Jonesboro Occasions — September 2012
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Audrey Hanes

When the 29th annual Northeast Arkansas District Fair kicks off later this month, Jonesboro will have the opportunity to showcase its expansive new fairgrounds in one of the city’s most burgeoning areas.

Earlier this year, the Craighead County Fairgrounds, which had been located on Stadium Boulevard since 1957, moved to an 80-acre tract of land at 7001 East Johnson that will allow the fair and other events held at the new site to be larger and more enjoyable than ever before.

Although the process of rebuilding and expanding the Craighead County Fairgrounds at a new location seemed like an incredible feat in a short amount of time, longtime Fair Manager Jerry Reece says there was never any doubt that the 2012 fair would be held at the new grounds.

“Our goal from day one was to have this year’s fair on that site,” said Reece. “We won’t be 100 percent, but we’ll be operable.”

Reece, who got involved with the fair when it was originally the Craighead County Fair, has managed the fair for 46 consecutive years.

“I’m a people person,” he said. “I enjoy seeing everyone have a good time. I enjoy the family environment. I also enjoy seeing agriculture and the community come together.”

Although many longtime fairgoers were nostalgic about leaving the longtime site on Stadium Boulevard, Reece says the fair simply outgrew the old 37-acre grounds and that there was also a dire need to upgrade the whole facility, especially the livestock barns and exhibition space.

“We didn’t cut any corners when developing the new site, especially when it comes to size,” said Reece. “The livestock barns are state-of-the-art, and so is the exhibition building. ... It’s an entertainment venue that has something for everyone.”

Gene Vance, owner of Vance Construction, served as the construction consultant to the fair board. He says that although crews began dirt work in the summer of 2011 and started on the cattle and swine barns in late fall of last year, they have only been working on the exhibition building for less than eight months. Despite the tall order, Vance predicts that the project will be completely finished this fall.

The new fairgrounds boast many improvements and additions, perhaps the most impressive of which is the Northeast Arkansas Exhibition Center, a massive 110,000-square-foot air-conditioned/heated space that will house well-lit education and exhibition spaces, offices, restrooms, storage space and more. A highlight of the new exhibition space is that it will be able to house multiple events at once; the main exhibition space can be divided into as many as eight separate 10,000-foot spaces, each of which will be accessible to restrooms. For larger events and functions, there are three separate ticket booths located in the hall’s lobby, each of which could work as a separate check-in.

“We have more than doubled our exhibit space, and the layout for the exhibit space will be so much better,” said Vance. “You’ll be able to go up and down aisles, which is much more convenient. The other building was first built at 12,000 square feet and added on to, so there were some deficiencies there.

“(The fairgrounds) will be bigger, better and cleaner – not just because it’s newer, but because of how it’s built. It will be easier to maintain and keep cleaner in the future, too.”

Already, many local groups are looking to move their events and functions to the new exhibition hall, which is comparable in size to the area’s only other large exhibition space – Arkansas State University’s Convocation Center.

“I get calls every day inquiring about rental rates and asking about moving their event to our facility; many of them have already booked,” said Reece.

As for the layout of the grounds, after checking in at the ticket booths and making their way through the exhibition center, fairgoers will enter the main fairgrounds, which include a midway, a swine barn, a cattle barn and more. In addition to more parking that is easily accessible, the new grounds will also feature plenty of air-conditioned restrooms.

“Our long range goal is to have both an amphitheater and a covered arena, but that will be in later stages,” said Reece of what is still to come.

Although the fairgrounds’ move to its new location was originally met with some trepidation from those who live in nearby neighborhoods, Reece assures them that they have nothing to worry about.

“We plan on being good neighbors to all the residents,” he said. “We plan to work with them to make it a pleasant experience for them and for us.”

The Northeast Arkansas District Fair will kick off with a rodeo from Sept. 13 through 15 at the ASU Convocation Center, and the fair itself will be held from Sept. 17 through 22 at the new Craighead County Fairgrounds. As they do every year, crowds of all ages will flock to the fair for live music, a carnival, livestock and horticulture contests for youth and adults, magic shows, a petting zoo, a talent show, craft and food vendors, educational and commercial exhibits, the fair queen pageant and home demonstrations.

The fair, which is sponsored by the Jonesboro Jaycees and the Craighead County Farm Bureau, is led by Reece and an enthusiastic board of directors that includes Eddie Burris, Michael Cureton, Randy Barymon, Jeff Deniston, David Gairhan, John Judd, Cory Wade, Dan Hosman, Larry Worsham, Terry Anderson Jr., Cleo Watkins Jr., Ronna Huggins and Branon Thiesse.

In the past, the NEA District Fair could only accommodate 15,000 to 18,000 people. Reece says the new grounds could play host to twice as many fairgoers.

One of the fair’s main attractions is The Midway, which is put on each year by Archway Amusements.

“Even though we are at a new location, we’ll be using the same dependable family carnival we’ve used for years,” said Reece.

New to this year’s carnival are two rides – the Super Himalaya and the Cliff Hanger – and old favorites like the Nemesis 360 will be back, too.

When it comes to live music, there is something for everyone. Local bands like Everyday Life and The ShotGunBillys, as well as popular country music acts like Dustin Lynch and Kip Moore, will perform throughout the week on one of the fair’s two stages. There will even be a gospel night on Sept. 20, which will feature The Isaacs, New Grace Quartet and others. The Rocky Clements Magic Show will take place all six nights, as well.

“We want to entertain people of all ages and provide a safe, family-friendly environment that is a place where people can all come together on the same grounds,” said Reece.

For those who have spent months building and years dreaming about the new fairgrounds, even though the facilities won’t be completely finished for this year’s annual fair, they are proud of what the new site has to offer both now and upon the fairgrounds’ completion.

“It was a big undertaking for a short amount of time; it may be a little short in some areas,” said Burris, president of the Northeast Arkansas District Fair Board of Directors. “We have a tremendous cooperative effort right now. ... I think it will be great. It will be a facility that everyone can be proud of – a facility that NEA can be proud of.”

Vance said that although the site will be operable for the 2012 NEA District Fair, there are a few things that will need to be finished up once the fair is over.

“The five operable walls that will divide the 80,000 square feet into smaller areas – we won’t install those until after the fair,” said Vance. “We will also have some concrete and asphalt to pour afterwards.

“Our goals for the fair are safety, security and access for all the fairgoers; it is our main goal to have all those things. Also, we might not have asphalt for all the parking yet, but the handicapped spots will be paved. Once it’s completed, we will have more hard surface parking than we’ve ever had.”

Vance, who has worked in construction in Jonesboro for almost 50 years, tried to stay close to home when hiring contractors for the monumental project.

“We’re using as many local contractors as we possibly can; the majority of the contractors are local,” said Vance. “All of the contractors and suppliers have worked diligently to get us where we’re at, sometimes seven days a week. They’re getting the job done.”

As for the 2012 NEA District Fair, Reece and everyone else involved with the move just want to see the community and fairgoers enjoy themselves.

“Our goal this year is to introduce everyone to the new facility and for everyone to have a good time,” said Reece. “We’re really just excited to be in the new facility and to see people enjoy it.”

For more information about the 2012 Northeast Arkansas District Fair and Rodeo and for the full schedule of events, go to