Ag chief wants multi-million dollar upgrades for fairgrounds

The aging Mississippi Coliseum and neighboring Trade Mart would undergo upgrades of around $30 million under a plan initiated by newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith.

Without some significant work, each of the venues could see a falloff in usage, leading to a loss of revenue that helps support other facilities within the Mississippi Fairgrounds, Hyde-Smith said.

The agriculture commissioner said she has made the fix-ups a priority of her first term in office and hopes to persuade legislative leaders to put money for the work in next year’s state bond bill. That could be a challenge, considering that bickering over what to put in the 2012 bond bill led legislators to go without a bond bill this year.

Conducting her first meeting as chair of the Mississippi Fair Commission, Hyde-Smith said last Tuesday she has received an indication of support from House Speaker Philip Gunn and was to meet later with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves on the issue.

Gunn “tells me, ‘We are going to get you help on the bond bill,’” she said.

Reeves, in a statement issued through spokeswoman Laura Hipp, said he’ll consider Hyde-Smith’s request but indicated his priority would be to limit new spending.

“The Coliseum and Trade Mart are important economic generators for Central Mississippi; however, I am committed to reducing Mississippi taxpayers’ overall debt burden,” Reeves said.

“We’ll just have to see how this request fits with our priorities in the next session.”

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Hyde-Smith concedes she is going to need a lot of support to get a bond bill passed, but predicts she will make a successful case for spending money to keep the Coliseum and Trade Mart viable as venues for spectator events, concerts, trade shows, banquets and meetings.

A $480,000 appropriation from the last legislative session to prepare a comprehensive plan for the fairgrounds and its facilities will help cover the cost of determining what needs to be done at the Coliseum and Trade Mart, according to Hyde-Smith.

She said she expects details on specific improvements as well as cost estimates should be ready for review by legislators during the 2013 session.

Billy Orr, Fair Commission executive director, said the best place to start is with an asphalt overlay for the parking lots of both buildings.

Neither building has fully recovered from flood damage received in 1979, according to Orr.

Substantial portions of both “went under water in 1979” he said, and noted problems have plagued the electrical systems of both buildings ever since.

The 66,600-square-foot Trade Mart “would need new electrical everywhere,” Orr said.

“It needs that really bad. It hasn’t gotten over the ’79 flood. It has just been patched up since that time.”

Further, it sorely needs a new roof — a job that would entail replacing the air conditioning system that is installed within the roof structure, he added.

Beyond those repairs, the building needs new lighting, sound system, rest rooms and concession stands, he added.

The Coliseum, which opened in 1962 and has hosted Elvis and will present Sir Elton John in September, replaced its heating and air conditioning system a couple years ago. The state put a copper roof on it in the late 1990s.

About 6,300 new seats are needed, according to Orr. “The main thing is you can’t get parts for them,” he said.

The dressing rooms should be updated, he added. “We need something that impresses people coming through.

“We’re also in bad need of concession stands” and a general updating and painting of the interior, Orr said.

“One of the big items is a new concert stage and new sound system,” he added, pricing a new stage at around $190,000 and a sound system at $75,000.

Finally, outdoor canopies on both sides of the Coliseum have sizable leaks and should be replaced, according to Orr.

The buildings do not generate money for the state but without the revenue they produce the Fair Commission would be unable to pay the upkeep on the equine center, livestock buildings and the water and sewer system, he said.

Ben Allen, executive director of the Downtown Jackson Partners, said he does not think upgrading the Coliseum would hamper efforts to get a new arena downtown, because the arena is envisioned as a much larger and more modern venue. “This should not derail an arena,” said Allen, whose public-private agency is responsible for enhancing downtown and promoting it as a place for business, entertainment and living.

Mayor Harvey Johnson, a member of the Fair Commission, is in charge of the downtown arena project, which has been receiving little public attention since an initial feasibility study more than a year ago deemed Jackson a viable market for a state-of-the art arena.

Johnson, interviewed after last Tuesday’s Fair Commission meeting, said he is unsure what a refurnished Coliseum would mean for his push for an arena to house major concerts and sporting events.

Hyde-Smith, the agriculture commissioner, does not see one project bearing on the other, however. “I think we each have our place,” she said.

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