Neshoba County Fair giving local economy a boost as it has for more than 100 years

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Published: July 24,2006

Philadelphia — Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty is underway this week bringing an economic boost to Neshoba County and East Central Mississippi. Families and visitors have been gathering at the Neshoba County Fair since 1889 to visit and enjoy the event’s many activities.

They bring their dollars with them too, but local businesses begin feeling the impact weeks before the Fair begins. More than one person interviewed by the Mississippi Business Journal used the analogy, “It’s like Christmas in July.” Figures bear that out as December is the number one month for sales tax collected by the city and July is the number two month.

“There’s no question it makes an economic impact,” said David Vowell, president of the Community Development Partnership. “Retail is impacted beginning the first of July and a lot of businesses have sales. In the weeks before the Fair as people get ready for it, there are a lot of purchases.”

He says that includes purchases of supplies to clean cabins and materials to repair them in addition to clothes to stay cool in the sweltering heat and food to prepare and freeze dishes ahead of time. In some cases local family members shop for those who’re coming from out of town for the Fair. “There are all types of situations,” he adds.

Also, Vowell points out that the tourism tax collected on all hotels in the city limits is the highest of the year for the month of July. In 2004, July represented 17% of the year’s total collections and in 2005 it represented 15% of the total.

Significant growth

Businessman Gilbert Donald is vice president of the Fair’s board of directors. When he went on the board in 1970, the Fair’s total budget was $67,000. This year it is just over $1 million. Labor is a big part of that to maintain the Fair’s 118 acres, preparing for the week-long event and servicing it.

“It always gets real busy about a week before the Fair. We have cabin ownership from as far away as Kentucky and Louisiana and they use local labor and buy local materials for repairs,” he said. “It’s just a big thing here.”

Donald says the Fair will sell 16,000 to 17,000 season tickets (good for the week) and 25,000 to 30,000 day tickets. Everyone 10 years old and up must buy a ticket to attend. All 350 camper spots are booked and there’s a waiting list of about 100 campers. There are 600 privately owned cabins, many of which have been in families for generations.

“Future expansions will be done in the RV park area. That’s where the last four or five have been,” he said. “I can’t say there won’t ever be any more cabins because I don’t know what future boards will decide to do.”

Yates Building Supply Company always feels the intensity leading up to Fair Week. “People fix up out there and make repairs to their cabins, or they may tear down old cabins and build new ones,” says Stan Yates, store manager for 28 years. “There are all kinds of activities that go on and we try to sell everything that’s needed.”

Those building supplies include ready-mix batch concrete, flooring, plumbing, lumber, tin, electrical materials and paint. Because some cabin owners live out of town, Yates and his employees put them in touch with local builders to do work on cabins. He says paint is a big factor as cabin owners are more daring with colors than they are in their year-round homes.

“I’d hate to know how many paint colors we’ve sold throughout the years,” he said. “People paint porches and swings in Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi colors. They’ll also use any leftover paint they have from a home project. We call it ‘boxing it up’ and they’re not shy about colors.”

He says cabin ownership matters greatly to those from the area. “If you own a cabin or your family owns one or you know someone who has one, it’s where you can hang out,” he said. “It builds identity and the Fair is the highlight of the year.”

Retail pilgrimage

Williams Brothers General Merchandise is an institution almost as venerable as the Neshoba County Fair. Fair goers have been shopping there since 1907. It’s located on Highway 15 just a few miles from the fairgrounds and is in the original brick building erected by Amzie and Brown Williams.
“Yes, we get real busy before the Fair and during the Fair,” said Jane Williams Crosswhite, granddaughter of Amzie Williams and a third-generation store employee. “The Fair is such a tradition and the store is such a tradition too so we have a lot of repeat customers who only come once a year, and they always come here to shop.”

In addition to the tradition, shoppers can get most anything at Williams Brothers. Their stock includes groceries, boots, shoes, Western wear, children’s and adults’ clothing, hoop cheese, fresh sliced bacon, mule collars, straw hats and an endless list. Keeping up with changing times, the store also runs specials on bottled water and soft drinks, items that are big sellers for the Fair.

Crosswhite says locals shop at Williams Brothers too.

“They like to have first pick of new merchandise and they know visitors will come in to shop,” she said. “They want to check out summer sale items and need new things like tennis shoes. It really picks up and employees work longer hours.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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