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Farm Bureau to partner with new Va. fair owner

Friday - 7/6/2012, 9:43pm  ET

By STEVE SZKOTAK
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation is getting into the fair business, announcing Friday it will be a 50-50 partner with a company that purchased the 331 acres in Caroline County that is home to the State Fair of Virginia.

The farm lobby will partner with Universal Fairs LLC of Cordova, Tenn., to operate the agricultural side of the fair. Universal purchased the rolling green acres that were once the home of Triple Crown winner Secretariat at auction in May for $5.67 million from the debt-ridden former operator of the 150-year-old fair.

Financial terms were not released.

"We're 50 percent owners with Universal Fairs," Greg Hicks, a Farm Bureau spokesman, said in an interview. "We put up some money, they put up some money and we borrowed to operate the fair, is how it breaks down."

The fair is scheduled to run from Sept. 28 through Oct. 7 under a partnership called Commonwealth Fairs and Events LLC.

Universal's president, Mark Lovell, had signaled almost immediately after he successfully bid for the property that he would be open to selling his new acquisition if someone offered the right price. The Farm Bureau partnership appears to remove a cloud of uncertainty over the fair.

"We are new to Virginia, but we know how to run a fair," Lovell said in a statement released by the Farm Bureau, which claims more than 150,000 members in Virginia. "With Virginia Farm Bureau, a trusted organization that has been around for more than 85 years, we will be able to bring together the best of both worlds."

Universal operates fairs in Tennessee, Georgia and the state of Washington, a festival in Arizona and a variety of other events and expositions around the U.S.

Gov. Bob McDonnell said the partnership ensures "that future generations of Virginians will continue to experience the best of what the fair has to offer."

State Fair of Virginia Inc. acquired the Meadow Farm property in 2003 for $5.3 million and moved the annual fair from Richmond, where it had been held since 1854. The nonprofit defaulted on about $80 million in financing from a group of creditors and was forced to liquidate.

After the site underwent nearly $100 million in construction projects, the fair debuted in Caroline County in September 2009. Attendance hit a record 250,000 last year, but the group was unable to make money after the fair left Richmond.

The organization took on massive debt for the project, even as the economy worsened and the stock-market slump shrank its investment portfolio. It also failed to curb spending, including salaries for officers.

Lovell's winning bid gave him the event park as well as the State Fair of Virginia's trademark, name, Web presence and some equipment. It included a 12,900-square-foot manor house, a 76,000-square-foot exhibition hall, a 9,700-square-foot pavilion and an extensive equestrian facility.

Hicks said the Farm Bureau, which has always had a presence at the fair, became concerned when the previous operator's finances began to sour.

"We were concerned there wasn't going to be a state fair," he said. It was too expensive to purchase, he said, and the Farm Bureau does not have the expertise to run a fair.

"Virginia Farm Bureau Federation and University Fairs have put together a partnership that we fell will help retain and grow the agricultural component of the fair," said Wayne F. Pryor, the federation's president.

While the fair's current agricultural offerings will remain primarily unchanged in the first year of the partnership, Hicks said he expects the fair ultimately will expand on its equine attractions and offer a virtual "farm tour" allowing fairgoers to view a half-dozen farms around the state.

Secretariat's owner Penny Chenery was concerned that the farm where she helped train the thoroughbred would lose its connection to horses. The fabled horse was born there in March 1970 and won the Triple Crown in 1973.

Caroline County's Board of Supervisors Chairman Wayne Acors welcomed the partnership.

"The Farm Bureau is the premier agricultural organization in the commonwealth and brings with it stability, integrity and a large membership that will be welcome in Caroline County at the state fair and many other events," he said.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

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Online:

Universal Fairs LLC: http://www.universalfairs.com/

Virginia Farm Bureau Federation: http://vafarmbureau.org/


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)