The Un-Fair

August 26th, 2010

Sometimes while we wring our hands over relatively small things, big things slip right through our fingers. Sometimes these things are so big, so ingrained, that we take them for granted and assume they will always be there for our kids and their kids like they were for us.

This town has thrown a couple of regional celebrations every year – celebrations of the life and progress and importance of Memphis as a regional center – not the Cotton Carnival, born of privilege, or the Cottonmaker's Jubilee, born of exclusion, but celebrations for everyone drawing hundred of thousands of all of us.

They are the Mid-South Fair and Memphis In May. One remains. If you haven't noticed, and it's been so badly handled for so long you might not care, the Mid-South Fair has gone south on us, hauled off 154 years of our history with it, and replaced it with pale imitations.

Instead of just taking it, we should take it back.

As published in The Daily News, August 27, 2010, and in The Memphis News, August 28-29, 2010 


What’s happened to the fair just isn’t fair.

Let’s review. The Mid-South Fair has left Memphis for the Delta, but is stuck in a parking lot in Southaven. The Delta Fair is actually in Memphis, but is under contract to manage the Mid-South Fair. The guy running the Mid-South Fair ran away. The guy running the Delta Fair wanted us to run away from the Mid-South Fair and now he’s running both.

All of this makes the Tilt-A-Whirl a study in stability.

In the last decade or so, the Mid-South Fair has managed to turn 154 years of goodwill, magic memories and civic pride into just another place to get a Pronto Pup.

Board leadership has been passed from father to son and daughter like some sort of frozen Snickers scepter, and they seemed to think they were entitled to the fairgrounds and our patronage by divine right. “Let them eat funnel cake,” they said in response to declining numbers, mismanagement and lack of vision.

Remember that chicken at the fair that can beat you at Tic-Tac-Toe? That chicken could do a better job of this.

The Mid-South Fair used to be where city folk and farm folk learned about each other, and about what was new, what was coming, and what was about to change.

It was marked on calendars in six states. That fair is gone.

Close to half a million people bringing their wares, their talents, their families, their livestock, their ideas, their appetites, their wide-eyed enthusiasm and sharp-eyed curiosity – their blue ribbon dreams – to one place for one magic stretch of ten days a year. Gone.

What’s left will still provide the food of fairs, but it’ll be small fare by comparison. There’ll be midways, but the rides won’t have the same big rush, the games won’t seem as worth the chance.

When a city thinks small, when people with small priorities make decisions, big things go away.

America’s biggest urban park and America’s agricultural laboratory lie smack dab in the  middle of Shelby County, split by Walnut Grove, just off the interstate, on the new Greenline. The place comes with its own river, lakes, arenas, pavilions, barns, buildings, roads, trails … and buffalo. There’s enough land to stretch the imagination and accommodate the biggest of plans for a new Mid-South Fair that could draw national attention. A green fair. A tech fair. A transportation fair. An innovation fair. An entertainment fair. A music fair. All right in the new middle of town.

The Delta Fair – fair light – that starts out there next week and the midway they’ll stick in Southaven and call the Mid-South Fair are not what I’m talking about.

Common sense tells us the combined site of Shelby Farms and the Agricenter is where we should have moved the fair long ago. The barn full of whatever egos, politics, and tired old thinking that kept that from happening before should be swept clean and a brand-new crop of leadership planted.

Fair enough.

I’m a Memphian, and I want our Mid-South Fair back, bigger and better than ever.


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