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Neshoba County Fair low-key this year, but still packs powerful economic punch

‘Mississippi’s Giant House Party’ underway

Philadelphia — Kenneth Breland recalled the brouhaha in 1980 when then presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan spoke at the Neshoba County Fair to kick off his post-convention campaign.

“That was about the biggest thing we ever had,” said Breland, president of the nonprofit Neshoba County Fair Association and its 20-member volunteer board. “Traffic was backed up all the way to Williamsville. So many people wanted to get in, they just ran the gates.”

Reagan was the most high profile politician to rally the crowd at the world-famous Fair, established in 1889. The presence of former Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis at the Fair in 1988 also created a hubbub during his presidential campaign. The tradition of political candidates spinning their spiels began in 1896, under the tin roof of the Founders Square Pavilion.

“The Neshoba County Fair is great for watching politicians interact with people,” said Associated Press reporter Emily Wagster Pettus. “A lot of what goes on there is like performance art, with crowds of campaign supporters cheering, booing and waving signs. In a time when politicians in some parts of the country are running point-and-click campaigns almost exclusively based on TV and radio ads, it’s nice to see some old-fashioned human give-and-take.”

Even though 2005 represents an off-year for statewide and congressional elections, and no notable fire-and-brimstone speeches are predicted, more than 100,000 people are expected to attend the week-long event, which began July 22.

“Sometimes the off years are better because it’s just us,” said Jim Prince, publisher of The Neshoba Democrat.

During this year’s opening days, the thermometer was stuck in the 90s — as usual for the sultry dog days of summer — with high humidity and the threat of thunderstorms adding to the experience.

“We can beat the heat,” said Prince. “There’s nothing better than sitting under a shade tree with friends and a fan and a cold beverage — or six.”

Economic fireworks

“The Fair is an industry for our area,” said Steve Wilkerson, owner of Steve’s on the Square in Philadelphia. “It’s almost a yearlong affair because work is going on all the time with people improving cabins and that type of thing. It’s not just a one-week deal.”

At the beginning of “Mississippi’s Giant House Party,” visitors milled around his store, picking out T-shirts and shorts and other “Fair wear.”

“It’s like Mardi Gras for us,” said Wilkerson. “It makes our July a very positive month, usually a tough one for many retailers.”

Of the 601 coveted fairground cabins, ranging from simple one-story dwellings to elaborate three-story structures, less than a dozen change hands every year. When they do, the going rate is $75,000 to more than $200,000, said Breland.

“We bought ours 20 years ago, which in some respects is relatively new compared to the cabins that are passed down generation after generation,” said Wilkerson. “Most of the time, you just about don’t know about one for sale until it’s already been sold. If it makes the classifieds, they want a ton for it.”

Creda Stewart, spokesperson for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, said visitors who could not secure cabin or camper space on the fairgrounds book hotel rooms at the Pearl River Resort.

“We provide ground transportation to the Fair and it’s a very successful time for us, for the entire area,” she said.

Tyrone McBeath, manager of Piggly Wiggly in Philadelphia, said the grocery store usually reports a 20% increase in business during Fair week.

“There’s no telling how much money Wal-Mart makes,” said Wilkerson. “My wife spends $200 every time she goes. One year, we tried to keep up with how much money we spent to open the cabin, but after a few days, we changed our minds.”

Adding up

Since 1999, the Fair Association has raked in more than $1 million, with gate receipts representing 75% of all income. (Daily tickets generally cost $15; season tickets are $30.) Camper hook-up fees average slightly more than $75,000.

Vendor rental space accounts for $56,000, and corporate sponsors — Pearl River Resort, Cingular and Cellular South among them — bring in around $30,000. The commission charges a fee of $130 per cabin plus $50 for each air conditioner, “but we don’t make any money off the cabins,” Breland quickly pointed out. “Sometimes, we don’t break even on the utility bills.”

Labor costs for 150 workers and entertainment costs represent the Fair’s two main expenses. Security costs alone run more than $100,000, and even though the main breaker is on for only four months, the electric bill costs more than $200,000 and the water bill averages $35,000.

“We spend extra money on repairs and remodeling Fair property, which we start on pretty quick after the Fair ends,” said Breland. “After big floods, the roads leading to the fairground are usually torn up and we maintain those, too. But we have no problem financially. We try to keep $250,000 in the bank.”

When the Fair ends its 116th run on July 29, visitors will rinse off mud from their vehicles and wash red clay dust from their clothing.

“Ain’t nothing like it in the world,” said Breland.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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