Association — a group of politically connected state agriculture leaders hosting this year’s fair — got off to a late start after the Metro fair board waited until June to agree to contract the organization. A competing fair operator had offered to pay the city more money to hold the event, but the group provided some factual inaccuracies in their proposal, undermining its bid.

“I’m very optimistic about the fair this year,” fair board chair Katy Varney said. “The Tennessee State Fair Association has put their shoulder to the wheel and have done a tremendous amount of work in a very short period of time.”

Despite having just the summer to arrange what most say requires an entire year, state fair association leaders say they anticipate this year’s attendance figures to match those of last year when the fair attracted 247,000 total trips. Tickets sold numbered considerably fewer.
“We got a very late start in terms of planning, so that hit us a little in terms of sponsorships,” said John Rose, who chairs the state fair association. “Our sponsorship revenue is going to be down from what we had hoped for, and planned for, and what it was last year.

“But otherwise, we’re hopeful,” he said. “Obviously, the weather, as always, is going to be probably the biggest driver of attendance. But we feel like everything should be in place to have an event that would match last year’s success.”

The state fair took a backseat to the future of fairgrounds racing this past year, as a council bill defeated in January would have called for the demolition of the speedway but kept the fair at the property. The August public referendum certainly shined a spotlight on the fairgrounds in general — 43,273 people voted for the amendment’s ratification — but will it translate to broadened state fair attendance?

Rose called the referendum vote a “real shot in the arm” to the future of the fair.

“The people spoke directly through that referendum, and while the vote was not precisely about the fair, I think it was a part of the vote. So I think that’s very heartening to know that the people overwhelmingly want that place to remain,” he said.

Fair-goers this year can expect some familiar sites: Organizers have hired North American Midway Entertainment to produce roller coasters, rides and games for the event. Contests include talent shows, as well as livestock and agriculture, karaoke, ice cream eating and cornhole competitions. Like last year, the fair will also feature a celebrity cow milking contest.

There are also some new activities, according to the fair’s public relations coordinator Emily Fletcher, highlighted by a larger concert series. Musical acts include The Kentucky Headhunters, Erica Lane and the Georgia Satellites.

“We’re trying to build a stronger music program, something we can build on,” Fletcher said.

Another big draw, she said, will be the livestock and animal showcases, adding that horses are returning to the fair via equine exhibits, which will include Tennessee Walking Horse exhibits.

Marking the weekend of the fair are racing events, including the fair’s Demolition Derby, Spectacular Auto Race and child racing. The motor sports weekend runs Sept. 9 through Sept. 11.

This week is the last chance to purchase $5 advance tickets or $20 “all you can ride” wristbands at Middle Tennessee Kroger stores. Parking at this year’s state fair is free.