Doug White, president and general manager of the Arkansas Livestock Show Association, shakes his head as he describes his decision to cancel that great tradition known as the Arkansas State Fair in 2020.
"It was a rough year," he says. "What it comes down to is that we've been planning for two years for the 2021 fair. We want to blow it out of the water this fall."
The fair will be back Oct. 15-24 with the full carnival, concerts, exhibits, pageants and livestock show. White is hopeful that a lot more Arkansans will get vaccinated between now and October, and he's confident the fair can operate safely.
"Once we were allowed to have partial attendance at events last year, we started booking things at the fairgrounds just to get some income coming in," White says. "We lost our biggest events--not only the fair but also the Big Buck Classic, the annual garden show, the robotics show."
Animals were still judged, but there were no crowds to see them. Meanwhile, White tried creative approaches such as three days when people could pick up the fair foods they like best.
But it wasn't the same without the lights and noise. This year, the final days of the fair will coincide with the University of Arkansas' football game against the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff at Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium.
White is hoping Arkansans will spend an extra day in the capital city and make a trip to the fair part of their schedule.
"The football game in Little Rock works out well for us," he says. "Our record attendance was 494,000 in 2004. If the weather cooperates, we'll top 500,000 this year."
Thanks to the federal Paycheck Protection Program, White wasn't forced to lay off any employees last year. Of course, there are only seven full-time employees. The 2018 fair lost more than $600,000. White, who had been secretary-treasurer of the board, was named interim president in December 2018. In June 2019, the "interim" was removed.
The financial crunch forced him to eliminate full-time positions and think creatively. Nonprofit groups were recruited to help provide maintenance on the grounds, for instance.
The small staff is tasked with maintaining 20 buildings on 140 acres inside the Little Rock city limits. The newest building is four decades old.
White says interest in holding events at the fairgrounds has increased since the Old State House opened an exhibit titled "Play It Loud: Concerts at Barton Coliseum." It opened in late April and will continue until the fall of 2022.
"It has brought more attention to Barton Coliseum and the fairgrounds," he says. "My phone started ringing off the wall after that exhibit opened. People are thinking about booking events with us. It has opened us up to a whole new audience that didn't even know we existed before now."
White believes Barton, which has about 8,000 seats, can still be a venue for concert promoters who consider Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock too large for their needs. The group that has played at Barton the most times through the years is ZZ Top with 12 concerts. ZZ Top attracted the record Barton crowd when 14,000 packed into the building in 1974.
With things being scheduled again, White is focused on marketing. He notes that the fairgrounds can "offer lots of free parking and better security within a fenced area. It was foolhardy of us to rely so heavily on just the fair. We need things all year that produce a profit."
He's hopeful the city of Little Rock will see the benefit of having the fair and begin providing financial support. The state currently contributes $880,000 a year.
The fair has had its ups and downs through the decades. The Arkansas State Agricultural & Mechanical Association was formed in 1867 for several purposes, including holding a fair. The first state fair was in Little Rock in November 1868. The fairgrounds were at the corner of what's now Center and 17th streets until 1876. The location then moved to Arch Street.
The State Fair Association of Arkansas was incorporated in May 1881 and used 100 acres on East Ninth Street until the early 1900s.
What we now think of as the Arkansas State Fair (first known as the Arkansas Livestock Show) began in 1938. Cotton had long dominated the Arkansas economy, but a 1937 survey by the University of Arkansas concluded that livestock could be successful in the state. The purpose of the livestock show was to promote the industry.
The November 1938 event in North Little Rock attracted 17,000 people and lost $23,000. The livestock show was moved to October the next year, and Roy Rogers was brought in to help attract crowds. It was the start of annual entertainment at the fair. Stars ranging from Gene Autry to Johnny Cash have performed through the years.
The fair was held in North Little Rock through 1942. A fire burned buildings at the site the day after that year's fair and livestock show ended. The 1943 fair was held at Pine Bluff.
There was no fair in 1944-45 due to World War II. In 1945, Little Rock civic leaders offered land on Roosevelt Road, and the association accepted the gift. Buildings were constructed from the late 1940s until 40 years ago. Construction of Barton Coliseum began in 1949 and ended in 1951.
"There's so much I still want to do," White says. "We need to get a few of these buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. We're also doing a bunch of painting and pressure washing along with making our signage consistent. The work never ends."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.