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The Saline County Fairplex and why it failed

By: 10 August 2010 5 Comments

At long last, the Saline County Fairplex issue is (probably) dead.

Today was the day set aside for the special election that would determine whether the facility was built. Saline County voters overwhelmingly defeated the proposal — 10,314 (75 percent) were against it while 3,450 (25 percent) were for it.

In short, voters were asked to approve $55 million in bonds to pay for the facility and a 1 percent sales tax that was to sunset at the end of 2017. For those wanting to look at the exact details of what voters were faced with in the special election, click here for the ordinance calling for the election passed by the Saline County Quorum Court (thanks to our friends over at MySaline for posting that ordinance, by the way).

Oh, and you’ll find Fairplex details here.

Fairplex proponents made a lot of very good points about the facility. They claimed it would create 800 construction jobs in the two years it would take to build the Fairplex and 300 jobs (primarily in the hospitality industry) after that. They mentioned hotels, restaurants and other facilities would spring up near the Fairplex site in Benton and that millions of dollars would be spent every year as people came to town for fairs, rodeos, monster truck rallies, concerts, etc.

Those are all good points, as is the notion that it would be great to finally have a facility in the county where high school graduations and reunions could be held. Of course, having some convention space in Saline County would be great, too, as we don’t have much of that. Simply put, a lot of the money generated by events, conventions, graduations and other activities that could be held at the Fairplex wind up in Pulaski County and we’d be better off if the revenue generated by those events wound up here.

The whole proposal looked solid enough — measurable economic impact in exchange for a 1 percent sales tax that would sunset in seven years seemed like a heck of a bargain.

So, why didn’t it pass? I’d argue that the economy and an absolute mistrust of the government were the culprits here.

Arkansas voters are used to being lied to by their elected officials. Bill Clinton, when running for reelection as governor in 1990, swore he wouldn’t seek the presidency if he Arkansas voters gave him another term in the Governor’s Mansion. Clinton defeated Sheffield Nelson, kept his job as governor and then ran for president in 1992.

Mike Huckabee wasn’t exactly forthcoming with voters, either. During the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Huckabee called for the eliminating sales taxes on food. As soon as he won that election, he campaigned hard against the elimination of that tax.

And, let’s talk about that “sunset provision” attached to the Fairplex sales tax. We’ve got a lot of sales taxes in this state that were supposed to sunset and, well, didn’t. It seems local governments can always come up with a critical need project that will be paid for if the tax is extended and, before you know it, you’ve got a permanent sales tax in place.

Is it any wonder, then, that some people were suspicious of the grand claims surrounding the Fairplex? New jobs, millions of dollars spent on events annually and everything else sounds great. Provided, of course, the group making those claims is trusted by the public. After being lied to by everyone from Bill Clinton to Mike Huckabee, it’s no shock that the public didn’t trust what the the Fairplex proponents said.

That mistrust was only heightened when the measure was to be decided in a special election. We’ve got a pretty sizable election coming up in November, so why not settle the issue then? Allegations flew around the county that the Fairplex fans were trying to pull a fast one by holding an election at a time when it was hoped a lot of people wouldn’t bother voting.

Whether those allegations are true or not doesn’t matter all that much — if people are distrustful to begin with, they grow even more suspicious when presented with a special election that’s just a couple of months before people would head to the polls, anyway.

And let’s not forget that people are skittish about taxes when the economy is on the skids. The latest unemployment numbers for the state look terrible, and there’s nothing like trying to pass a tax when people are either out of work or feeling none to secure in their jobs.

The Fairplex looked like a great idea on paper, but the voters didn’t agree. The most disturbing thing to come out of the special election is the notion that people in these parts tend to take the information fed to them about public projects with a grain of salt.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email =


  • Ricky David Tripp said:

    Mr. Nobles —

    I found your commentary on “First Ark” on a random Google search for news on the election outcome, and wanted to take a moment to pay you a well-deserved compliment on a job well done.

    I don’t think anyone could have put it more intelligently or completely. You missed only two points in your piece (not that these were a great loss), and that was (1) the fact that those individuals bankrolling the promotion were carefully disguised so no one knew who was paying to promote the project, only who was leading it, and (2) the option of using the proposed facility for a home for the State Fair was taken off the table by Fair officials, dashing one of the most enticing parts of the plan.

    That basically left horse shows, and the process of competing for them. Misleading information was released suggesting that this would be the only such facility within 300 square miles (not true), also ignoring the fact that the other venues for equestrian events weren’t just going to roll over and play dead. With all of the money in that industry, other venues would ramp up, cut rates and compete.

    Now, they can breathe a sigh of relief.

    The facility was also substantially larger than Little Rock’s Verizon Arena — which has lost revenue in 2010, a fact many of us knew.

    Combined with the rest of the story — sublimely explained in your excellent piece — and our distrust of people making promises in an election year where we trust few, if any, of those making promises as well as the dismal economy and high unemployment…and bingo, you have the whole picture of why this attempt failed. The ruse of using a special election at summer’s end didn’t work this time.

    We were all awake. And the turnout was sensational.

    Thanks again for a great commentary.

    Ricky David Tripp

  • CadronBoy said:

    And let’s not forget that many voters have visited Little Rock’s fair grounds and thus have personally seen what a fair complex has brought to the area — and what did they see:

    1) a fair complex that requires continuous maintenance, repair, security — so much so that it “be fallin’ apart”

    2) not a hotel or restaurant in sight — anyone wishing to dine or lodge must drive to downtown or west Little Rock

  • carrotkitten said:

    Forget mistrust. Talk about insanity! Prove to me hotels and restaurants and millions and millions would come to the area. The Arkansas State Fair hasn’t done this for Little Rock so why do they think it would happen for Benton?

    Look to Bentonville, which had Wal-Mart build it a brand new fairgrounds. They were holding bake sales within a year just to pay the light bills and this is up in wealthy NWA.

    Also, I am already paying a 3 percent city sales tax! Why do I want a 4 percent local sales tax on top of a 6 percent state tax? How do I benefit from hotels and restaurants locating in Benton? I don’t. And that’s why I voted against these 3 issues.

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