NESHOBA COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS — There’s a huge difference between an immaculate golf course and the often dusty, sometimes muddy Neshoba County Fair — held every summer just outside Philadelphia. However, people often compare the two when talking about business being transacted.
Doug Johnson has been manager of the Fair for 10 years and he says this about attendees: “They may not even talk business. It’s really more social than business.” That’s where the comparison comes in — golfers are constantly saying that, but let there be no doubt. Business is transacted in both venues.
Benny Jones will be cooking “catfish and all the trimmings” for about 100 people from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on July 26, at Jeff Winstead’s cabin on the backside of the racetrack. “There’re no invitations, it’s just word of mouth,” Jones said.
Jones has been Puckett Machinery’s customer support manager in Meridian for 10 years. They handle and service Caterpillar equipment. His territory covers six East Mississippi counties and he estimates that 30 of his customers have cabins at the Fair including Winstead, so “The Fair’s a big week in my area.”
“Jeff and I go back 25 years,” Jones remembered. “He’s in the logging business in Philadelphia and been a very good customer of ours for 35 years. He’d do fish fries out in the woods for his people and invite some of his timber buyers and some people that work for us, so it got up to about 30 people. I’d go up and do the cooking.
“Then about 10-15 years ago, his Saturday night fish fry at the Fair grew beyond his immediate family, so he asked me to come up and bring my cooker and invite some of my customers. That way we could jointly entertain this group from his cabin. It’s been going on ever since.”
‘Yes, sir, I sure have!’
Jones said that people are there for the camaraderie. “It’s where you go to relax, break bread, enjoy friends and learn about their family.”
As for doing business at the event, “You have to be cautious because you can do more damage than you can good,” he said. “So I have a rule that I don’t bring up business — the customer has to bring it up.”
But he has made some sales there. “Yes, sir, I sure have!” His biggest Fair sale was for $300,000 for two of those giant pieces of Caterpillar equipment.
“It’s still tied together whether there or two weeks down the road,” Jones said.
Gerald Mills and Sharon Chalk are with the Meridian office of the Mississippi Development Authority and they’ve seen both immediate and down the road results of Fair social/business events. They assist the 16-county East Central Mississippi Economic Council (ECMEC) in economic development projects.
For the past 11 years, ECMEC, along with 18 co-sponsors, has hosted a barbecue luncheon on the Thursday of the Fair. That’s usually the big day for political speaking plus the customary harness racing and other events. Mills said ECMEC needed a function comparable with the annual Gulf Coast fishing and seafood soiree for statewide economic developers.
“The Fair is rated by Southern Living as one of the top 10 events in the Southeast U.S. and we needed to take advantage of it,” Mills said. “So now we host more than 200 economic developers at our luncheon so that they’ll know more about our area. This year is an election year, so we’re expecting a bigger crowd. You know on Thursday, the Fair would probably rank as the fourth-largest city in Mississippi.”
Mills said that a Birmingham investment banker attended the lunch last year and said he could sit on the front porch for a day at the Fair and see more customers or potential customers than he could in a week of traveling across the state. “He’s now a cheerleader for our area,” Mills said.
Out of that luncheon grew last year’s ECMEC-hosted “fam tour” of the area. It attracted eight national economic development consultants. Included was a reception and dinner at the Silver Star, golf at the posh Dancing Rabbit golf course and a fish fry at the Fair plus a helicopter tour of area industrial sites. One of the consultants was so impressed he made a post-tour ground inspection of one of the sites.
Chalk said this year’s fam tour already has 10 consultants enrolled and five more are expected. It will be July 29-30 and follow the same pattern as last year. VIPs invited to the dinner include U.S. Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, Congressmen Chip Pickering, Bennie Thompson and Roger Wicker and Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin.
“It’s one of those projects that can pay off the next day or five years down the road,” Mills said.
Greg McKee is president of The Citizens Bank of Philadelphia. He agrees that the Fair is a great place for networking and can be a focal point for business or politics. “It brings together a unique group. How often can an ordinary citizen sit down and have lunch with the governor, or even a presidential candidate?” McKee asked.
In all probability the political and business VIPs will be encountered at the luncheon hosted by the Yates Construction family. They own three cabins in the southwest corner of “The Square” and the large gathering of high-powered luncheon guests always spills out under the trees.
Fair association president Kenneth Breland is certain that the Fair’s a bargain. “There are not many places you can go for $20 (the cost for a season pass) and hear three nights of entertainment, watch the harness racing and all of that politicking. And kids 10 and under get in free.”
Speaking of kids, Kenneth’s son, Steve, loves to tell the story about his twins being born in May. When Steve told the doctor that he was going to take them to the Fair, the doctor waved him off — germs and other problems were rampant. When Steve informed his father about this, Kenneth’s response was, “Well, we’ll just have to change doctors then.” The twins attended — and have ever since.
They’re socializing, kicking back and, like all the other attendees, may do some business.
The 2003 Neshoba County Fair runs from July 25th to August 1st. More information about Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty is available online at www.neshobacountyfair.org.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.