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Universal Fairs takes over Virginia State Fair
Purchased for $5.67m at auction

6/12/2012

By Ron Weber

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Mark Lovell probably didn't start his day on May 22nd thinking he would end it as the owner of a major state fairgrounds, replete with all the land, intellectual property and equipment that goes along with it. But at the end of the day, that is exactly what happened, with Lovell winning the bid for the fair, paying $5.67 million with fees and charges.

Lovell, the owner of Cordova, TN-based Universal Fairs has been part of a growing trend of private fair promoters who either start new fairs or take over management of existing events. Universal started the Delta Fair and Music Festival, its signature event, in the suburbs of Memphis, TN. Memphis was home to the mighty Mid-South Fair. The Delta Fair ran earlier in September than the Mid-South Fair. Lovell saw an opportunity to produce a successful suburban fair because of the population changes in the city over the years. His hunch paid off and the Delta Fair is now the major event in Memphis. The Mid-South Fair was last held in Memphis in 2008 before moving to its current home at the DeSoto Civic Center in Southaven, MS.

Building on the success of the Delta Fair, Universal contracted to take over management of the Ostrich Festival in Chandler, AZ, the King County Fair in Enumclaw, WA and most recently, the Georgia State Fair in Macon, GA.

Producing these new and renewing existing events are not without their hardship, Lovell has also had his share of not-so-successful fairs which the company produced for a year or a couple of years before moving on to other projects. Without benefit of long-standing tradition, non-profit volunteers and ownership of the property where you are producing the event, the for-profit fair business can be a risky endeavor.

The business also does not come without criticism. Established fairs and events and even some of those in the industry's trade organization bristle at the idea of for-profit management for fairs.

When the Delta Fair was first announced, there were exchanges back and forth in the press between Universal and the Mid-South Fair about what a true fair should be.

In 2009, SFVA, the company that ran the State Fair of Virginia, sued Universal Fairs for trademark infringement and unfair competition when one of Universal's affiliates began using "State" in the name of a fair it was planning to produce at the former home of the SFVA, Richmond International Raceway. The event was planned for July but never was produced and Universal agreed to stop using "State" in the proposed fair's name and settled the lawsuit.

Most recently, Lovell's company came under fire from the former manager of the State Fair of Virginia and the President and CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, Jim Tucker.

Roberts was quoted on Fredericksburg.com as saying of the fair "It was run, operated and managed by Virginians for Virginians because it was to showcase the best of Virginia," adding, "I'm curious to see how an events promotion company for a profit from Memphis is going to carry on those traditions."

Tucker was quoted by stateline.org: "(The private fairs) don't run the same way," A for-profit fair, Tucker says, is "not a state fair anymore." Tucker also said in the article that the state fairs "return their positive bottom line to investments in their infrastructure and improvements in the grounds".

But others argue that the presence of a for-profit operator brings much needed attention to the bottom line and they do so without using tax payer dollars, a growing concern for states facing budget cutbacks. In recent years, the State Fairs of Virginia, Michigan, Nevada, Tennessee and Georgia have either ceased to operate or have contracted new management in order to continue operating. Others have experienced financial problems. The New Mexico State Fair was called "operationally insolvent" by a legislative financial report and the Colorado State Fair had a loss of $380,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011.

In the case of the Virginia State Fair, the fair opened at its new facility to record crowds of 250,000 in 2009 but showed an operating loss of $1.8 million. According to a News 12 investigation, as the fair's debt was mounting, top executives were taking large paychecks. Roberts made an estimated $278,000 in 2008, $242,000 in 2009 and $234,000 in 2010. News 12 also reported three other top executives also drew large salaries totaling more than $1.1 million between 2008 and 2010.

Lovell said his attention will be on the bottom line and profitability. He is planning to introduce additional uses for the grounds such as trade and consumer shows and he will listen to the needs of other potential clients to see where the State Fair property can fill a need. He is planning on forming a non-profit organization to run the actual Virginia State Fair, with a mission of keeping the agricultural component in the forefront.

"Anyone who says we do not have a strong agricultural component to our fairs has not been to one of my events", he said. "The Delta Fair has 4-H, FFA, we give out prizes and awards, we have chickens, rabbits, sheep and everything you could want". Lovell points to his success at the King County Fair, the oldest fair west of the Mississippi, which was in danger of closing. "I used my own money to bring the fair back", he said. "I put up my resources when no one else would and I was able to save that event. I'm very proud of that and everyone affiliated with the fair and the community appreciates it".

The purchase of the State Fair of Virginia is game changing for Lovell. Although he has operated events in the past, the Virginia State Fair is the first year-round facility to be operated by the company. The Georgia State Fair, though it has ‘State" in its name, is operated at Central City Park in Macon and serves as only a renter of the facility for a period of time. The same is true of the Ostrich Festival and the Delta Fair; Universal Fairs is just a renter.

With the State Fair of Virginia, Universal is moving on to a whole new level of operations, they are taking over one of the nation's premier events. So what do you do with the fair when you actually catch it? "I'm going to run the grounds like I do everything else, I'm going to bring in more than I spend and keep the fair a vibrant part of the community as long as I am involved", said Lovell.

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