Inside the Young MacDonald's farm at the 2012 Virginia State Fair

The State Fair of Virginia has undergone new ownership for the third time in less than a year, with the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, a private organization that represents farmers, taking over the beleaguered event with the hope of growing it.

The Virginia Farm Bureau actually had been a 50-percent owner when the fair presented its 2012 event Sept. 28-Oct. 5 at Meadow Event Park in Doswell, Va. The bureau had approached Cordova, Tenn.-based Universal Fairs, which had purchased the physical, and some of the intellectual, property of the fair at a bankruptcy auction last spring.

After that, “We contacted them and asked them if we could talk to them about it,” said Greg Hicks, the vice president of the State Fair of Virginia and vice president of communications for the Virginia Farm Bureau. “We wanted to get involved. When we heard the State Fair was going bankrupt, we said to ourselves, ‘The Virginia Farm Bureau has to step up.’

“Our mission is to preserve and protect and prosper. We don’t want to see a 150-year tradition go by the wayside. It’s a showcase for agriculture.”

A few months after the fair, the Virginia Farm Bureau approached Universal Fairs about taking over the other 50 percent.

“All along, Universal Fairs said it was an investment for them and that they were open to talks about selling,” Hicks said. “We kept that in mind from the beginning, that they were always open to talk about it. We approached them back in the winter and just brought up the subject and we started negotiating.”

The purchase agreement was finalized March 15, said Hicks, who declined to disclose details.
And the bureau was able to bring an agricultural component to the fair although, for the 2012 event, the 4-H and FFA events already had moved competitions to another venue which, along with other factors, did not help attendance which was estimated to be 160,000-200,000.

The 2011 fair, the last one presented by the previous owner, had an attendance of 268,930, 19 percent up from 226,000 in 2010.

Hicks has higher expectations for 2013. “FFA and 4-H, we’re expecting them to come back this year,” he said. “It hasn’t been made official, but we do expect them to come back.”

Until 2008, the State Fair of Virginia was held at the site of the current Richmond International Raceway. In 1999, the fair sold the site to the Sawyer family for $47 million, used in part to buy new land in 2003, The Meadow, which had been the birthplace of famed Triple Crown winner Secretariat.

The fair now is held 25 miles north of Richmond in Doswell, on property adjacent to Kings Dominion.

Fair officials borrowed $80 million for infrastructure improvements, which they planned to repay from the ensuing cash flow from the investment’s portfolio and dividends. But the stock market crashed in March 2009, and lenders demanded that the fair liquidate the portfolio. That prevented the State Fair of Virginia from being able to take advantage of the ride backup when the stock market improved.

Last May, Motley’s Auction and Realty Group sold the fair’s physical and intellectual property, and Universal Fairs, owned by Mark Lovell, paid $5,671,000 for the land and the use of the fair’s name.

Universal Fairs also runs the Georgia State Fair in Macon, Ga.; the King County Fair in Enumclaw, Wash.; the Ostrich Festival in Chandler, Ariz.; and the Delta Fair & Musical Festival in Memphis.

Lovell did not return a call for this story.

Although the Virginia Farm Bureau knows agriculture, fairs are a somewhat new prospect for them. The State Fair already has joined the Virginia Assn. of Fairs, Hicks said, and has plans to also seek membership in the Springfield, Mo.-based International Assn. of Fairs and Expositions.
The bureau also hopes to increase the number of year-round events at the fair, Hicks added.
Although the previous State Fair of Virginia owners had invested in infrastructure, more needs to be done, Hicks said.

Currently, the ground features a 63,000 square foot exhibition hall, the Farm Bureau Center, the site for exhibits; as well as a 7,000-square-foot pavilion that housed agricultural commodity groups; 173 horse stalls in a stable; and a mansion that is used for various events.

Livestock events are held under tents, and a stage is brought in for concerts. Last year, acts who played the State Fair of Virginia included Foghat, Dustin Lynch, and the Kentucky Headhunters, performances that were all free with the price of admission.

“Infrastructure is lacking,” Hicks said. “We need some more covered horse-show rings and more stables. We have 173 horse stalls and we need more than that for equine shows and we need a livestock building for cattle shows and we’re working on all of that.”

As the State Fair of Virginia is privately owned, Hicks declined to give any budget details or any information about the negotiations with Universal Fairs for full ownership.

Stuart, Fla.-based Deggeller Amusements, which has been the State Fair of Virginia’s midway provider for several years, played the fair last year and is expected to return for the 2013 event, which will take place Sept. 27-Oct. 6, Hicks said. Owner Andy Deggeller did not return a phone call in time for this story, but last year he expressed hope for the continuation of the fair.

In an effort to raise money and cultivate sponsors, naming rights for buildings and the concert series are up for grabs, Hicks said, including the only building with a name, the Farm Bureau Center.

“I would hope to have them all taken care of before the fair this year,” he added.
Also planned for the grounds this weekend is a 40th anniversary celebration of Secretariat’s 1973 Triple Crown win, which is expected to be attended by Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery. It also will be the 43rd anniversary of the birth of Secretariat, who was born March 30, 1970.

Meadow Farms also was the birthplace of Riva Ridge, the winner of the 1972 Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

“We had two legendary thoroughbreds that were born here,” Hicks said. “Riva Ridge had two of the three Triple Crown (events), and the money from those wins saved the farm and allowed Secretariat to win the Triple Crown.” – By Mary Wade Burnside

Interviewed for this article: Greg Hicks, (804) 290-1000.