Philadelphia — Chirping birds and blooming flowers are obvious harbingers of summer. Another surefire sign is the sight of the first bumper sticker advertising the Neshoba County Fair. And one of the pleasant happenings on dreaded April 15 is when Fair manager Doug Johnson authorizes the power to be turned on for the 601 Fair cabins.
And that’s a signal for C&M Security, LLC, to begin gearing up for their full-time duty of patrolling the Fair July 22-30.
A casual observer of the Fair often asks the question, “Man, that’s the most laid back group of people I ever saw. Why do they need security?”
Gilbert Donald is the take-charge chairman of security for the all-volunteer Fair board of directors, and he has a ready answer to that question. “I came on the board in 1970 when our sheriff handled whatever security we needed, and we all know that society has changed since then. Second, it’s hard to judge our attendance, but we know there’s been major growth (ticket sales indicate 61,000 attended last year’s event compared to 17,000 in 1970).”
C&M — an unusual pair
Donald continued, “The main reason for security is that the Fair is an unusual event, and its primary purpose is for families and friends to come and enjoy themselves. But we saw that some people felt like they could come here and do whatever they wanted, and they were getting out of hand. We made up our mind that family safety was essential, so in 1989 we hired a security firm from Jackson.”
About eight years later, a local security company replaced the Jackson outfit and when it disbanded, C&M Security was chosen. The principals in C&M are Ward Calhoun and Karl Merchant. They make an unusual and complementary pair.
Calhoun is smooth shaven — including his head — and articulate. He’s a 1987 business graduate of Mississippi College and has been with Lauderdale Sheriff Billy Sollie since 1996. He’s in charge of the patrol division and is a well-known TV personality. Merchant is bearded, a detective and represents the Meridian Police Department on the East Mississippi Drug Task Force. A native of Morton and East Rankin Academy graduate, he’s been in law enforcement since 1977 and came with the MPD in 1984 (“I caught a burglar on my first night and I was hooked.”).
Both Calhoun and Merchant were employees of the local security agency that disbanded. Donald, his committee and Fair manager Doug Johnson had gotten to know them well and were impressed. “They handled people — and themselves — professionally,” Donald recalled. “So we didn’t need to contact anyone else.”
So C&M Security, LLC, was formed and they had their first client — the Neshoba County Fair vintage 1999. You could say it was a providential match — both parties are delighted and foresee a long-term relationship.
C&M employs about 80 people during the Fair session. “They like the work as much as Karl and I do,” Calhoun said. “We estimate that about 70% of them have been with us since we got the contract, and they’ll ask for the same slot next year just as soon as the Fair’s over. And just about all of them are in law enforcement or have law enforcement experience. Like Karl and me, most of them stay on the grounds in one of the cabins or campers.”
Uniforms and minor problems
Since C&M took over, one of the major changes is that all of the C&M people have uniforms.
“We suggested that to the Fair board,” Calhoun said, “And they bought them for us. That was new and gave us an identification and respect from people who might be looking for trouble.”
And that law enforcement experience can come in handy sometimes. “We know how to deal with people when they get kinda’ rambunctious, and we patrol the area constantly,” Merchant said. “It’s not the people who stay at the Fair that we have trouble with — it’s primarily young people that may be there only briefly. We are trained to spot potential disturbances before they happen and make sure everyone feels safe and can have a good time.”
Calhoun said, “Most of the problems are minor, but you’ve got a large number of people crammed into a relatively small area that will only be there for a short period of time — and it can get hot up there. So it’s just human nature that a few of those people can get upset and cause problems. And that’s aside from such possibilities as something like Oklahoma City or 9/11. We have to be on our guard.”
There are 26 people on duty each day working two different shifts — one shift from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and another overlapping from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. And there’s a “dress rehearsal” the Thursday night before the Fair opens to make sure everyone understands their duties and where they are to be stationed.
When there is trouble, C&M is prepared. It has an office under the Fair grandstand that’s equipped with a “holding pen” where troublemakers can be kept until the case is settled.
“We have excellent cooperation between us and Sheriff Larry Myers and his staff,” Calhoun said. “And we have direct communication with each other and their 911 emergency service.”
All of this comes at a hefty price. Donald said the security budget is $100,000 — that’s 10% of this year’s Fair total budget of $1 million (another sign of Fair growth — the total budget in 1970 was $67,000).
“I guess we’ll never have a perfect security situation,” Donald said. “But with Ward and Karl in charge, we’re almost there. We understand them and they understand us.”
Calhoun concurs with that statement. “Gilbert and the board trust us to make decisions and do our job. The Fair is a great experience — it’s the kind of work we like to do. We’re going to do our best to see that everyone has a good time. Everybody should come to the Fair at least once.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.